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My anna and his violin

Lalgudi Jayaraman, for many India's greatest living violinist, has just turned 70. His sister Rajalakshmi talks about their childhood, his uncompromising quest for perfection and his love of steamed beans

When he was two, he held a pair of drumsticks like a maestro holding a violin. At twelve, he performed on stage, and was hailed as a prodigy. Today, Padmashri Lalgudi G Jayaraman is revered as one of the greatest musicians Karnatak music has ever produced.

"Nobody can play Nadaloludai better than my brother. It's a masterpiece that moves me to tears every time I hear him play it", exclaims Lalgudi R Rajalakshmi, violinist and Jayaraman's sister.

For Rajalakshmi, anna (as she fondly calls him) is "god", and to be born his sister, a true blessing. "He is my guru, guide and philosopher. And I'm very proud to be his sister", she proclaims.

Rajalakshmi remembers him as a boy -- head tonsured but for a neat little tuft, studs in his ears and a string of beads around his neck -- learning under their guru and father, Lalgudi V R Gopala Iyer.

"Even as a boy, he was extremely creative and hard-working. He'd practice for hours and constantly improvise on the pieces appa taught him. His intellectual and contemplative approach started early in life."

She recollects their gruelling practice sessions. "My father ran the house like a gurukula. None of us went to school because he felt that music had to be our 24-hour pre-occupation. So we took private tuitions at home and spent the rest of the day either playing the violin, singing, composing, or listening to Karnatak music."

Lalgudi's first performance was at 12, alongside their father. After that, he went on to play for veterans like Madurai Mani, Madurai Somasundaram, the Alathur brothers, G N Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Mudikondan Venkata Rama Iyer, to name a few. He also started performing solo.

Rajalakshmi learnt concert ethics from her brother. "He never outplays the vocalist. He's always maintained that the accompanying artiste should help enhance the vocalist's performance, and not outdo him. For him, a concert is a team effort and not a one man show." She believes that she's imbibed from her brother a sense of discipline, an adherence to tradition, and to lakshyam and lakshanam (aesthetics and grammar). She also believes she refined her Lalgudi bani (style) after training under him. "Let's not forget that he is the foremost exponent of the Lalgudi school today", she adds.

So what does the Lalgudi school mean?

"It emphasises precise fingering techniques and gamakas", Rajalakshmi says."When my brother plays ri in raga Sahana, he expresses the entire raga in that one note. That's sheer technical wizardry. You have to hear him play to understand what I'm saying", the proud sister says.

Another speciality of this school, Rajalakshmi adds, is the bowing technique. It is never harsh. In fact it is so light that if you don't watch Lalgudi play, you'd think he weren't using the bow at all. This in turn makes the transition from one note to another very smooth. All these bring the Lalgudi style of playing the violin closest to the human voice, she says.

Her personal favourites are Nadaloludai and "any song he plays in Sahana or Bhairavi." She believes that his tillanas, and his kalpana swaras after the pallavi, are peerless. "You will never find any cheap sangatis in anna's recitals. He will never play to the gallery", she says in support of her brother's refined musical sensibility.

Lalgudi's own favourites are Mokshamugalada in raga Saramathi, and, yes, Nadaloludai. "He's a staunch classicist, but he occasionally enjoys listening to light music, bhajans, and ghazals. He also loves playing chess and solving puzzles," Rajalakshmi adds.

Lalgudi's an avid nature lover, says her husband Radhakrishnan, who has retired from a defence job. "He can convert any imagery, whether visual or auditory, into music. I've personally been witness to the many krithis he's composed during our morning walks together", he recalls.

This violinist is also a committed vocalist, judging by the number of students he's trained. Some of them like Bombay Jayshree, Vittala Ramamurthy, Pakkala Ramdas, and S P Ramh are regulars on the concert circuit. "Anna feels very strongly about training the younger generation", Rajalakshmi says.

Lalgudi has also composed music for ballets like Jayajaya Devi and Panchali Shapatham. He's also composed 13 varnams, five padavarnams, eight kirtanas, and more than 30 tillanas. His thilanna in raga Mohana Kalyani is outstanding and extremely popular, she adds.

Lalgudi is a stickler for health. He avoids oily food and devours green vegetables and fruits. "His favourite is beans steamed", the doting sister reminisces.

"At a Ramanavami concert in Malleswaram, Bangalore, Anna and I played on the same stage. After our concert, a rasika praised us saying, 'I think everyone in the Lalgudi family was born with a violin.' To that my brother quipped, 'You forgot the bow'. He's a very lively and jovial person," Rajalakshmi says.

When the Bangalore Gayana Samaja felicitated Rajalakshmi last year as artiste of the year, they had a surprise waiting for her. "Imagine my shock and then elation when I saw Anna coming up to felicitate me. This is one incident I'll never forget".

She also admits that she's petrified of playing in front of him. "So whenever I play in Chennai, he comes to the concert hall without my knowledge."

"There are only three ways to be a musician: you either have it in your blood, or you're a prodigy, or you attain that status through rigorous practice. My brother has scored on all three counts. No wonder he's such a great musician", Rajalakshmi says.

Addressing a music conference at Bangalore Gayana Samaja in October 1997, Lalgudi said, "An artiste is never born. He is ordained." Wilburn Wilson was right, "It's a little bit the fiddle. But lots more who holds the bow."

Lalgudi Jayaraman turned 70 on 17 September.

Priya Krishnamoorthy

Photographs: M Sreedhara Murthy

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