Endearing icon in classical mould

Appealing notes

Melody Maker:  N Ramani

If there has been one single Carnatic instrumentalist who has traversed the classical scene for decades without fading away from the limelight, and has dabbled in fusion music only to hold aloft classicism with style and conviction, it is N Ramani, whose flute continues to hold sway over a rapturous audience, be it in India or abroad. Ramani’s flute can vie with the bhava and rasa of a vocalist, the winning streak being the ‘gamaka’ he brings into play, while equalising all aspects of music, be it the sahitya, aalap, and swaras, or even the content of a concert repertoire.

His recent outing at Ananya in Bangalore saw his burnished flute at its mellowed best, the intimate and knowledgeable  audience testifying to his enviable crowd-pulling capacity vis-a-vis a discerning audience. Current day pyrotechnics and gymnastics of many a younger musician are no match to his truly classical yet contemporary approach to music itself. But this is not the sum total of Ramani as a musician. To be a style icon in classical music, that too in the conservative Carnatic stream, for decades, demands the recreation of the idiom while catering to changing audience interests. And to do this without diluting classicism seems impossible.

Although flute has been identified with T R Mahalingam, it is Ramani who has given flute playing an entirely new dimension — a style that has got concretised as a tradition and is followed by young flutists even today as the “Ramani baani”. A gentle soul who is in love with life in all its many-splendoured hues is how his close associates endearingly describe him. One has to agree, because these elements of serenity intertwined with vivacity, and a seamless blend of tradition and contemporary appeal, have formed the fulcrum of his artistic journeys which have been joyous and fulfilling experiences for music lovers.

A pioneer in world fusion music, and the first flutist to play the jugalbandhi, and the veena-violin-flute trio, Ramani’s has been a chequered music career embellished with original and captivating forays that have withstood the test of time, and become institutionalised as a style. His 2.5 octave flute gave a new turn to melody itself. His Ramani Academy of Flute has garnered a large community of wards, foremost among them being his son Thiagarajan, a flutist able to hold his own despite the gigantic shadow of his father. Ramani’s three grandsons have now been groomed to carry on the heritage, while his student community itself, aside of his large fan following, is legion.

Can there be a greater accomplishment than leaving behind a hoary heritage?
“I was mad after Mahalingam’s flute. I was with him for about ten years. I used to listen to a lot of music, especially nadaswaram, and had the opportunity to meet senior musicians of the 1940s and 50s. My ambition was to play the vocal technique, so I mixed all styles. I brought ‘gamaka’ even into fast playing,” reminisces Ramani. German flutist Richard Cibon was one of the earlier artistes Ramani worked with in world music, setting a trend that would, decades later, expand the dimensions of Carnatic music itself. His jugalbandhis, fusion music, his playing style and concert formats are of historical import for having given the classical form its nucleus for experimentation. Research, and the yen to learn and experiment, moulded Ramani’s career. His most prized gift to music is that he expanded its horizons. Yet he has remained rooted to the classical mould. “You can do a lot of new things within the conventional structure. There is so much to learn in one’s own music,” he says.  Why the wane in solo flute? “Most flutists are not taking to it as a profession, and hence there is no time to rise to the level of a soloist. The old style of singing and playing methods were of a standard by musicians. They gave both variety a weight.”

Despite a crippling throat problem some years ago, Ramani rose like the proverbial phoenix back on to the stage with equal felicity and appeal. His elaborate raga presentation continues to be the most soothing aspect of his music. His intricate yet uncomplicated pallavis and crisp tillanas speak an emotional tongue that goes beyond the communication level of even established vocalists.

Is it mere practice and talent that has helped him hold centrefield? Ramani’s charity concerts are spoken of in glowing terms by many organisers. Self-effacing and with no celebrity trappings, he comes like a breath of fresh air in the highly-competitive and media-savvy Carnatic music world of today. “He excels himself as a human being” is the refrain of people in the know. Perhaps this has made the cutting-edge difference to his music. It has also given classical music one of its most enduring and endearing icons.

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