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On S Rajam's birth centenary, remembering an artist who was as rare as he was gifted

  • S Rajam was truly multifaceted. Dashingly handsome as a youth, he played the lead roles of Rama and Krishna in a few films.

  • He was a respected musician and scholar, with a presence in the Experts Committee of the Music Academy. He was a fine performer and generous teacher.

  • He served in All India Radio as music supervisor and produced interesting programmes, including one based on Silappadhikaram. He also wrote with great clarity of expression.

  • He was an ardent photographer. And he was a remarkable painter.

The world of Carnatic music has its own pecking order. The big stars and organisers control much of what goes on in the performance world; kowtowing to these power centres is very much an expectation and reality. Stories of talented musicians, not able or willing to work the system and for that reason denied opportunities, are well known.

Like any other ecosystem we have the dazzling stars, the mid-level ones aspiring to get on top, the bitter ones, the sulkers, the ever-hopefuls, the fading stars and the rising ones; the star mentors, the opinion makers, the movers and shakers. And, like everywhere else, there are the quiet ones, working away from the glare of publicity, pursuing their art as a calling, teaching, talking and writing about it, attracting a circle of earnest men and women who take away as much from their lives as from their art. The importance of such players cannot be over emphasised: if art is about grace and beauty, it is only here that it remains un-conflicted with the lived life. A life of conviction, courage and love for the art, unmindful of what it brings by way of rewards. They choose not to peck.

S Rajam was one such. “S Rajam was a rare gem and like any precious gem, he was away from the public gaze,” says Dr Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam, Carnatic vocalist and disciple of Rajam. There is something in this — public perception is necessarily limited and unimaginative and under the pressure of such perception and seeking such adulation, it is difficult to retain an inner luminosity and remain true to oneself.

S Rajam was truly multifaceted. Dashingly handsome as a youth, he played the lead roles of Rama and Krishna in a few films. He was a respected musician and scholar, with a presence in the Experts Committee of the Music Academy. He was a fine performer and generous teacher. He served in All India Radio as music supervisor and produced interesting programmes, including one based on Silappadhikaram. He also wrote with great clarity of expression. He was an ardent photographer. And he was a remarkable painter.

 On S Rajams birth centenary, remembering an artist who was as rare as he was gifted

(L) A young S Rajam; (R) Rajam with his disciple, the Carnatic vocalist Dr Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam

His father Sundarama Ayyar, like many Tamil Brahmins of those days who patronised Carnatic music, was a lawyer. He was a respected connoisseur and their house bustled with one or the other musician visiting them, staying with them, performing, or discussing music. Rajam’s initial training was under Sri Ramiah, who later gained fame as Papanasam Sivan. Rajam also learnt from the great Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Muthiah Bhagavatar and Ambi Dikshitar among others. His repertoire was wide but his particular forte was the vivadi ragam. Such ragas were regarded inauspicious — certainly hard to present — since they incorporate a dissonance at their very heart. Rajam disregarded these prejudices and earned admiration for his sensitive handling of these ragas and for popularising the compositions of Sri Koteeshwara Iyer who composed in all the 72 melakarta ragas, 40 of which are vivadi. He mentored a band of serious and committed students, some of whom are well known musicians like Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam, TV Ramprasad, and others.

Perhaps it is in his paintings where his original contribution lies. Given an innate flair for art, he went to an art school; but his life took a turn after a visit to the Ajantha caves. He describes the profound impression that the paintings made on him — he could not touch a brush for months after that. A similar shock set in after a visit to the Sittannavasal caves — the paintings left him in a daze. Disenchanted with Western techniques and methods that are largely the staple of art schools (his own included), and yearning for the poetry, the languid grace and the luminosity of the Ajantha style of painting, he photographed and studied them; he also studied texts such as the Chitra Sutra of the Vishnudharmottara Purana and writings of scholars like Ananda Coomaraswamy, Stella Kramrisch, and C Sivaramamurti. What emerged then was a style rooted in an Indian tradition of painting with the figures and motifs uniquely Indian. The point of painting was not capture reality but rather a worldview, a way of experiencing it, by using symbolism, not realism. It captures bhava or feeling, one’s orientation towards life and the world.

A painting by S Rajam

A painting by S Rajam

Rajam’s preferred medium was water colours on plywood, handmade paper or fabric. He was a serious painter, going to great pains over each painting. Before the actual painting, he spent a few days in contemplation, getting the image clear in his own mind: as Coomaraswamy described the traditional way, the painter has to see the image in his inner eye.

Rajam used a technique of repeated washes of his paintings so that the colour was strong; and when different hues and colours were painted and washed off the same figure, the figure acquired a unique shade, mystifying and beautiful. Painter Keshav describes his wonder at the blue of Rajam’s Rama and wondered what colours were mixed to get that shade. It was not mixing colours but repeated washing of layers of paint.

Though Rajam was a serious and painstaking painter, he seemed to have taken his own ownership of his paintings lightly. Which is why not many know that he is the creator of the well known painting of the Carnatic Trinity and literally thousands of others. He did not care much to rectify that ignorance nor did he seem bothered by the denial of recognition and appreciation.

His birth centenary was marked recently by his disciples, led by Vijayalakshmi Subramaniam, at the Music Academy through a sensitive tribute. Especially remarkable was the dance performance of Navia Natarajan based on his paintings.  Speeches were inevitable. Such speeches are often, like a poor magic trick, turned into self eulogies about how the great man had recognised the speaker’s talent and what words of praise he had showered upon the speaker and such. That day, those who spoke about him and reminisced their association with him, did so with humility and genuine pleasure. The evening’s finale was a concert by sisters Ranjani-Gayatri.

The Chitra Sutra says that one can only be painter if you are also a musician, a dancer and a sculptor. S Rajam was possibly the ideal painter, as envisioned in this ancient text from which he himself drew inspiration for his art.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 09:22:21 IST