Interview with  Madras A Kannan

Ganakalanidhi Dr. Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar


An Interview with Mridanga Vidwan Madras A Kannan 

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                                    Radio Sangeetha Sammelanam Concert of Ganakalanidhi Dr. Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar in 1956     

              Sri Govindasami Naikar Violin, Sri Madras A Kannan Mridangam, Sri Alangudi Ramachandran Ghatam, Tambura Gopal onTambura, Chitti Babu (Disciple) Vocal Support

During my visit to India in Feb – March of 2008, another musician that I met was Sri Madras A Kannan. It was quite an adventure to find his residence as he moved from ‘behind Madras Music Academy’ to a flat on Lloyds Road. Sri S Rajam and MMA gave the old address. The telephone number in the directory did not work in spite of trying for a few times at various timings and during several days. I went in search of the house hoping that someone in his old neighborhood would know where he moved to. But, they could only say that it is close to ‘Jayalalitha’s office’. For my third attempt I was totally determined that somehow I should find him and I called the directory assistance and asked them to give me the address of Madras A Kannan. Luckily they had something under Mridanga Vidwan and so finally I got the correct address. Thus I could go to the building and find my way to his flat.

Madras Kannan, in spite of all the laurels that he obtained during his long illustrious career as a Mrindanga vidwan, is a very unassuming person. He was very pleasant, a little hesitant in the beginning. I gave him the picture of his playing for my Father Dr Vinjamuri’s 1956 sangeetha sammelanam program. He immediately warmed up and the conversation went on for a long time. He was so moved by the whole experience of my visit, when I was to leave his place he told me that he felt as if his own daughter was leaving the house! I too was very emotional and did not want to leave him or put an end to the conversation, but I had to. What an experience! - Sandhya Vinjamuri-Giri 

As soon as I gave him the photo that I framed and brought for presenting to Kannan, he was very pleased and started looking at it along with his son. The picture was my Father Dr. Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar’s vocal concert of Madras Sangeetha Sammelanam in 1956 with Govindasamy Naikar on the violin, Madras A Kannan on the Mridangam, Alangudi Ramachandran on the Ghatam, (Tambura) Gopal on the Tambura and Chittibabu (Father’s disciple) for vocal support.  

After he finished looking at the photograph and realizing that it was from 1956, he commented about himself to his son jokingly and with a tinge of pride, ‘did you see how ‘ayya’ was sitting?’. He also told me that someone who is the son of Tatachari of AIR (he could not recollect the name of the person but also a Vinjamuri) also is conducting our Father’s day (Birthday or the Memorial Day or something that he could not recollect) in Mylapore. He said PB Srinivas presided over the function one year and he (Kannan) presided also one year in which he also talked about Father (need to be investigated!). 

I asked him to talk about his association with my Father and his playing for my Father’s concerts as I heard from (Late) Bangalore Venkataram (Ghatam Vidwan) that he played for a lot of concerts of my Father. He said, many people remember that they played for so and so and, so many concerts, in this place or that. But, he does not remember those details about any Vidwan, not just Father.  

He said “A lot of others might have told you that they played for ‘so many’ (number) concerts of him. But, my association and affection with your Father is not just as Mridanga Vidwan and Vocal Vidwan. That is how our friendship started, but later it became more than that. We were like members of the same family with the affection and closeness and, the way we used to feel happy and proud of each other’s achievements. More than the concerts alone, we used to meet often and talk a lot about Kutcheries and other things. The discussion would not be about others or little things. We always used to talk heartily about the big people (older generation Vidwans) such as Ramanuja Iyengar, Viswanatha Iyer, Tiger Varadacharier, Mazavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar – a very great vidwan, I played for him also. I started playing for Sangeetha Sammelanam programs from the time they were introduced. When they first introduced Ragam Tanam Pallavi program in AIR, the first person to sing was Mazavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar for which also I played. Thus Father and I would only speak about periya Vidwans like those.  Other than such things he did not know how to make small talk and I did not know either."

