A renowned disciple of famed Mali, senior flautist N.Ramani is still learning while teaching. The Ramani Flute Academy founded by him is not just helping to make a better flautist of those who make a beeline for it. It is also doing a great service by spotting not-so-popular but talented artistes of yester-year and recognizing their contributions. In a discussion with Sudha Jagannathan, Ramani talks about his academy, his style, jugalbandi concerts and what not. Excerpts of the interview: ††
I guess your flute academy besides teaching flute is also spotting yester-year artistes and honour them. Is it not?
Ramani: The objective is to honour artistes who are very good but are not popular and recognised. We are trying to honour especially those who have not graduated from our school. This time around, we have honoured Mayavaram Saraswathi. She might not be known through her concerts. She had done concerts in the '50s. She is around 75 years old. She has a good number of disciples. A few of them are in the U.S. and playing well. There is this K. Bhaskar, who plays flute well.
Are you honouring only flautists?
Ramani: So far we have been honouring only flautists. There are a lot of them. Not many honour them. We honour many flautists living outside Chennai. Once, we honoured one Desikachar. He is the brother of Mysore Duraiswamy Iyengar. Their way of playing may be different. Yet, he is a great vidwan. So, we called him. We want our students also to know them. Ideally, we wish to have this sort of function every month.
How many students do you have?
Raman: I have over 500 students world over. Now, I have cut down on my students. However, I have asked my senior students to teach others in their respective areas. In an annual award giving function like the one I have mentioned, they demonstrate their skills.
Is the Academy a formal place?
Ramani: If you want to do that, you have to do in continuously. Secondly, not many people have taken this as a profession. They have something else as their main jobs. So they find it difficult to come regularly. I used to run it at my home like that.†
How do you monitor those who are taught by your senior students?
Ramani: They play in a function like what I have said. Then there are lots of students outside madras. They come here often to learn. We donít give any certificate. Certificates will be of no use when you really play. It can be all right for passing an examination. Mere getting a certificate will not help you become a performing artiste. Those who come to our academy have lot of scope to become performing artistes. This is one side. On the other, students from our academy who play flute are able to get jobs in schools and the like.
Can anyone take flute as a profession?
Raman: In these days, it is possible. Thanks to computer and information technology, one gets a lot of opportunities.
We all know the famous Mali style. Is there any specific style of your own?
Ramani: The style evolves. My grandfather was a flute vidwan. I learnt it from him. His name was Narayana Swamy Iyer. He had many students who were quite popular. Among them was Neela Kunjumani. But he was alive only till I was eight years old. Afterwards, I learnt flute from Shri Mali. He was my relative as well. It was convenient to learn from him. He used to come to my house. I tried and wanted to play flute like Mali while I was in my school days. I was successful also in playing like him. I came to Madras and settled in 1951. During 1961-62, I was playing like him.
When I was playing along with instruments like veena and violin, the sruthi had to be adjusted accordingly. It was difficult for percussion instruments. Violin had a different sruthi. Veena had a different sruthi. Hence, I changed the pitch of the flute to two-and-a-half sruthi. After changing it to this required pitch, it was quite comfortable.
Mali was playing with a five-sruthi pitch flute. He was quite comfortable with it. But the advantage of playing flute with different pitches is to make it convenient to play with an octave less.
With a lower pitch I made a big flute especially for Panalal Ghosh.
The sound in the base was clear. In the same way, this was used to play the carnatic music. In the beginning when I made this flute it was not easy to play ragas. Only light or small items could be played. Great vidwans opposed this idea of changing the flute. They argued that only a single flute with a single pitch was used in playing concerts traditionally. I thought that flute had to be changed since the octaves are present in that limited manner. If we play in a different octave, we get another variety. We also get a different tonal quality. Hence, I played in that base flute. But nowadays everyone is playing in all kinds of flute with different pitches. I don't change too many flutes but make limited use of two or three flutes with which I play Madyama sruthi and Mantra Sthayi. It is made conveniently to play more number of ragas and swaras with many octaves. It will be easy to play a jugalbandhi programme with a variety of flutes. We should first play Carnatic music well and then play jughalbandi. It should jell well with each other. We have to make sacrifices for this.
