Violin maestro Dr N Rajam, daughter Sangeeta Shankar, granddaughters Ragini and Nandini on their three generation-spanning art
With a women-shouldered lineage, the N Rajam school of music (of gayaki ang) continues with her daughter Sangeeta Shankar and granddaughters Nandini and Ragini Shankar.
The first time I heard Dr N Rajam was in the year 2015 in Pune, where she along with her daughter Sangeeta Shankar and granddaughters Ragini and Nandini Shankar, cast a spell on the 500-plus strong crowd that seemed to be mesmerised by the interplay of four different violins. That's when I realised what effect a true musician can have on the listener.
I was sitting in the distant rows and all I could make of Rajam was an elderly lady with her back held straight, completely immersed in creating music. Her daughters and granddaughters, by her side, appeared as her mirror reflections.
When I got the opportunity to meet her in person, I was both ecstatic as well as hugely intimidated, such is her persona. But what actually happened on meeting Rajam and the Shankars could only be called revelation in the truest sense.
Dressed in Madras Cotton, Rajam came in and sat in front of me. Hardly had I composed myself, when she suddenly said, "You have a cute face. What will you have, tea or coffee?" With Sangeeta, Ragini and Nandini around, I suddenly felt I was transported into some other zone, very different to what I had experienced when I had first set my eyes upon the quartet three years ago.
Rajam had a childlike vigour in her eyes and a matured reticence in her speech. It seemed as if I was about to tap into two personalities at the same time — the child protégé self of Rajam back in her days in Ernakulam (where she was born on 16 March 1939); and the highly esteemed musical legend who for her inimitable talent earned the title of 'singing violin' of India. And I wasn't wrong at all.
About her foray into the world of music, Rajam says, "I started learning at the age of three in all seriousness. My father was a violinist and a veena player. He wanted one of his children to pursue Hindustani style of Indian music. I started with Carnatic music at the age of three...I have almost faint memories of those days."
"My father was a strict disciplinarian and right from day one he would begin with rigorous training sessions. It was only violin all around. My father played the violin, so did my brother TN Krishnan. There were very many of my father’s students who used to play the instrument. So, out of limited choice, it was pretty obvious that it will be my instrument too. As time passed, I got better and I also started loving the instrument. By the age of nine, I was a good violin player," she adds.
In Carnatic music, there is no separate style for instruments. Whatever be the instrument – violin, flute or the veena – they all are played in the vocal style. So it is gayaki that is played on all instruments in Carnatic music. But in Hindustani, the styles for vocals and instrumentals vary. "I wanted to incorporate that gayaki style here in Hindustani music (through the violin). That has been my contribution," states Rajam.
Rajam underwent rigorous training in Carnatic classical under her father Vidwan A Narayana Iyer. "Music was everything at my house, no games, no sports, no toys, nothing. So long as I could practice, I never had any other attraction (sic). My father never took us to the cinema or any other recreational outings; he rather disliked the idea," remembers Rajam.
As she turned nine, she started playing in concerts and radio events. She also got a chance to go on a tour with Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi when she was just 13. On being asked whether or not she was intimidated, Rajam quipped, "Right from the beginning, I never knew the word ‘fear’ on-stage. I never got afraid of playing in concerts or shows. It was a wonderful experience. Throughout the tour, I was the accompanying violinist with her. MS was very sweet, almost like a mother to me that time," she continues reminiscing one particular incident about that tour, "In one of the concerts, she sang the Carnatic Bhairavi. In the Carnatic music, after the vocal rendering of the raga, the violinist gets a chance to do a solo piece. So, I had my chance to elaborate the raga. After that, people started calling me Bhairavi Rajam."
But little did that Rajam know that destiny had planned something else for her. At her father's behest, or command rather, Rajam decided to venture into the realm of Hindustani classical music, something that she had no idea about.
"When I was 13-14, I had an opportunity to listen to Pt Omkarnath Thakur ji on a 78 rpm LP. Then, I had no idea what kind of music it was — whether it was Carnatic or Hindustani. I knew nothing about Hindustani classical. But I was so captivated by guruji’s music, I developed a great desire to learn that music, that too only from him," says Rajam.
Making the shift from Carnatic to Hindustani wasn't a huge challenge for her. She explains, "Pt Omkarnath Thakurji was never a violinist; he was very fond of the instrument. So much, that he would keep it as an accompanying instrument in his early performances."
"Since I had already undergone rigorous training in Carnatic classical music under my father, I had the capacity to reproduce any vocal phrase on the violin. I also had a lot of advantage learning Hindustani music after Carnatic music for 15 years. I was already aware of the concepts of improvisation, thinking of one’s own, elaboration of ragas, purity of notes — all of these basic things were already covered."
"My idea of getting trained under Omkarnath ji was not to learn the violin techniques, it was already done. I wanted to understand the Hindustani gayaki ang, he would sing the raga and I would immediately reproduce it on the violin. To bring his essence and his emotional quality in Hindustani phrases, I had to work really hard. He would tell me each phrase, which note needs to be stretched more etc. I had to work for weeks, months for one little phrase before I could get it the way he wanted, the way he sang," she remembers of her student days with Omkarnath Thakur.
And after 15 years of extensive research and training under the tutelage of Omkarnath Thakur, Rajam emerged as a shining beacon of Hindustani classical music. What followed was a wave of fandom, accolades, prizes, honours, titles and of course, worlwide recognition over the years.
However, it was in teaching that Rajam found great peace and pleasure. "Teaching is an art that I am really passionate about," she says.