 “The one big specialty about your Father was, at all times he used to look as if he was going for a kutcheri! It does not matter whether he was going somewhere, or to work or for the concert – he was always fresh looking, happy and was with delightful conversation. All the time that I knew him, I never saw him moody or otherwise. Since we were always discussing about the maha vidwans, we never used to think of ourselves as great. We had the longing of becoming like them but we never thought of ourselves to be big. My Guru used to put a meTTu that even today I feel I still cannot get the same sound. I will somehow play but cannot play equal to my Guru and get his sound. People call me ‘periyaVidwan’ and give me titles and put information in the papers and all, but I never let it get to me. Your Father was also in the same way”.

 “While singing in the Kutcheri, a lot of singers as well as accompanists think of themselves to be great artists and showoff a lot. But when your Father used to sing in the concerts he used to sit very majestically and naturally (without any special act for the occasion), just as we are sitting and talking, and he used to sing without any affectations and I too used to play just like that. There are some singers who shake their bodies and hands, move the head up when they sing in Tara sthayi and lower the head when they sing mandaram and such actions. I am not criticizing anyone but I am saying this to emphasize that your Father did not have any such affectations. He did not have any undesirable actions during his kutcheries. When he sits on the dais in a majestic way with his angavastram on (he would not take it out and put it aside), he used to look so good like a royalty and his presence would make the sadas like a raja darbar!  The majesty that the older generation artistes had - that kind of majesty was present only with Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar!

 As his daughter you are meeting the vidwans and making them to talk about your Father’s greatness; I do not know what you will be doing with all this but, I think he is more fortunate to have a daughter like you than all the music, name, fame and fortune that he acquired. I think you too are equally fortunate to have been born as his daughter to such a great artiste.

I don’t remember when and where I played except the names of the vidwans in the recent years but I do remember the particulars about the incidents that happened when I was very young. In Mysore court there used to be a vidwan called SubbaNNa – Veena SubbaNNa. I went there during his time, played for him at the palace during Dassara celebrations. There was another vidwan called Narayana Iyengar who was the Mysore palace court musician. In those days, samasthana vidwan had a bigger position as a right-hand person to maharaja. Many people could be just Asthana vidwans without such importance. Mutthia Bhagavatar, SubbaNNa, Tittai Krishnaiengar, Mysore Vasudevachar were all there. I played for Vasudevachar also at the darbar when I was 12 years old and also when he was the principal of Kalakshetra with Rukmini amma. She brought Tiger Varadacharier, Mysore Vasudevachar, Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal and such great vidwans as principals and honored them and by doing so she honored herself, the Kalkshetra and the Carnatic music itself! She used to have special affection for me and I played for all the important people there. I believe it was tiger’s Memorial Day for which they had Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer’s Kutcheri. For that also I played. That day was some special day - pongal day, January 1st or Chtra 1st or something. That day she did not give any gifts to anyone. Someone told her that it was some special day for me. So she brought a silk (uttareeyam) and put for me alone. Viswanatha Iyer was very happy for me. The reason why I am telling you this specially is; either during present times or in olden times, it was very rare that someone will have the large heart to feel happy for the next person who was honored when they themselves were not honored. But, that day the way Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer showed his happiness for me - it was as if his own son was felicitated! 

When some people sing we feel sorry for them as they appear to be singing with so much of strain. But Vinjamuri used to sing very smoothly. It is the case of only one or two persons out of one hundred! When Ramanuja Iyengar used to sing, he used to sing songs effortlessly and continuously without even breaks in between. After him, it was only your Father who could sing like that. Some people sing a song and then break for coffee or give interval. He did not have such breaks. Once he sits for the concert he would sing very smoothly and easily, until the concert ends . His voice also was very pleasing to the ears. People could have a lot of knowledge but if the singing is not smooth and pleasurable to listen to, it is of no use. How much ever one knows if they do not know how to present beautifully, it would not be any good. Only people who are thorough with tremendous practice and concentration could make the presentation smooth and beautiful, like your Father.

