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Guru Padmabhushan
Lalgudi Sri Jayaraman


Update: April 22, 2013: The demise of my Guru is an irreplaceable loss to the world of music and a tremendous personal loss to me. His music touched the hearts of his innumerable fans from all across the world. I will forever feel blessed to have had the good fortune of being his disciple and spending countless hours learning music from Sri Lalgudi mama from the age of 12....his genius, soul stirring music, innovative compositions, amazing knowledge and ability to articulate will always remain a source of inspiration.

Vidya and other students of Sri Lalgudi Jayaraman share some insights on their Guru on the occasion of his 80th birthday celebration (Sep 2011)

Video courtesy: S B Kaanthan, Swathi Sanskriti Series

My association with Lalgudi mama began back in 1992, when, as a child, I was fortunate to be selected by him for a short term teaching project. His relentless pursuit of perfection, open minded and scientific approach, articulate teaching style as well as his passion and creativity inspired me in a way I had never imagined possible.

With the guidance of our family friend and another mentor, Mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman, I was accepted by Lalgudi mama as a student for vocal music in 1993. Mama’s classes were always challenging, intense and full of brainwork. I honestly believe that I am indebted to Lalgudi mama not only for his guidance in my musical endeavors, but also his role in shaping my general intellect, which has stood me in good stead through out my academic and professional life.

I belong to a family of ardent music lovers and amateur musicians, but none of my immediate relatives is a performing musician. To learn from a doyen like Lalgudi mama was a dream come true and a unique experience in many ways.

In this short essay, I have attempted to list some of the unique aspects of Lalgudi mama’s teaching style that continue to shape my growth as a musician and performer. This list, by no means, is complete but is merely attempt to illustrate some key aspects of the Lalgudi style.

Scientific approach

Exemplary communication and comprehension

Emphasis on development of swara gnana and tala mastery

Attention to detail without sacrificing the big picture

Lalgudi mama never takes anything for granted. The musicologist in him always looks at every minute aspect with a magnifying glass to understand and appreciate nuances. Sangatis would be systematically laid down keeping in mind aspects such as the spirit of the composition, mood of the composer, raga lakshana and lyrical beauty.

As a Guru, Lalgudi mama communicates musical nuances to his students in a lucid and clear manner. When he teaches a song, he communicates to the student various details about the song, as well as its melodic and rhythmic aspects. I have attempted, in my own small way, to incorporate this in my live classes as well as recorded lessons. Here are a couple of illustrations with respect to gamakams.

a. Lathangi and Kalyani both have the same swarams in the scales except for the Dhaivatam (Lathangi has the lower Suddha Dhaivatham-D1 and Kalyani has the higher Chatusruti Dhaivatam-D2). But a raga alapana (exposition) of Lathangi differs from a Kalyani alapana substantially. If we hear a good alapana of Lathangi, the Chatusruti Rishabham (R2) is, more often than not, rendered flat i.e. devoid of gamakams. The same Chatusruti Rishabham (R2) in Kalyani has much more scope for gamakams. Lalgudi mama, in his inimitable style, drew my attention to such aspects. This is something a student may possibly discover on her own, but only after several years of self study. To hand this over to a young student in a platter is a boon in today’s fast paced world where time is at a premium.

b. Kambhoji does not have the Kaisiki Nishadham (N2) in its arohanam. This is one of the key differentiators between Harikambhoji and Kambhoji. The absence of N2 in Kambhoji’s arohanam makes the Chatusruti Dhaivatam (D2) a powerful note, with ample scope for exploration (eg., M G P D ….S – here the gamakam to D2 is an essential factor in bringing out Kambhoji’s beauty). In Harikambhoji, on the other hand, the presence of N2 caps or limits the potential of D2. N2 being an adjacent swaram and close to D2 in frequency makes D2 in Harikambhoji a plainer and straighter note compared to D2 in Kambhoji. On the other hand, N2 in the arohanam of Harikambhoji, takes on the role of the dominant note with ample scope for gamakams in the arohanam (eg., G M P D N….S – here the gamakam to N2 is crucial to bringing out Harikamhoji’s innate beauty).

 It is not easy for a student of vocal music to develop her swara gnana. In fact, this is a much neglected aspect. Arming a student with the ability to decompose a phrase into the underlying notes is similar to breaking down a word problem into a mathematical equation. Once I was able to grasp the underlying swarams, I could test to see if the swarams fit into the context. A student with swara gnana is well equipped to self learn and improvise. This skill can be developed in ways such as encouraging students to write and follow notations, giving akaram exercises and by quizzing students on underlying swarams when they hear a raga or kriti exposition. The other side of the same coin is the emphasis on tala or rhythmic exercises. Here again, Lalgudi mama would stress on “sugar coating rhythm with melody”.

This point was emphasized in no small measure by business school professors when I did my MBA. It never ceases to amaze me how Lalgudi mama’s systematic approach to the teaching and study of music has had relevance in my academic pursuits when I did the challenging CA/MBA/CFA programs. Studying the details of a kriti, say Chakkani Raja in Kharahapriya alongwith the systematic progress of sangatis, greatly aids a student’s comprehension of the ragam’s beauty. This was similar to the way I had to study specific cases on various aspects of Income Tax law for my CA exam in order to apply my theoretical understanding of Tax law to practical situations. When mama sings an alapana, he explicitly points out key phrases and prayogas that bring out the raga swaroopa. He also points out prayogas that help distinguish a raga from its close cousins. For example, Arabhi and Saama are very close when it comes to their scale (arohanam / avarohanam). Then, how is it that their swaroopams are so different? One of the chief differentiators between the two ragams is the handling of the antara gandhara (G3). G3 in Saama is a bold note capable of standing on its feet without assistance. It is often prolonged to bring out the “Saama effect” (eg., M G G , R). The same G3 in Arabhi is a chaya swara or shadow note, much weaker in scope. It typically leans onto the Madhyamam (eg., D P M G R – here G is typically sung with M as anuswara or supporting note).

I could go on and on about my Guru, my experiences as his student and my attempts to imbibe his ideas in my concerts, classes and lec dems. But in the interest of brevity and conciseness, I shall stop my essay here with a verse that I believe my Guru exemplifies:

[I offer my respectful obeisances unto my spiritual master, who with the torchlight of knowledge has opened my eyes, which were blinded by the darkness of ignorance.]

om ajnana-timirandhasya jnananjana-salakaya
caksur unmilitam yena tasmai sri-gurave namah

- By Vidya Subramanian

Vidya (right), with her Guru and his wife, Smt. Rajalakshmi...

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