She has also served as a Professor and Dean in Banaras Hindu University for 40 years. After retiring from BHU, she remained attached to Dr Gangubai Hangal Gurukul in Hubli and currently, she is working with another Gurukul in Pune. She was conferred the Padma Shri in 1984, the Padma Bhushan in 2004 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 2012 among many other awards.
Her only daughter Sangeeta Shankar holds a doctorate degree in music from The Benaras Hindu University. Currently, she is also engaged in imparting voice culture and music training at Whistling Woods International Film Institute. Along with this, she is also working on an educational project titled 'Milaap', aimed at inculcating values, culture and peace amongst humanity in children.
"It was a discipline for me to learn music; it was expected of me to learn and practise violin. There was no choice or option or that I knew what’s happening outside; before I could know what’s happening around, I began playing (the instrument)," she says.
"I used to go with her to all the concerts and everywhere. I must also say that I learnt a lot from all those concerts — the way people would sing, the way the audience would react. I had seen all the positive and negative facets of the world because I was always with her during her establishing years. In the regular world, I was part of every situation as a watcher, which probably made me very mature at a young age," recalls Sangeeta.
Sangeeta always knew her mother was very special and that was reinforced within her by her father. "It is often seen that a child's view of their mother is moulded by how the other members of the family, especially the father treats the mother. My father would always put her on a pedestal and would tell me that there’s no one like her. My father would never allow her to cut vegetables; at her maternal home, too, she would never be allowed to use a knife because that might cut her finger. So that care — for the higher form of an art, and she as a practitioner of that art — was always given to her by her family and the family she got married into."
Like her mother, Sangeeta too embarked upon the journey of classical music at the tender age of three. Reminiscing about her training days under Rajam, she says, "If I didn’t practise, she would get angry. So, sometimes, just in order to keep her happy, I would practise. See what happens in such cases, is that the kid doesn’t even know, by the time he/she is 13, they are reasonably good, and by 15-16 almost 10-11 years have passed. Imagine, putting 3 hours every day for 11-12 years, you definitely become a pro at it."
Sangeeta began performing on stage at the age of 13 along with her mother. Addressing the pros and cons of shouldering a legacy of such high stature, she adds, "It is different being a student of a very good maestro and a son/daughter of that person. What happens is, for a student some minor mistakes are often overlooked and still they get appreciated. People would say, 'Arey isme to iske guru ki jhalak dikhti hai' (The glimpses of the master can be seen in him/her). But for the maestro’s child, it is expected that they have to be as good as their parent, if not anything. So that is a big challenge to live up to. For every performance, I had to be on my toes. Matching up to her is a far-fetched dream, but still, I had to kind of match also, right? People must say, ‘She is a worthy daughter of her mother.’"
"A lineage of such high quality raises standards, sets a benchmark for everybody"
Sangeeta believes that the music that she has learnt should not only be forwarded as received, but also in many other ways. Her biggest contribution to music has been her daughters Nandini and Ragini who have happily taken to music as their passion and profession. Whatever be their academic qualification (Ragini is a Mechanical Engineer; Nandini is a Chartered Accountant) their love for music remains intact.
"When we have such a source of learning at home, it definitely needs to be passed on further. Now, whether they take it professionally or not is up to them. In my case, it was expected that I take music as a profession; my education was also mapped in that way — BA, Masters and further on. I think, it is also a generation thing; the availability of options comes in as a trickle-down effect, " opines Sangeeta
Ragini, the elder of two Shankar siblings, puts, "When we were handed over the violin, we didn’t know the gift that we were getting. Just like our grandmother, our mother, we also started at the age of three, without knowing what we were exactly doing. I think, until the age of 12-13, we were practising just to make them happy. But as we grew up, we started realising the seriousness of what we were doing and that many people in the world were not as gifted. We considered ourselves extremely blessed and we wanted to take it forward, of course along with our studies."
Like Sangeeta, even they had to go through the rite of passage — one of the expectations, perceived notions. But they are also aware that the very standards to which they will be pitted against, are set by their own people; that's a huge relief. "You certainly have to match up to the expectations and are subject to the obvious comparisons; that does become daunting sometimes. At the same time, there is a great sense of comfort that no matter what happens they (mother and grandmother) are with you; they will support you. That’s a great pillar of strength," adds Ragini.
While their mother and grandmother had limited choices, with them the situation was different. They had choices, but they weren't as difficult. For them, music seemed to be a more viable option. Nandini explains, "At the age of 14, we started performing in public. Technically speaking, we did have the choice to pursue something through academics or pursue music as a full-time career. By the time you finish studying, go out in the world and start a job, you realise, at that point in time, you have invested ten years of your life performing and another ten years before that practicing. Whereas, in terms of the job you are starting from level zero. So when you compare the two, it makes a lot of sense preferring music as a profession. Also, you see how different a musician’s life is from people in other professions, so the choice is pretty obvious."
With this women-shouldered lineage, the N Rajam school of music (of gayaki ang) continues. But what makes each of these strong, independent women stand out amid this confluence of music? Sangeeta concludes, "See we all have been taught by her; we perform together. So we all follow the same gayaki, same style, but our personalities get added to our expression. Each of our personalities is different and that is somehow visible in our music too."
Sangeeta Shankar, along with her talented daughters and disciples, Nandini and Ragini Shankar will be performing at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai on 21 April with their band inStrings. The concert will be part of the evening performance series titled Band Baja which will witness a fusion of various musical genres including Indian folk, Western Classical, Indian Classical, Jazz and so on.
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