M D Ramanathan, who was born on May 20, 1923 at Manjapara, a small village in Kerala, was one of the greatest musicians to adorn the galaxy of Carnatic musicians. After his initial training in music under his father, Devesa Bhagavatar, he went into the fold of the doyen of doyens, 'Tiger' Varadachariar. A graduate in Physics, he also did his Sangeeta Siromani course from Kalakshetra, Madras. Several honours were bestowed on this Nadopasaka, but no tribute is greater to an artiste than the respect, admiration and goodwill of sincere rasikas. M H Parameshwar, a rasika from Mumbai muses on this great musician who passed away on 27th April 1984.

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M D Ramanathan was a musician with many faces. His music has possessed me for about 30 years and has become a part of my life. His musical memories, still fresh, haunt me and flash back to give mental solace. If you have heard MDR in person, I am sure you would also join my band. 

Looking at him perform, you would think that he was acting in a drama of life, ridden with grief, anger, aspirations and what-not. His face would record all the twists and turns, exposing the character of the song. He would make wild gestures with his hands, as though trying to pluck melody from empty space. Sometimes you would feel that he was crying out his heart, supplicating before an unknown deity.

In his deep-toned exposition there was an irresistible combination of tenderness and melody. With his purity of tone, admirable Vilamba kala (slow tempo) pacing and spacing, his concerts were noble and musical. All delicate details were cherished and sung with relish. It was inspiring and elevating to be seated in the auditorium to share MDR's music. It was like eating nellikkai (raw gooseberry) and drinking water!

A devoted sishya

MDR was always conscious of the fact that he had a 'Tiger' (pun intended!) of a musician as his guru. His devotion to his guru was exemplary. He inherited the impeccable style of 'His Master's Voice', well known for upholding the pristine purity of tradition with uncompromising spirit. "Every time an original artiste sings or plays a composition by a great master, he virtually recreates it. The reverence with which we cherish the memories of men like Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and Coimbatore Raghava Iyer is the homage we pay to this creative power. Tiger belongs to this select company", thus observed N Raghunathan. We can say with least hesitation that MDR also belonged to this select company. It is said that before his master, 'Tiger' breathed his last, he desired MDR to sing Tyagaraja's 'Giripai' in raga Sahana. No wonder MDR immortalised this particular song with his soulful rendition.

The unique MDR bani

MDR neither cared for popularity nor was bothered by criticism since he sang for his own satisfaction. He never sang for the gallery and never promoted himself. He never employed the usual tactics of a Carnatic vocalist, like keeping up a fast tempo, producing a torrent of swara patterns and working up a thunderous crescendo wherein the percussion artistes also participate. Then, what made MDR's music different from other Carnatic musicians? First, his deep throated sonorous voice and secondly, his slow paced approach.

Tiger once said, "I wish to utter one word of caution against the growing tendency of the modern musician to show a distinct preference for Madhyama kala (medium tempo) singing. It is the Vilamba kala that reveals the true beauty of the emotional spirit of the melody." No doubt MDR followed the ideals of his guru like a shadow. He was one of the few Carnatic musicians who excelled in Vilamba kala singing. Vilamba kala exposition necessarily means the pursuit of enduring values. His slow rendering of the songs gave the listeners an opportunity to receive the divine message and ponder over it. His unhurried recitals gave a sense of vastness that liberated us from everything and made us feel that the whole world has been opened out to us.

However, it wasn't his inability to sing madhyama or durita kala (fast tempo) which made him adopt vilamba kala. Even his critics who have heard him sing the majestic 'Viriboni' varnam in Bhairavi raga would certainly admit that he was equally adept at singing fast tempo.

MDR's 'bani' was of a unique nature. The quintessence of a raga was projected without any effort or ostentation. His understanding of the purpose of music was that, the dimensions of 'sangeeta' included not only the sastra and creativity, but also its spirituality, which brought out the 'bhava' of a kriti. The 'Nadopasaka' that he was, MDR could bring out the beauty of the sahitya of a composition with utmost ease. He exposed the beauty of a kriti, laden with melody and sahitya, in such a way that the listener was provided with the 'Bhakti' face of Carnatic music. His rendering of kritis like Giripai, Ksheenamai, Janani, Mokshamu, Bhavayami, Endaro etc. were worth going miles to listen to.

Some people believe that MDR's music is beyond the understanding of the common man. But that couldn't have been true as his concerts were well attended.

The composer

He utilized his knowledge of Malayalam, Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu to compose more than 300 kritis, most of them being sung spontaneously during his visits to temples and other holy places. He sang some of his Tillanas in his concerts as he had composed many for Kalakshetra.

The other side

He was a traditionalist like other musicians. He refused to make compromises. Even his appearance with a 'kudumi' or tuft suggests that he was an orthodox Brahmin. Often his 'kudumi' caused him trouble in the midst of a raga alapana, and he would stop to gather it again into a knot. These mannerisms were one of the many seen in his performances. Those who knew him intimately in those days say that though he was a bit orthodox by nature, he was very jovial. He had a streak of humour in him that would have done credit to a Chembai! Once when he was singing one of his own compositions, "Ramanai maravaadiru maname (asking the mind not to forget Lord Rama)", he interjected, "Jayaramanai, Sivaramanai maravaadiru maname", as Lalgudi Jayaraman and Umayalapuram Sivaraman were accompanying him that day! He had his daily stints at the cricket-nets in the evening too!

Music was a Sadhana to MDR as the following incident will show. Once MDR was invited to give a festival concert at Trivandrum. While the concert was in progress, the temple bell rang. When the temple bell rings, it is customary to stand up. But MDR was continuing his concert. The next day, somebody enquired of MDR why he did not 'obey' the temple bell. He replied "I don't obey any bell; I obey my music. I had not sung 'mangalam. Without concluding the concert, how could I get up?"

MDR's ideal was to present the listener an experience as quite as much as spiritual as well as musical through his ravishing tonal depth. His music was directed to soothe rather than seduce. If music is the only criterion to judge MDR, he will rank among the all-time greats.

           Posted on 27th April 2001

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