A tribute to Kallidaikurichi A Anantaraman of the Guruguha gana vidyalaya, Kolkata – S.Bhashyam
Calcutta is the city that has been associated with great names like Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Amir Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Begum Akhtar, Timir Baran, Radhika Mohan Moitra
It was also home to a frail and unassuming person who out of a small two-room tenement located at 19 Bipin Pal Road, near Deshapriya Park, tirelessly strove to impart to students the intricacies of Carnatic music. This person was, A. Anantharaman- ‘Ambi Sir’ to the Carnatic fraternity in Calcutta.
In all professions, there are the practitioners of whom only the great reach the pinnacles of fame. And, there are the teachers who groom these practitioners who, by the very nature of their calling, seldom get the acknowledgement that some of their proteges do. Ambi Sir, whose musical lineage can be traced back to the legendary Muthuswami Dikshitar, belonged to the latter category. His father A. Ananthakrishna Iyer learnt music directly from Ambi Dikshitar, son of Subbarama Dikshitar.
Anantharaman was born on 2 December 1927 at Sattupattu village in Kallidaikurichi taluk in the erstwhile Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, as the eldest son of Ananthakrishna Iyer who took to the musical path. (Ananthakrishna Iyer was subsequently joined by his brother Sundaram Iyer who later in life compiled the magnum opus Dikshitar Kritimanimala). Anantharaman’s early life was spent in Madras where his father initiated him into Carnatic music with special emphasis on Dikshitar kriti-s. In 1937 Ananthakrishna Iyer moved to Calcutta at the behest of a close family friend. Here, he built up a veritable school around him. What started off as an informal arrangement blossomed into a full-fledged music school, namely, the Guruguha Gana Vidyalaya in 1943.
In this ambience Anantharaman’s musical abilities were honed to perfection. He became an accomplished veena player, as well as a singer with a voice of rare timbre. Later, when Ananthakrishna Iyer found that there was a dearth of violin players in Calcutta he taught his son to play the violin as well.
After a few false starts in life as a salesman in some commercial firms, Anantharaman found his true vocation- teaching music to the South Indian community in Calcutta. After his father’s death in 1959 he became the Principal of the Vidyalaya where, along with his sister A. Champakavalli, he taught students Carnatic music- vocal, veena and violin.
The effect of the Dikshitar parampara was so strong in the teaching style at Guruguha Gana Vidyalaya- both during Ananthakrishna Iyer’s time as well as later under Anantharaman- that it can be stated without exaggeration that the latter half of this century has witnessed a Calcutta movement for propagating many rare and little heard Dikshitar compositions by both father and son. In fact, one of the Vidyalaya students, writing in Kalki, the Tamil weekly, in the nineteen fifties averred that more Dikshitar kriti-s were known in Calcutta than even in Madras!
VishvanAthena in Samantha, SvAaminathena in Brindavani, PratyangirA Bhagavatim in Nadanamakriya, BhArati maddhishana in Devamanohari, BrihannAyaki in Andhali, MAtangi maragatangi in Dautapanchamam and Madhavo mam patu (ragamalika) on the Dasavatara theme, are a few of the rare Dikshitar compositions which he taught his students.
Though his repertoire of Dikshitar kriti-s was large, Ambi Sir had also mastered Tyagaraja and Syama Sastry’s compositions and rendered them on appropriate occasions. The cognoscenti in Calcutta still remember the Tyagaraja kriti-s he sang movingly during the Tyagaraja aradhana-s. Rama bana (Saveri), Kaligiyuntey (Keeravani), and Ramuni maragavey (Kedaragaula) are some of the Tyagaraja gems that Ambi Sir has rendered.
Ambi Sir, who believed in quality not quantity, had a unique teaching style. He laid stress on building a strong foundation based on a repertoire of at least a dozen varna-s and rigorous practise of the sarali and janta varisai-s and alankara-s in various raga-s for voice culture.
He was adept at teaching vocal, veena and violin and he groomed students to levels of excellence in all these disciplines.
His veena playing had the true gayaki stamp on it and involved a blend of the Tanjavur and Mysore styles. Being an accomplished vocalist helped him to coax the nuances of gamaka and anuswara out of the veena and being a vainika helped him to achieve precision and balance in his vocal music, the two skills thus complementing each other. I have not heard anybody combine the usage of gamaka and flat notes to perfection as he did in his raga renderings. Sankarabharanam is a case in point. Too flat a rendering would make the raga light. Too much of an emphasis on gamaka-s would result in giving the raga shades of other allied raga-s like Navroj and Neelambari. But Ambi Sir’s renderings had the various elements in the right mixture.
Another feature of his teaching style was the importance he gave to theory. Even beginners had to know the names of swara-s, the various anga-s of tala-s, the names of the eight tala-s and so on. From these beginnings he gradually exposed them to the Melakarta scheme and to the concept of raga-s. Swara gnana tests were a common feature of his classes, as were exercises in raga identification.
As the students progressed to kriti renditions, he would encourage them to sing small raga alapana-s and expose them to the mathematics of swara singing. Ambi Sir was a stickler for tala adherence and no student who didn’t get the tala right would be allowed to progress further. He had an almost intuitive grasp of each student’s strengths and weaknesses and he encouraged each student to build on his strengths. This resulted in his students blossoming into artists with differing styles. Ambi Sir’s school was no carbon-copy producing factory, but an institution which encouraged originality in its students.
The shishyas :
No wonder therefore that many students who learnt under him went on to win prizes at prestigious contests at the Madras Music Academy, the Indian Fine Arts Society, the Shanmukhananda Sabha and in All India Radio’s annual music competitions. Quite a few of them including his sons and daughters, are graded artists of All India Radio. Notable among his disciples are his own children- son Ananthakrishnan who was a much sought after violin accompanist in Madras before he migrated to the USA in the early eighties- he has started accompanying again during the current festival season; his second son Sadasivam whose repertoire of pallavi-s is truely mind-boggling and his daughter Girija Vaidyanathan who has a mellifluous voice and is an A-grade artist in AIR-Visakhapatnam.
Among others, mention must be made of the husband-wife pair of veena players, Jairaj Iyer and Jayashree, noteworthy for a rare combination of aesthetics and virtuosic skills.
Calcutta’s Hindustani music ambience did rub off on Ambi Sir; he enjoyed listening to Hindustani music concerts; although he could handle quite a few Hindustani raga-s with dexterity, he never allowed this to affect his rendering of Carnatic music. But, his knowledge of both music systems made him a very popular teacher of Carnatic music at the Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta.
Recognition by way of honours and titles came to Ambi Sir late in life. Chief among the honours he received were the felicitation given by the International Foundation of Carnatic Music (IFCM- an organisation started by N. Ravikiran) and the title of Isai Perangyar by the Tamil Manram and Bharati Tamil Sangam of Calcutta.
Ambi Sir was totally committed to his profession and did not believe in retirement. Even after he was laid low by a series of illnesses, he did not believe in calling it a day. He taught students with his usual intense involvement even on the evening before his sad demise.
My own personal reminiscence of Ambi Sir are about the early morning classes he used to conduct for veena students, when in the tranquil atmosphere he would present distilled versions of raga-s such as Yadukulakambhoji, Surati and Kedaragaula on the veena. His vocal classes were generally held in the evenings and being with him after a tension-filled day at the office gave a deep sense of tranquility. He had the uncanny ability to quickly get to the core of a raga.