Battle for Ramanavami legacy

Sree Ramaseva Mandali, which hosts Bengaluru’s biggest and longest-running festival of Indian classical music, has run into a rough patch.
Last Updated 01 February 2019, 03:58 IST

Sree Ramaseva Mandali, Bengaluru’s biggest host of Indian classical music, is caught in the throes of an acrimonious battle.

As a result, singer K J Yesudas, who has performed for the organisation’s annual festival for five decades, is not coming this year.

The Ramanavami music festival is now being organised by Ramaseva Mandali Ramanavami Celebration Trust, an entity that came into existence in 2015.

S V Narayanaswamy Rao founded Sree Ramaseva<br />Mandali in 1939.
S V Narayanaswamy Rao founded Sree Ramaseva
Mandali in 1939.

This new trust is run by S N Varadaraj, youngest son of S V Narayanaswamy Rao, founder of Sree Ramaseva Mandali. An ardent lover of Indian classical music, Narayanaswamy Rao founded the Mandali in 1939 when he was just 14. He died in 2000, after which his sons shouldered the responsibility of keeping the festival going. S N Narasamma, married at 16, has also played a big role in building the organisation, family sources say.

Every summer, the Ramanavami festival draws thousands of connoisseurs to Old Fort High School grounds in Chamarajpet. India’s top musicians consider it an honour to perform at the festival, an old Bengaluru institution second in popularity only to the Kadlekai Parishe, the annual peanut fair held at Basavanagudi.

Over the decades, Sree Ramaseva Mandali, with an office in Chamarajpet, has been the host of the festival. The new trust has been in charge for five years, according to Varadaraj.

The family opposed to him has addressed a letter to Ramaseva Mandali asking them to shut down the new trust.

Distinguished Bengalureans, including top bureaucrats, have served the Mandali in an honorary capacity, and are disappointed that the troubles are taking a toll on the programming.

“It is indeed a tragic day in the history of Sree Ramaseva Mandali that an eminent and revered artist, Sri Yesudas, will not be performing because of the problems within the family,” says a WhatsApp message sent out by a distinguished member of the Mandali’s erstwhile inner circle.

The family is divided into Narayanaswamy Rao’s wife, three sons and a daughter on the one hand and Varadaraj on the other. Over the past couple of years, well-wishers who tried to broker a truce have thrown up their hands in despair.

Allegations and counter-allegations are flying thick and fast. The larger family says it learnt about the new trust only last year, but allowed Varadaraj to continue as they didn’t want the music to be affected. Varadaraj says he has been piloting the festival for five years.

“We realised if we raised our voice, we would be disrupting the Ramanavami celebrations. It was in 2018, when Yesudas noticed the change in the name, that many details came out,” a member of the family told Metrolife. The Ramanavami festival, which lasts at least a month, brings the best of Indian classical musicians to Bengaluru. It is funded by patrons, sponsors and advertisers, many of whom have supported the hosts for decades. “Many willingly come and donate money for the festival,” says one of the sons. He was, however, reluctant to come on record with his name for this story.

Yesudas is not performing this year as he will be away in the US for a concert series, Varadaraj said.

Varadaraj says he has shouldered the responsibility of running the festival after the death of his father in 2000, and some ‘miscreants’ are out to trouble him.

He has sent out a message: “Empty vessels do make a lot of sounds. Some underachievers, miscreants and anti-social elements are struggling day and night to trouble us in one way or the other. We solicit the support of our people in this regard. If you happen to receive any messages against me or Mandali kindly feel free to clarify the same with us. We once again request you to extend your support to our organization in its vision of preserving, promoting and protecting classical music and my personal quest for transparency and integrity.”

A music lover said: “It is unfortunate that one of Bengaluru’s greatest cultural institutions is going through this. It would be in the best interests of music lovers and musicians for the family to sort out its differences,”.


Yesudas tried to broker peace

When Yesudas was in Bengaluru last year, he noticed the change in banner. He asked about it, and the family told him about what had been happening behind the scenes.

Yesudas then tried to unite the family. Varadaraj was “unrelenting,” according to a former trust member close to the family.

Yesudas then said he would not participate in the Ramanavami celebrations unless the family came together, a source told Metrolife. Unpleasant exchanges followed between the current hosts and the legendary singer, according to the larger family. “That left us immensely sad,” a brother said.

Varadaraj, however, denies he had any differences with Yesudas.

Metrolife tried to contact Yesudas, but his secretary said he was away travelling, and wouldn’t be able to take calls. On Thursday, Metrolife called again, but the person who picked up the call said Yesudas wasn’t willing to speak to reporters.

Eight decades of fabulous music

- Sree Ramaseva Mandali was founded in Bengaluru in 1939 by music lover S V Narayanaswamy Rao. He was just 14 then.
- It has hosted the who’s who of Indian classical music: M S Subbulakshmi, Bhimsen Joshi, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Bismillah Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, M L Vasanthakumari, D K Pattammal, M Balamuralikrishna, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, Sudha Raghunathan, Ranjani and Gayatri, Bombay Jayashree and many more. Subbulakshmi performed for a record 32 times and Yesudas has been performing for five decades now.
- Thousands of connoisseurs listen to music during the 31-day festival every year.
- Three presidents of India, four vice-presidents and all most all governors and chief ministers of Karnataka have attended this festival.
- The festival is held at a pandal erected on the sprawling grounds of the century-old Fort High School in Chamarajpet.

Opens on April 6
The 81st Ramanavami celebrations open on April 6 this year and continue till May 6 at the Fort High School Grounds, Chamarajpet.

Among those performing are Bombay Jayashree-Ramnath, Ranjani and Gayatri, Jayanthi Kumaresh, M Venkatesh Kumar, L Subramaniam, Praveen Godkhindi, and a host of other well-known musicians.

S P Balasubramanyam
S P Balasubramanyam

Award for S P Balasubramanyam

Many people have raised their voice against film playback singer S P Balasubramanyam being awarded the S V N Global Award this year.

The award is named after S V Narayanaswamy Rao, who founded Sree Ramaseva Mandali in 1939, and hosted a high-quality classical music festival for six decades, till his death in 2000.

Music lover Narayana Iyengar in an open letter says, “The stage is for classical music and S P Balasubramaniam has never performed Hindustani or Carnatic classical until now. We are okay with them creating another stage and awarding S P Balasubramanyam. But, doing it here will mark the breaking of tradition and is not acceptable.”

Balsasubramanyam will sing devotional music, according to the hosts.

Not aware

Not many musicians are aware of the behind-the-scenes changes. Some who know about Yesudas not performing this year are said to be unhappy. “We are requesting them not to back out as our aim is to keep the music festival undisturbed,” a family source told Metrolife.

(Published 31 January 2019, 14:30 IST)

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