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Lalgudi: Master of Masters - Master & Disciples

Masters at Brhaddhvani in the 90s

The nineties were the pioneering golden decade for Brhaddhvani. Its vision is “music for everyone” and mission “to seek the ways it can happen”. So, from its inception (1989) its space vibrated the presence of the greats in Karnatak and Hindustani music, world musicians, teachers, musicologists, traditional and avant-garde dancers, theatre artists, sculptors, poets, linguists, international scholars, art lovers and philanthropists. Each brought their expertise to share in our mission.

Karnatak Music Gurus & Teachers

Among all of them Lalgudi Sri G. Jayaraman made an indelible mark at Brhaddhvani as one of the greatest of maestros and a Guru – an extraordinary combination! In honoring his contribution to music at the global level, 2003 was celebrated as ‘Lalgudi Year’ at Brhaddhvani with little fanfare. Now, I am very happy to see that the students of Lalgudi’s music are continuing to grow world over as performers and teachers thanks to the efforts of Lalgudi family as a whole and their senior disciples.

To be a teacher is no ordinary task. You need complete commitment to teaching. But becoming a Guru is not a title one can earn. One becomes a Guru through disciplined life as an integrated musician with musical wisdom gained through performance and teaching with an attitude of giving for giving sake! I realized that his love for music is the love for God who has no measure in giving! This quality and spirit behind giving are the matchless traditional traits which have sustained us all through ages. This was what I saw in Lalgudi as a Guru at Brhaddhvani. When I went to his residence to ask him how I should compensate him for his services to teach at Brhaddhvani, he smiled in silence. I was embarrassed. I felt I was a devotee standing in the altar of Lord Dakshinamurthy! His nobility touched my heart! There were no preconditions for his giving. He would enter Brhaddhvani much before the students did! His punctuality put me to shame that I could not make the students arrive prior to the set time for the class.

On Notation – Subramanian and Lalgudi

That day, I wish to narrate here, was the day he intended to teach our students Enduku Peddala of Tyagaraja. Lalgudi was waiting in the hall for V. Radha, a devout gifted student of Lalgudi at Brhaddhvani, with the task of bringing his notation for the song to the class. I had a little time to spend with him before all the students had arrived. I started my conversation on the importance of descriptive notation in the process of preservation and authentic dissemination of a musical style. He patiently listened to me. At the end he softly and politely said: “Not everybody can understand such detailed notation, Subramanian. Lot of efforts go in notating. I have seen what Viswa (Dr. T. Viswanathan) and you have done with that kind of detailed notation, but in my opinion, it stops there with no concrete result.” – a stunning, forthright expression of his mind on this aspect of music! It, in fact, directed me to the difference between ‘functional’ as against ‘structural’ nature of such a notation which I gleaned from the writings of renowned ethnomusicologists! The structurally ‘descriptive’ nature of the notation can never be useful or functional for one who wants to make use of such a notation to reproduce the music it represents. It is at its best academic. The notation will be useful to understand the music it represents in juxtaposition with the melody. The notation the musicians generally use for their students is ‘prescriptive’ in nature, which is functional in that particular guru-sishya context. When it comes to publication it has to conform to the universally accepted standards. But for me as a performer-ethnomusicologist it made me go deeper into the analytical details of the music. It helped me understand the underlying structural ramifications and teach a student better towards melodic precision in expression. So, in my teaching-learning context the descriptive notation is both functional and academic.

Music Literacy and Performance

He expressed his point genuinely and truthfully. What he meant was that just the notation, however detailed, cannot teach one how to perform. I agree with him. Music literacy and performance are two different things. You can perform, without understanding, through your genetically heightened musical sensitivities and the environs of your upbringing, which we call ‘giftedness’. Music notation brings literacy. But if you think you understand and you can perform, you can’t perform! Lalgudi was not only endowed with heightened musical sensitivities, but he was musically literate. He could write notation while he sings. His notation is one of the best I have ever seen among performing musicians with such clarity combining details with visual suggestions of the direction of the melodic movements. He notates just the necessary details to be able to recollect what was orally taught in the class. His notation remained so very meaningful as a memory aid after attending his classes. That is very helpful to students familiar with his musical style and to those familiar with interpreting a notation in familiar ragas. On the other hand, Dr. T. Viswanathan’s descriptive notation was for different pedagogical purposes, which he used to help convey the precise melodic details even to the students outside of our music culture, who were not familiar with Karnatak music. Prof. Jon Higgins was an amazing product of such an approach apart from many other students of global music. Inspired by Dr. T. Viswanathan’s notation, I invented Svarasthana Notation and Emotional Graphic Representation (EGR) for my doctoral work (1985) to help all types of eager students of music come closer to understanding this complex gamaka oriented music from a purely music literacy point of view. The notations are part of a comprehensive COMET pedagogy I later developed to teach music to any one at any level, which I experimented with at Brhaddhvani at that time.

Descriptive Notation Training for Music Literacy and Self-learning

What Lalgudi remarked is absolutely true from a performing point of view. The descriptive notation will be cumbersome and not necessary if you have developed high aural sensitivities so that you can instantly absorb and perform. But notation is an exercise of the mind to make you listen more carefully and assimilate slowly. It is useful, when needed, to point out the problem in understanding microtonal details which are necessary to distinguish one raga from another. It is difficult to unambiguously vocalize because there is no common vocabulary when you cross styles. Lalgudi does it beautifully when needed, but he is an exception. On that day while teaching Enduku Peddala he was repeatedly pointing out the difference in the treatment of ‘suddha ma’ in his singing and that of the students. Students with sharpened ears for melodic details can understand and reproduce, but for others some visual reference would help. Precise notation is complementary to a master’s class and helpful in teaching and self-learning. In that sense, it is academic.

Shadowing the Master

Lalgudi’s musical sensitivities are absolutely breath-taking. He is described as a ‘sponge’ absorbing every detail from the main artistes instantly and answering with such alacrity! Lalgudi’s musicianship was firmly anchored in three aspects: firstly, in his lineage and traditional practices; secondly, with his expanding knowledge and experience, through accompanying and learning from greatest maestros, through his native gift of ‘sponging the musical details’ and through his fully developed musical sensitivities; and thirdly, enriching himself with various new concepts and structures he must have recognized in the musical exchanges on the stage. All this and much more made him one of the outstanding performers in the world of Karnatak music. Emboldened by the developed sensitivities and music literacy, I tried to ‘sponge’ various artistes in various styles to understand the myriad pathways of gamakas which distinguish one style from another. This helped me understand musical styles and teach students effectively how to listen precisely towards excellence in self-learning. This is actually a technique used by Jazz musicians to improvise like great masters’ in jazz.


We present here Lalgudi sir's varnam "Arunodayame" which I learned from one of his concert recordings to descriptively understand his style. In this rendition, I have tried my best to "sponge" him by replicating his rendition exactly as it was presented on the concert stage. It was a wonderful learning experience for me. I asked two of my disciples, Thenuga and Mathuriga, to take this as a project. Thenuga and Mathuriga have had to unlearn and learn from the scratch over four years. My method of teaching for such students have to be sensitive and thorough giving them the required edge and clarity to attempt to enjoy the music of the great masters for their real merits. For this, my acquired ability for descriptive melodic and rhythmic details helped me. They meticulously worked on this composition to equal my spirit. The result was enjoyable and fulfilling. This project is to get my students into the creative spirit of the 'master of masters', Lalgudi, who is known to sponge any performer he accompanied to his amazement and appreciation.

So, here is a humble joint tribute by the vicarious students of the master of masters; The Phenomenon "Lalgudi".

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