The glory, grandeur and goodness - that was the compositeness of Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, the veena artiste. She lived a life of simplicity, motherliness bringing glory to her family, her truthful music, bringing the essence of tradition with all its grandeur through an uncompromising attitude of guru bhakthi, love and goodness to her disciples who sought her benevolence in music.
She is no more! In her demise what may begin to fade out too, I fear, is this compositeness in artistic character, that which embellishes our tradition, values, excellence, not just in one’s giftedness, skill and talent but in the loving care and spirit of perpetuation through one’s disciples irrespective of their status. This spirit expects nothing in return except in upholding the standards this classical art demands through austerity, purity and devotion to music for the purpose, it seems, for which this classical music evolved through bhakti. But only the lucky would pass her standards, just like her guru!
Those times the patrons of Arts and Culture and rasikas harmonized with artistes who represented these traditional values. This ethos seems to elude our musical pathways in the current times because of the composition of a vulnerable group of talented artistes, patrons and audience. But I also see streaks of light and hope in the younger generation for which the inspiration comes from artistes such as Ranganayaki Rajagopalan.
I have two anecdotes to share with respect to Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, who had become a real legend in upholding the values she had experienced in carrying the tradition of veena from her guru, Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer.
In 1996 Brhaddhvani conducted a ‘seven-day festival’ with veena as an accompaniment to voice! That was the time when I began taking some practical steps to bring veena from its isolation to the public. I believed that veena music needed more challenges to face the demands of the audience in order to come on stage where it stood in poor contrast to the flamboyant presence of an ensemble of voice/voices, violin, mrdangam, ghatam, Kanjira, morsing and two tamburs to engulf the audience with cascades of sounds satisfying the varied sensitivities of the rasikas filling the entire hall. One strategy, I thought, could be making veena accompany voice to learn and contribute to the aesthetics of a bigger ensemble. It worked. Subsequently I have heard voice concerts with veena as accompaniment.
But when I asked Ranganayaki Rajagopalan to come and talk to the audience about this concept, she first refused. When I insisted she told me that she would speak the truth. I agreed. She did come to one such concert and without polishing her words and with full conviction she said: “I do not like Subramanian doing this. This is demeaning the veena!” The entire audience chuckled! But I was not surprised that she spoke like this. For this boldness I respected her more!
In July this year just before I left India I went to see her and pay my respects. I took three of my veena students to get her blessings from this great lady. She was very happy to see them and listen to them playing the compositions, which had become part of her nerves. She was shivering, weakened by Parkinson’s. But her will and spirit undeterred she was inspired to play for them. Blessing them while parting, with vibhuti, kumkum and fruits she whispered in a gruff and shaky voice: “innum azhuttamaa meettungo” (pluck more firmly). Her concern for the tradition and her expectations in the quality and clarity in performance were evident in her loving parting words to them!
And finally I bent to prostrate before her before parting to get her blessings. She prevented me saying: “You are my guru’s son. You should not do that for me!”. I have prostrated to her several times before. But she never said anything like that. This was strange to me. But I understood that she perhaps only saw her Guru in her mind’s eyes when I appeared before her! She was completing her life’s journey! Tears rolled in my eyes!
Ranganayaki Rajagopalan has a very special place in the galaxy of the great veena players in the Karaikudi Veena Family, who stood erect for the values they held in playing veena, as part of offering to God.