For example, on the day of the concert that might be at 6.00PM, I would not pay attention to food or breakfast or whatever but would keep looking at the mridangam sruthi or check the sound or the look at the thoppy and so on. In spite of doing all that the evening may not go smoothly. But I do not think about it but concentrate only on what I have to do to prepare. This preparation and concentration is what makes the God to show mercy there, I think. Not because I deserve but because I concentrated so much. He would think, poor man he did not even think about his meals or Tiffin or breakfast but was checking the mridangam all the time hitting here and there and He shows his grace (laughs). We cannot be making changes to sruti at the concert, so we have to do it at home. Even after all this, there will be mike adjustment; ambience, audiences and their facial expressions that would affect the performance also. There will be some audiences who sit stone-faced - who will show no emotion at all to whatever had been sung. Whether they are knowledgeable or not and whether they are able to enjoy or not cannot be read on their faces at all. But some people are such that we get inspiration by just looking at their expression. Only experts will have the concentration not to be distracted by all these and be able to perform smoothly on all occasions. That was there with your Father. In all the concerts that I played for him I noticed that he would not be distracted by anything. Of course, I always try to help make the concert a success and not concentrate on making myself look good. Some people try to make themselves look better than the singer. But in my opinion the accompanist should allow the main artiste to be the center of the performance, like the way my Guru used to do. 

Once my Guru played for an artist – the way he treated him was, as if he put him in flower palanquin and gently moved it and such was his respect for the singer! I always think about it and follow his footsteps. From the old time giant artistes to the present day top artistes, say Balamurali, when I play for them they like it very much and appreciate as if someone was singing along. I used to play for your Father also in the same way. He used to feel happy about my playing more than his own singing. He used to talk to me in Tamil and sometimes in Telugu also. He used to say, ‘I am happier with your playing than my singing even’ and thus used to encourage me. 

The more you talk with many more big vidwans than me about the vidwat and Music of your Father and propagate his greatness the happier and prouder I will be! As a friend and as an admirer of him, I will be more proud of him than even you as his daughter! 

You are born in a family where there is opportunity to do something like this (you have a Father who was a great musician and therefore you are able to do this). I tell you; even that occurrence is one in thousands! I say this because, unless you have so much of affection and respect for your Father and his music, who would, on purpose go in search of Vidwans and ask about their association and their experience with their Father? For you to think of doing this I will pray to God to give you all the wealth and all that is good in the world and I pray that you should have a long and a happy life! 

Just like Appa I too want to look presentable. For your taking my picture I want to put on the shirt. (He also put on a huge Navaratna Mala).

 About Music and other Topics

Sruti and Laya combination is sangeetham. To have Laya correctly one needs to put the talam with stress. Otherwise the layam will not be as good. It looks to me that Sanjay Subrahmanyam strains a lot to sing, it is seen to the naked eye. If you close your eyes he would sound very good but when you look at him you feel that he was singing with a lot of strain. When Tiger used to sing, no one would know what he was going to sing, he himself would not know. I will tell you a story about Tiger. When I was 6 years of age my father passed away. When I was 8 years old I had my Mridangam Arangetram. For that Tiger Varadacharier’s vocal, Parur Sundaram Iyer for Violin and my Mridangam. See what happened when I was 8 years old is still in the memory & is still solid in my mind. Tiger had the habit of putting the first beat and keep singing and then again another beat after a long time. He used to have all the calculations in his mind and would not put the talam continuously. In the same way we too need to have the calculation in our mind to play for him. Once I was playing for a concert in Mylapore and Parur Anantharaman was the violinist. S Ramananthan was there and was talking about me with the organizer. I believe the organizer told him, ‘Look at Kannan’s playing; he takes the picture of the singer’s singing’. For which S Ramanthan replied, ‘No, he does not take a picture; he takes an X-Ray itself’. I did not narrate this story to anyone until now. Since you are so genuinely happy to hear about someone else’s success and glory, I told you this. I never told anyone else. 

