The flute has been a musical instrument in the Carnatic genre since unknown times. The earliest evidences of flute are the several temple sculptures across ancient temples and other heritage sites dating back to as early as 5th century. Hindu mythology is full of stories of lord Krishna who creates enchanting melodies on his flute.
While we have a lot of references to flute music, we can say it gained a great deal of popularity in the 20th century. Some of the greatest stalwarts of Carnatic music were flautists. Be it Sarabha Sastry or TR Mahalingam, the Carnatic flute grew to great heights under their expertise. One of the pioneers of the Carnatic flute was N Ramani. This weekend as we celebrate yet another birthday of his, it is good time to remember the maestro and his services to Carnatic classical instrumental music.
Ramani was born in 1934 in Thiruvarur, the hotbed of Carnatic music tradition, into a family of musicians. His maternal grandfather Aazhiyur Narayanaswami Iyer was already a known singer and a flute artiste. His father Natesa Iyer was a Mridangam Vidwan and his mother Saradambal was a Veena player and a vocalist. Born into this family steeped in music, it didnāt take too long for Ramani to begin his training when he was barely five years old. He officially debuted on the stage in 1942 at the Singaravelan temple in Sikkil.
However, training continued at home and with his Gurus. When he was only nine years old, Ramani attended a flute recital by T R Mahalingam, famous for his initials as āMaliā, and was highly influenced by his performance. It is said he returned home and literally reproduced every note the maestro played on his flute.
The opportunity to perform with the maestro came very soon. In 1945, Ramani got to accompany Mali as a āsecond fluteā in a concert organized by the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore. This concert made his name more popular among the music circles of Madras. A young star had arrived on the scene and was here to stay.
N Ramani in concert accompanied by Vellore Ramabhadran
The same year he was invited by the All India Radio to give his first solo broadcast from the Trivandrum station. This affair was to blossom in later years and make him one of the most popular radio and television artistes.
In the 1950ās Ramani was also an active member of Rukmini Devi Arundaleās famous institution Kalakshetra. Under the great maestro and composer Mysore Vasudevachary, Ramani along with others like Adyar K Lakshmanan and D Pasupathi regularly composed music for several dance-dramas produced by Kalakshetra.
1956 was a landmark year in Ramaniās personal and professional life. He got married that year to Kamakshi and the same December music season gave his first performance at the prestigious Madras Music Academy. He was accompanied by V V Subramaniam on the violin and Trichy Sankaran on the Mridangam. This concert made him a huge star. Almost all the big stalwarts of Carnatic music began to accompany him from then on. A decade of performing across the Carnatic scene earned him some life-long friendships.
In 1962, Ramani made his first trip abroad. He was a part of a project the great Veena maestro S Balachander designed to introduce American audiences to Carnatic music. Under the banner of āSangeeta Madrasā, Balachander and Ramani accompanied by other artistes would travel across the United States to give concerts. This was the beginning of Ramaniās globetrotting phase.
In 1966 Ramani along with violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and Veena player Venkataraman made the first one of its kind group of Veena-Venu-Violin trio at the Krishna Gana Sabha. This trio became a big hit with audiences who wanted something new and innovative in the rather rigid Carnatic genre. The trio began giving concerts widely.
N Ramani in Veena Venu Violin trio
Ramani also got noticed by several Hindustani musicians. The first among them was the famous Sitar maestro Pt Ravi Shankar who heard Ramani performing at the Sri Balasubramania Sangeeta Sabha. It was on his insistence that Ramani gave his first flute Jugalbandi with his Hindustani counter-part Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia. From 1970 onwards the two flute maestros gave innumerable Jugalbandis. A strong bond of friendship grew between them which they cherished life-long.
Chaurasia was not the only Hindustani artiste to give Jugalbandis with Ramani. Several others like violinists Pt V G Jog and N Rajam, flautist Vijayaraghava Rao and Sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan took a fondness for Ramaniās flute. Ramani became the first Carnatic flautist to give so many Jugalbandis with Hindustani maestros.
With his growing popularity Ramani began getting students, both from India and abroad, who were interested in learning from him. In 1983, he established a Ramani Academy of Flute (RAF) and trained scores of students over the years.
With branches in London, San Francisco, Toronto and Los Angeles, the RAF has groomed several hundreds of students in flute. In spite of a busy traveling and performing schedule Ramani always took time out to train his students. The other event he was extremely particular about was his participation in the annual Tyagaraja Utsavams in Thiruvaiyaru.
Ramaniās discography is large and extensive with several hundreds of hours of both commercial and private recordings. Several awards and honours came his way. Beginning with the famous Sangeeta Choodamani award in 1971 from the Krishana Gana Sabha, Kalaimamani from the government of Tamil Nadu in 1973, Padma Shri from the President of India in 1987, Sangita Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy in 1997 and the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award and the Tyagaraja Sanman from the Sringeri Shankaracharya Peetham.
Flute trio - N Ramani, R Thiyagarajan, R Atulkumar
The āMaliā style of playing flute was the most complicated of the various styles that existed. Every flautist claimed to have mastered and performed it. While that claim remains speculative, one can say that it was N Ramani who made this style popular, not just in India but abroad as well.
After a long successful performing career, Ramani passed away in Chennai last October. Though he was ailing with throat cancer, he never once backed out from performing till the last few years. Flanked by his son and grandson, he would give a flute-trio concert. It is a year since his demise and this weekend as we celebrate his birthday, it is a good time to remember this maestro who breathed a new life into the Carnatic flute.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images : Selva Kumar, Krishnamurthy, Veejay Sai