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Photo by K G Somashekhar

Namaskara to the Agra master

Pandit Ramarao Naik, disciple of Ustad Faiyaz Khan, was an uncompromising exponent of the aggressive Agra gharana. He lived in old-worldly grace, singing and teaching in Bangalore. It is a year since the 'musician's musician' died, and well-known vocalists of various gharanas are singing at a memorial concert

Pandit Rama Rao Naik sang thumris on a Sunday last year, but refused to end it with the customary Bhairavi. His reluctance to sing the concluding raga surprised his disciples, who knew him as a stickler for such conventions. He died about a week after the concert.

Perhaps the guru didn't relish the idea of singing a concluding piece with all its metaphorical finality: he had been battling ill health, and had just recovered from a mild paralytic stroke.

Ramarao was 90 when he died. His disciples used to invite him to sing at their homes every couple of months so that they could record at least some of his precious music. The recording labels had ignored him, and but for his disciples' love, his art might have remained undocumented. Music lovers must thank his disciples, especially Sumati, for ensuring that he lives on in his recordings.

During the interval at a concert, he was asked if he wanted anything to drink. "I am not the drinking type," he said quickly, laughing at everyone around. He loved to joke and laugh, and that he did till the very end.

How did this non-drinking, vegetarian Madhwa brahmin, living in southern Mysore, develop such a fascination for north Indian music? How did this dimunitive man master the robust Agra style?

Ramarao's father, a self-taught violinist, hailed from Neeralgi in Dharwad district. Sometime in the 1920s, he moved to Mysore and became a clerk in the maharaja's army. There the young Rama Rao happened to hear Hindustani music, thanks to the tastes of the Rajput, Maratha and Muslim soldiers. He spent long hours listening to gramophone records when other boys his age were mugging up their lessons in school.

Venkaji Rao learnt about his son's love of music, and found a teacher for him in B H Srinivasa Rao. Rama Rao learnt Karnatak music from him, and became a teacher himself. He charged Rs 5 a month. In 1993, when I met him at his house in Bangalore's brahmin-dominated Chamarajpet, he said, "Purandaradasa's songs bring the Lord before your very eyes. Many of his compositions should be sung only in the grand Karnatak ragas."

Theatre beckoned him too. For some time, Ramarao played the role of the thief in Sadarame, produced by the famous Gubbi Drama Company. When the company closed down, Rama Rao arrived in Bangalore looking for a job. He found one as a daily-wage worker at Binny Mills.

Around this time he started learning Hindustani music from Govind Vittal Bhave. Swami Vallabhdas, a prominent disciple of Ustad Faiyaz Khan, visited Mysore in 1930. Ramarao accompanied him on the harmonium, an instrument he had taught himself. Swami Vallabhdas invited him to Baroda to learn under his guru.

Faiyaz Khan was the court musician at Baroda. The master of the Agra gharana was a star attraction everywhere, and had little patience to teach. But he allowed his disciples to sit with him on the concert stage and sing along. Ramarao caught his attention, and was soon accompanying him on the tanpura and the harmonium.

Faiyaz Khan's brother-in-law Ata Hussain Khan and Swami Vallabhdas took Ramarao under their wings and taught him the complex Agra style. He spent 10 years in that city, eating fruits, and the pulses his guru got cooked in a separate kitchen.

Many critics say Ramarao was the most faithful exponent of the aggressive Agra style. In Bangalore he taught several students. Mohan Nadkarni, the well-known music critic, feels he was not known widely in other parts of India as his rituals and fasting did not allow him to travel easily. Ramarao was also caught up in domestic troubles.

Ramarao spoke excellent Kannada and Hindi. He wrote occasionally in Kannada, and composed in Hindi. He had no connection with the market-savvy English-speaking world; he lived in old-worldly grace, chatting, taking joy rides on the pillion of Sumati's TVS Scooty, attending to the concerns of his extended family, singing bhajans at the neighbouring math, and teaching. All his students vouch for his greatness as a teacher, especially his ability to explain abstract musical ideas with clarity and to spark in them a passion for musical exploration.

I was lucky enough to accompany him on the harmonium at several of his chamber concerts. I wanted to visit him often, listen to him talk and sing, and learn. That I couldn't do, and I miss him deeply. He spoke to acquaintances like me with warmth, and many times I was stunned by the extent of his courtesy and humility.

The Karnataka Government honoured him, so did the Central Sangeet Natak Academy. He also received the Tansen Samman, an honour that gave him great satisfaction. The money came in useful, considering he had no fixed source of income. He had turned down the state government's offer of a Rs 100 monthly pension.

Ramarao's disciples are putting together a concert series in his memory on February 19 and 20. They plan to bring out a souvenir as well. Malhar Utsav and Kalyan Utsav, their earlier presentations, were well planned. Some time ago, The Music Magazine wrote about a concert in honour of another veteran musician of Bangalore, D S Garud. Many of Ramarao's students were actively involved in that presentation too. They researched and rehearsed for months before the concerts.

The Ramarao Naik memorial concert features his disciples Sudhindra Bhaumik and Meera Savoor on the first day. They will be accompanied by a chorus comprising his younger disciples. They plan a panoramic view of Hindustani music, featuring genres like the dhrupad, dhamar, sadra, khayal, thumri, tappa, dadra, kajri, chaiti, bhajan and the tarana.

On the second day, Pandit Panchakshari Mattighatti (Jaipur), Pandit Balasahab Poochwale (Gwalior) and Gangubai Hanagal (Kirana) will present the music of their respective gharanas. Pandit Yeshwantbua Joshi and Pandit Dinkar Kaikini sing at the concluding session.

The organisers say the celebrity musicians have waived their concert fees and agreed to sing out of love for the master. "We are just paying them their air fare, and a very small honorarium," says Sumati. But raising funds, she adds, has not been easy.

The venue is Ravindra Kalakshetra, Bangalore. If you would like more information, you could contact Smrithi, the commemorative committee, at 26, Vani Vilas Road, Basavanagudi, Bangalore 560 004. Call (091 80) 661 8327 or 344 0080.

S R Ramakrishna

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