I am very happy that you went in search of my address and came to see me. Because of that I got this opportunity to talk about your Father. You talked with many vidwans but as his friend and a well wisher I am honored to be able to talk about him. You are happy that you gave me this picture of your Father with my playing. But what I am happy about is: by the grace of God you are doing well and are happy. Don’t think what else do I need? I am telling you, by God’s grace you will become more ‘sreyas’. I am not forecasting or fortune telling. We have the sastras and all the others. But whatever is done in the name of our Father and Mother, the God will be happier, I believe. Whatever Yagam, Yagnyam or rituals are done, God is more contented and happy when things are done to ones parents. Only people who are brought-up in a traditional family will have such a belief. Out of all the creatures created by God, man is the only one who could talk. All the others also have a mouth but they cannot talk. The scriptures say that the reason man is given talk is to praise and worship the God. But God is happier with the people who say the prayers (do things for their parents) to their parents than saying the God’s prayers. You had been doing this for your father that I am so happy for you. It is your fortune. But, he also had done a lot of good deeds in his  previous life to give birth to such a ‘satputri’ like you. Mostly only people who had done good deeds are the ones who would be involved in music. Music is the most favourite of all bhakthis to God. Each person expresses his bhakthi to God in a different way. But musicians have the first preference with God, like ThyagarajaSwamy, Naradar, Anjaneyar and others. (Kannan sings SrI kAnthimathim) ‘Sukha saunakAdi sadA sEvitham’

