SVN turned his devotion to Rama into his love for Indian classical music and gifted Bengaluru a festival that has become history over the decades.

Though Lord Rama was a Kshatriya born and brought up in North India, he is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Hence he is worshipped and revered all over by devout Hindus. Below the Vindhyas, Rama holds an exalted status. The Ramayana mentions several parts of south India. Be it Hampi where the Kishkinda Kanda happened or Rameshwaram where Rama prayed before he left for Lanka, there are many places associated with the story of Rama.

Some of the greatest of Carnatic music composers have been devotees of Rama. Kancherla Gopanna (1620-1680) from current day Telangana became popular as Bhakta Ramadasu. He worshipped Rama enshrined in the temple in Bhadrachalam and wrote a large number of songs in his praise. Later Tyagaraja (1767 -1847) the greatest of the Carnatic Trinity wrote a large part of his compositions in praise of Rama. One wonders how much devotion these people might have had towards Rama for them to write so much. In the 20th century, there have been several people too. This is the story of one such devotee of Rama. SVN of Bengaluru turned his devotion to Rama into his love for Indian classical music and gifted the city of Bengaluru a festival that has become history over the decades!

Imposing Altar of Lord Rama at the Rama Seva Mandali

So who was this SVN and what was his story?

SV Narayanaswamy Rao was a humble employee of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bengaluru. As a fourteen-year-old Narayanaswamy, the son of a police officer from a middle class family, felt the sudden urge to celebrate Ganesha Chaturti. With two other friends he went house to house seeking donations. They raised a total of five rupees and celebrated their festival with much devotion. This little success encouraged the boys to celebrate Rama Navami the following year. They collected fifteen rupees this time.

Narayanaswamy was a quick thinker and formed the Sri Rama Seva Mandali in 1939. He sidelined his academics to pursue the Mandali's development seriously. He studied up to the eleventh standard, and then got a job with HAL. But his employers who failed to understand his driving commitment to the Rama Navami celebrations, refused to grant him leave. Did that stop him from his passion? Instead, he quit that job after two years and joined the Life Insurance Corporation where the same story followed.

This cycle continued until he finally gave up trying to hold a job and serve the Rama Seva Mandali. He dedicated all his time to the Mandali's growth. Over a period of time the Mandali’s humble celebration became a month-long music festival. Bengaluru had never witnessed a festival of this stature! Without knowing, SVN had created history!

S V Narayanaswamy Rao, the founder and visionary of Rama Seva Mandali

SVN was one of the most committed festival organisers Bengaluru ever saw. Seeing his genuine intentions and hard work, several musicians came forward to help him in his work. He made close friends with the legendary Violin Chowdiah and Flautist TR Mahalingam.

In times when communication technology was limited, SVN would personally travel across the country, catching trains and buses, to meet artistes and requesting them to participate in his festival. Gradually he gained their faith and the who’s who of Indian music travelled all the way here to perform. No one had the heart to turn down such a massive effort.

In 1952, the one and only MS Subbulakshmi performed at the Rama Seva Mandali for the first time. From then on till 1992, she performed here about thirty-one times. It was quiet co-incidental that every time she performed, it poured heavily. But the packed hall could care less. The music-loving audiences of Bengaluru were left thirstier; thanks to the undying determination of someone like SVN.

MS Subbulakshmi singing at the Rama Seva Mandali

In the summer of 1956, SVN had made all efforts to bring down the great Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saab down to Bengaluru for the music festival he was organising. An evening before it started to pour and rains lashed the city for one whole week. But the stubborn SVN was bent upon getting Khan saab to perform because the music lovers would not leave him or forgive him. Finally Khan saab did perform a week later. The great Veena Doreswamy Iyengar performed here from 1947 to 1998, every year without fail. The other greats like Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal and the list of the greats who have performed on this stage is an endless one.

Every classical musician, especially Carnatic, worth their salt have performed here over the last seven decades. Year after year dignitaries were invited to inaugurate this festival. In the early 1950’s, the Maharaja of Mysore State Jayachamaraja Wodeyar and Chakravarthy Rajagopalachari inaugurated the festival. “It is lovely to see that this festival is not confined inside a hall”, said Rajagopalachari in his speech.

Rajagopalachari and Mysore Maharaja during the inauguration of the Mandali festival

SVN passed away in 2000. The responsibility of upholding the rich legacy of his Mandali fell on the shoulders of his worthy sons and associates. His son Varadaraj and his brothers come together year after year and continue this festival. At the same time they were not unaware of the many unfulfilled ambitions of their father. One of them was to create facilities for study and research in music and allied arts. With this in view, the Mandali instituted the SVN Academy of Music.

A national award was constituted in 2001 to commemorate the revered memory of SVN and the first award was given to MS Subbulakshmi. The following years many others like Dr Balamurali Krishna, Vidwan RK Srikantan, Lalgudi Jayaraman and many other musical greats have received this award.

ML Vasantakumari performing at the Rama Seva Mandali

SVN lived in Bengaluru’s golden years when cultural entrepreneurship was more of a passion enacted, in spite of the fact that no one came forward to sponsor. He would go knocking door-to-door requesting people for donations. Today when we see, young cultural organisations cribbing for sponsorship money and then giving that as an excuse for not doing any activity or organising bad shows, one must show them the example of SVN’s passion and the way he captained the Rama Seva Mandali for six decades.

In the good old days when Rama Navami did not mean communal riots, curfews, and police patrolling, SVN saw that it became a secular tradition in that area. Hindus and Muslims would be seen distributing the traditional Paanakam and Prasadam to the audiences that flocked there. What a wonderful sacred secular tradition to uphold.

Ustad Bismillah Khan performing at the Rama Seva Mandali

Once a year on Rama Navami day the three acres of playground of the Fort High School-built during the British Raj- is converted into a huge auditorium. The school is surrounded by landmarks like Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, a centuries-old Lord Venkataramanaswamy temple and Tipu’s old fort. Amidst this hustle and bustle, the sleepy Fort High School grounds suddenly come alive. A massive Pandal is constructed out of bamboo poles and zinc sheets. Once completed, it becomes an imposing open-air concert hall that can accommodate over fifteen thousand people. The sparkling, seven-foot-tall bronze Mandapam or altar kept aloft at the center of the southern end of the Pandal arrests attention as one enters. Large bronze images of Lord Rama, Laxmana, Sita and Hanuman adorn the altar. The deities are exquisitely decorated everyday. This altar makes for an impressive stage background for the month long musical extravaganza.

A young Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna performing at the Rama Seva Mandali

Unlike many other places where the founding of new cultural organisations generally indicates the gradual decline and death of old ones, south India is privileged to be home to some of the country’s oldest and most active institutions. The Rama Seva Mandali in Bengaluru is one such gem. This year the music festival celebrates its 78th year. It began on the 8th of April on the day of Ugadi and will go on till the 9th of May 2016. The list of artistes performing is long and impressive. Music lovers visiting the city for your summer vacation, try not to miss this month-long musical treat and pray that we have more SVNs in the making. The more the merrier for Indian classical music. Even Lord Rama wouldn’t have found another devotee like SVN in modern times who took up the cause of classical music with such a missionary zeal. More power to Rama Seva Mandali and their good work. 

Photographs: Krishnamurty, Veejay Sai, Sri Rama Seva Mandali Archives 

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)