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Gifted legend of Lalgudi

Mirle Karthik, march 23, 2013

‘Tapasteertham’ says the name board at the entrance. Obviously, the owner has named his house after his ancestral village. But for the discerning eye, the name strikes a different note. For, this house is a teertham, a place of pilgrimage for students and connoisseurs of music. And for the man who lives in this house, it has been a tapas, a lifelong meditation on music.

But for Lalgudi Jayaraman, the world renowned violin virtuoso, it’s his way of asserting his individuality, just as he does in his music. For, how many people can stake claim to the privilege of being the descendent of an ancestor, who was the direct disciple of Saint Thyagaraja, and who had the good fortune of hosting the saint in his house?

For Lalgudi Rama Iyer, it was as if Lord Rama himself had come down to his abode in Tapasteerthapuram, the small hamlet near Tiruchirapalli, later called Lalgudi, when Saint Thyagaraja acceded to his request to visit his village and stay with him for some time. To Thyagaraja, this was just another opportunity to commune with the divine.


Visiting the ancient shrines of the presiding deities of Tapasteerthapuram, Lord Saptarisheeshwara (Lord Shiva) and Goddess Pravriddha Shrimati (Goddess Parvati), Thyagaraja composed three songs on the Goddess and two on Lord Saptarisheeshwara, thus immortalising the name of this place. This quintet of songs comprise the famous Lalgudi Pancharatnam.

Born into such a family, as the great grandson of Lalgudi Rama Iyer, the court musician of the Royal House of Mysore under the benevolent Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, and as the son of accomplished musician Lalgudi Gopala Iyer, Jayaraman literally had music in his blood. The environment was also conducive to the flowering of this innate talent. Gopala Iyer, being a hard taskmaster, saw to it that Jayaraman acquired the necessary proficiency to perform on the stage. Jayaraman too did not falter.

Endowed with prodigious mental power and a determination to excel, he soon drew the attention of the reigning musicians of the day. One recalls the words of Professor Leopold Auer, the Russian violin maestro. “The great musician, the great artiste of any sort, must combine in himself so many qualities. Art demands so much, both of the body and mind. There are those who have skilled fingers, but who lack the strong brain to carry them on. They go so far, and then they stop.”

Jayaraman’s mental acuity is something phenomenal. One that can immediately grasp the subtlest of intricacies and instantly respond. As a soloist, as an accompanist, Jayaraman has shone because of this formidable combination of musical sense, aesthetics, technical brilliance and instrumental virtuosity. All within the ambit of time-honoured systems and conventions of Carnatic music.

As an accompanist, he is deference personified. Faithfully following the main artiste, buttressing the concert with his creative inputs, Jayaraman enthuses the other artistes too. Without intruding on the singer’s creative flow, his is a understated, but nevertheless powerful presence on stage. Not surprisingly, all the leading musicians preferred to have him as their accompanist.

Whether it was the mind-numbing mathematics of the Alathur Brothers or the sedate, meditative style of M D Ramanathan, the dazzling flourishes of G N B or the gushing flow of Semmangudi’s swaras, the twists and turns of Voleti’s raga essays or the complex pallavis of Nedunoori, Jayaraman has seen them all. His is a remarkable capacity to gauge the main artiste’s mood, pace and tempo and quickly adapt himself accordingly. He is often called the human computer for his ability to instantaneously and flawlessly respond to the challenge of the main artiste.

As a soloist, he is an unfettered bird, soaring on his flights of musical imagination. Years of rigorous practice have resulted in the unique Lalgudi Bani, a style that incorporates a fingering methodology that coaxes the notes out of the strings in movements rapid and precise and a bowing that is elongated and silken with no staccato and barely discernible shifts between strings, thus producing music that is astonishingly similar to the vocal style.

In Jayaraman’s hands, the violin becomes a polyphonic instrument that produces a variety of sounds. His raga delineations paint a vast canvas of melody, evoking a sense of the sublime. Be it Kalyanavasantam, Bindumalini or an appealing Kedaragowlam, or an infrequent Vivadi Raga, it is sure to have a synesthetic effect on the listener.

In the Niraval, the improvisation of select lyrical passages, his interpretation of the text and the way he marries the note to the word is superb. Little wonder then that the legendary Yehudi Menhuin, on listening to Jayaraman’s music, especially his Shankarabharanam, which is one of the major scales in Western music, was overjoyed and presented him with a violin, which Jayaraman still preserves.

One could go on about the other facets of Jayaraman’s fecund creativity. As a teacher who has groomed so many front ranking disciples, as a composer of varnams, kritis, padavarnams and tillanas, which merits another separate write-up by itself, as an orchestral conductor, as a vocalist, his has been a musical odyssey that has travelled far and touched distant shores. A restless explorer, Jayaraman exemplifies Menhuin’s words.

“There’s always something new to be discovered. The more one plays, the more one discovers. I discover things constantly. This is what distinguishes a great piece of music”. Age and ill health may have taken their toll on Lalgudi Jayaraman. As the frail hands come together in a namaste, one can see great music coursing through his veins. In his Todi song, Gati Neevani of the Lalgudi Pancharatnam, Thyagaraja says the inhabitants of Tapasteethapuram are blessed by the grace of the Goddess. And this is true for their descendants too.

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