 Kannan started talking about the Father- Child relationship and how Sri Thyagaraja Swamy enjoyed calling Rama with various names such as ‘Seetha Raman’, ‘Janaka Suthaaramana’, ‘Pattabhi Rama’, ‘Ayodhya Raman’,  ‘Kausalya Raman’, ‘Kodanda Rama’, ‘Ramayya Rama’ and many others. Thyagaraja was still not satisfied and called him ‘Raja pamkthi ratha raja tanaya Sri – Rama’. (Kannan sings ‘Rama Ninne Namminanu’ – Husseni – Thyagaraja Kriti to discuss the meaning as he learned from a Telugu Pandit.) ‘Here he (Thyagaraja) brought a new Raman as ‘rAaja pankthi ratha rAja tanaya SrI – Rama’. I am sure you understand the meaning to some extent. I will tell you the inner meaning. Thyagaraja Swamy is saying ‘appA, your father Dasaratha maharaja was the jewel of sUrya vamSam, he ruled ayOdhya for 60,000 years and he was a great king who was endowed with the army of ‘ratha, gaja, turaga, padAdi’ (he had the army of chariots, Elephants, Horses and people on foot and more such) and YOU are the son of such a great king! The reason why I am saying all this is I will tell you. I am always curious about things and I have a passion for this song. I thought it would be nice to know the meaning also. When I went to an out-station concert I met a great Telugu Pandit and asked him about the meaning of ‘Raja pankthi ratha raja tanaya Sri – Rama’ then he gave me this meaning. Not only that, he told me that as I asked him with reverence and interest he gave the short meaning but if one wants to elaborate it would go on for over an hour. Thyagarajaswamy thought of Rama as his God, father, brother, son and also a friend. He wanted to address him with various names and feel happy as any father would like to adorn his son in various ways and feel happy. ‘ Sri Kannan asked me what my name was in order to tell me why he was elaborating the meaning of the word that Thyagarajaswamy used, so much. I told him (for the first time in my meeting him) that my name was ‘Sandhya’. He started saying, ‘ammA when you came, if you had told me ‘sir, my name is Sandhya, I came from America and I am in this big job there, I came to see you’, it would have been one way. But you said ‘I am Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar’s daughter, Sir’. Then the respect does not go to Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar but actually it goes to you! That’s what Thyagarajaswamy was saying. The pride to Rama is to be called as the son of HIS father. I feel proud only to be called ‘Ramadas Rao’s disciple. If someone says, ‘He is Ramadas Rao’s disciple, Sir. He had the opportunity to meet and be blessed by Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Sir. He was praised by Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Sir’, that is what is the recognition to me.  I played a lot for Semmangudi Srinivasa Chari (Iyer). He used to live next door to our house on the Lloyds road. We used meet often and talk. He used to come to our house too as we were very close to each other. Once when I went to his house, he called me in and offered a seat. I was looking at the pictures there. There was a picture with Dakshinamurthy Pillai Mridangam and he was the vocalist. I saw that picture and said ‘Sir, I listened to this concert, when you sang for the grand old man’s violin playing’. I did not say HE played for YOUR singing but said YOU sang for HIS playing. He looked not very happy but said, ‘Kannan, we had been known to each other for a long time, from the time you were very young, what is your age?’  I said, ‘please don’t mistake me but I do not want to discuss my age with anyone other than a doctor or someone like that. You had known me for so long, you should also be able think and decide’. Hearing my answer he laughed but looked a little disappointed. Auto Parts Natarajan was also there. He said, ‘Do you understand what Kannan is saying?’ Semmangudi replied, ‘I don’t understand what he is saying’. The meaning in what I said was ‘You are so much older than me; you had been seeing me for so long and never made an attempt to know my age. Now since I said I attended you concert with Dakshinamurthy Pillai Avl you are asking my age. You yourself could have calculated my age’. Auto Parts Natarajan understood this and told Semmmangudi. He then said, ‘okay I will calculate myself’. Not many could confidently say that ‘you sang for Dakshinamurthy Pillai’s violin playing’ because it is 70 years since Dakshinamurthy Pillai even passed away. That means the concert is more than 70 years ago. So he was curious how Kannan could know this and asked for my age. The reason why I am saying this is, when we have to ask someone about something we have to think twice before asking. Some people ask question without hesitation like, what kind of job you do, how much your salary is or how many children do you have. Unless one knows the person very intimately and have long association with the person,one should not ask questions that might make them uncomfortable. That is how I was raised. In my experiences in concerts or otherwise I had such situations that I faced but I never showed any emotion even a little. I don’t even tell anyone. I used to tell only my father when he was alive. He will listen to it all and ask me ‘what did you say when they said that?’ I used to tell him, I did not say anything, just kept quiet. He used to feel happy about it. Some people complain when something is not up to par. But I never complain about anything. Only people who did not have any association with ‘big’ (periyava) people only do that. Dakshinamurthy Pillaival did not even know how to complain. Take Tiger Varadachaiar for whom I played from my young age. He used to preside over a lot of concerts also. When someone gives a concert for 3 hours, won’t there be at least 5 seconds of good – of Mridangam or Fiddle or vocal? He takes that and praises the persons and blesses them. That is the quality of ‘big’ people. But people who are not ‘big’ (not really great vidwans with large heart) will find the only slip in a concert that was all good and complain and talk about it. This is the difference between real great vidwans and not-so-great vidwans. After people like Dakshinamurthy Pillai there was another ‘periyaval’ – that was Palghat Mani Iyer. He would not talk about anybody: show any emotion – he does not praise good or criticize bad. Kanchi periyaval said ‘don’t feel happy when something good comes and feel sad when something sad happens’. This is not an easy thing to practice. But, Palghat Mani Iyer had this quality. When anyone praises or honors him he would not show any emotion and he does not criticize anyone. He was such a balanced person. I will share a happy occasion with you – once I got Asian International Music award. This was during the time when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister. Veena Emani Sankara Sastri and I were selected for the award. He was also in Radio at that time and I was in Radio too. The Government sponsored us and sent us for the award and they interviewed us, and put the information and pictures in the papers. Yehudi Menuhin was the president there that year. I have a picture with him also. All these pictures were published in the papers like The Hindu, The Mail etc. with the information. It looks like Mani Iyer saw them. I believe when Emani Sankara Sastri came here (Madras) for an AIR concert, Mani Iyer saw him and congratulated him for his award. He seemed to have asked for me. At that time I was not in AIR. The next evening he sent a disciple of his to my house to find out whether I was home. He used to live close-by in Lakshmi Puram in those days. It should be like furlong between my house and his. He was opposite to Srinivasa Perumal Koil. We used to see each other often. The disciple came and said that Mani Iyer wanted to see whether you are home. I told him, ‘Why, I am here and I will come to him?’ He said, ‘No, he did not ask me to bring you there; he wanted me to see whether you are home. He is leaving town this night so I came to see whether you are home.’  I came downstairs and was waiting there expecting his arrival. He came in vesti and thundu. I cordially invited him upstairs and made him have a seat. He said, ‘I saw in the papers that you and Sankara Sastri got the Asian International award, I am very happy’ and pulled out 2 lemons and gave them to me and said, ‘Offer one to God and with the other,  ask someone older than you to take drishti to you’. I said I will do that and said ‘it is because of the blessings of elders like you’. He said, ‘You are saying, it is all because of the elders’ blessing for the sake of respect for elders. I will take it as only respect. But (he looked at my father’s picture and said) it is your father’s blessings’. He did not say it is God’s blessings but said, it is your father’s blessings. I am telling you this to emphasize the importance of father. Such a great man Palghat Mani Iyer! After Dakshinamurthy Pillai, who was not a vidwan but was a MAHAN, it is only Palghat Mani Iyer. He was a Maha medha vidwan.