While playing jugalbandi, the audience often feels that there is no sufficient time for rendering Carnatic ragas. Hence, the jugalbandi concerts should be carried out on an elaborate basis. The programme, for one, should also help exhibition of talent by individual artistes even while combining into a jugalbandi. Such a progaramme will take around four hours. If we play in this manner in the North India, then there are advantages. Here in Chennai, when we play jugalbandi in concerts, we get only two hours. It has an advantage as well. For, it will be more interesting for the audience. It will be different while each of us play in turns. It should be planned in that manner. It will surely attract more audience. In the coming days, I am going to play more jugalbandis. More audience is attracted to jugalbandi.
Is jugalbandi a fusion music?
Ramani: It is different from fusion music. This is a combination of Hindustani and Carnatic classical music.
Is it with a combination of two flutes?
Ramani: It can also be played with violin. I play with T.N.Rajam. I have also played with Sarangi Ramnarayan. They are great vidwans. I have also played with Mohana veena. I did not do much jugalbandis with vocalists but once I did it with Balamurali Krishna and K.V.Narayanaswamy. The main thing is that the playing techinique is important which had been adopted and done well by Mali sir. No one has done it like him. While practicing, we have to play to suit the style of singing. The style followed by Balamurali Krishna is different. We have to play to suit his style. According to different school of singing, we have to play. I can play any song because I have practiced the sangatis which I had to play with great efforts.
How long did you learn from Mali?
Ramani: I have been with him more than learning from him.
In 1950's and 1960's he used to do kutcheri's regularly. Sometimes he did not give concerts. In his last ten years when he stayed in America he did not give any concert. He used to take rest. But I have heard lot of his kutcheries in my times. Since I have heard a lot, I have lot more advantage. Great vidwans like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and GNB had come to my concerts and blessed me. It was a great opportunity for me. I am very fortunate to have got their blessings.
If you want to learn and play flute well, what are all required?† Is there any age barrier for learning?
Ramani: You can learn it any time. I will give you an example. An aged person had come from Vellore. He must be around 75 years. He learnt Tyagaraja Kriti from me and played in the Tyagaraja utsavam. He does not even have teeth. At this age he learnt it seriously. Hence, there is no age. It is only interest or curiosity that is all required.
How long one needs to be in a gurukulavasam?
Ramani: As for as I am concerned, I am prepared to be with my guru till my life time. There is lot more things to learn. When you feel everything has been learnt, then it will obstruct your learning capacity. Normally you need at least ten years of experience to play well or at least you need a minimum five years. They will have to handle the flute and play in two or three places. Then only you can gain confidence. It also depends upon one's effort. It can also be played well in two years. Small children grasp it quickly. They are able to play well. Some are talented and have interest and natural gift. They have the possibility of playing well within a short span of time.
When did you give your first concert?
Ramani: I gave my concert on November 15, 1942. It was Karthigai Deepam at that time.
Was it a solo?
Ramani: Yes it was. But there was a great percussionist who played for me. It was in a village I played first. Vedaranyam Krishnamurthy played violin for me. Thiruvarur Iyer played mridangam. They were over 60 years of age then.
I was a small boy at that time. There was no mode of communication like even a radio at that time. I am not sure whether photos were taken. There was a colour notice that was distributed to a few people. That notice was preserved by my father. That is all the proof I have. But Veena Pichumani Iyer had been present.
Were you scared at that time?
Ramani: I think you fear only when you have acquired knowledge. At that young age I played because they asked me to play. I had lot of interest, though. It was very difficult to memorize a song in those days. We used to visit kutcheris wherever vidwans like GNB or Chembi vaidyanathar sang. Be it in nearby villages or marriages. It would be difficult even to get a place to sit. We also could not take any notes. I used to hear them. I just had it in my memory. One or two items used to stay in the mind. It was an advantage for me.
Did you learn vocal music or directly practice with flute?
Ramani: First I learnt varnams when I was a young boy from my grandfather. He used to watch me sing it properly. I soon learnt to sing well and came to be familiar with the talas also. I had the responsibility at the same time to do well. When you teach to someone you automatically will correct yourself. When you play you may get away with mistakes but while teaching others you will correct them. So, while teaching how to sing sahityas, you will know where you have made a mistake and correct it. In fact, I used to teach a few vocalists also.