Continuation from Audio Tape

 Dakshinamurthy Pillaival had sajeeva Samadhi. He got into the Samadhi when he was still alive. A lot of people wrote about it. He had his time setup and as the people were praying and ringing the bells he got into the Samadhi chamber. A lot of people saw that with their own eyes. My Guru saw that too. Also, Saraswathi Bai amma, who was a kathA kAlakshEpam artiste, saw that with her own eyes and wrote about it. That is the reason why I had been calling him a Mahan. 

Another thing that I noticed about you is how interested you are in knowing about older generation musicians. I usually don’t talk about the older generation and I do not have anyone to talk to. I have no reason for me to talk about also as people are neither interested in hearing nor have patience. They just live in the moment - not even a day.  

Kannan asked me about Giri (my husband) and what he does. He said he was asking not to know what he does but to appreciate that he encourages my musical activities. When I told him that I am a fan of Ariyakudi, Kannan talked about Ariyakudi reminding about what he told me previously about Ariyakudi that he does not waste even 10 seconds. He also mentioned that some people sing Ragam and Tanam for 30 minutes and sing Pallavi very short, so disproportionate that he would feel whether it is necessary to have such long AlApana. But Ariyakudi includes Varanam, RTP, Kritis, Javali, Tillana – all important items in the concert and nothing makes you feel excess. Ragam will not appear to be excess, Tanam will not appear to be excess or Pallavi will not appear to be excess and he sings one after another like bullets’ charging, as if a recorder is played – with machine-like precision. Kannan started talking about Ariyakudi. ‘I played for him for a lot of concerts. That is a rewarding experience. In Samayapuram there used to be a person called Sundaram. He used to have Sri Rama Navami ustavams and all the great musicians used to perform there. That was in olden days where I started playing for him. Only later on that Palghat Mani Iyer. Palani, Sundaram and others started playing for Ariyakudi.  Did you hear about Haridasa Giri. You must have heard about him after he took sanyasam. He honored me once in Naradagana Sabha. He was in Gopalapuram and I used to meet him often. (Unfortunately the rest of the story is not taped as the tape reached the end)