As far as I know, there were three eminent vaiṇikas (musicians who play the vīṇā) in Bangalore. Of them, the seniormost was an Iyengar. If I remember right, his full name was either Rangaswami Iyengar or Krishnaswami Iyengar. His house was on the street leading to Chikka Lalbagh from Balepet – in the locality of Purnaiah’s satra (rest-house).
By the time I met Iyengar he was already quite old. Two or three times a week, there would be a get-together of musicians (Saṅgīta Sādhaka Goṣṭhi) at his house; starting at about eight or eight-thirty in the evening until eleven or eleven-thirty. At the start, Iyengar would take his vīṇā and play a round of rāga improvisation. Taking a cue from that, another musician would sing and the violinist would repeat it with some variations. This would be followed by yet another singer. Then the kirtana (song) would start. In this manner, each and every aspect of the Pallavi (opening line or stanza of a kṛti) or the Caraṇa (last segment of a kṛti) would be taught in four to five rounds. The mṛdaṅga player would follow each round and accompany the musicians. Then they would take a break to give him a chance. He would showcase his prowess during that time. I’m unaware if this methodology is in practice anywhere today. During those practice sessions, I got the opportunity to discover Iyengar’s expertise and mastery over rāgas.
Before I was introduced to him, there are times when I had gone to his house and listened to him play, standing outside the window. After four or five such instances, I was formally introduced to him.
Iyengar would play Veda mantras too on the vīṇā. I remember one such snippet:
On listening to this Ṛgveda mantra played by Iyengar, many people senior to me commended his proficiency.
The second eminent vaiṇika was Rudrapatnam Venkataramaiah. He lived in a small alley close to the Vyāsarāya Maṭha near Chikpet. He too was aged. But when we saw his enthusiasm regarding his subject matter, we never felt that he was so old. While going to his house, we had to make arrangements to sit there for at least an hour. His was a unique display of expertise. He was able to play uncommon and unorthodox svara patterns. One could call his practice regime as Yama-sādhana (painfully rigorous).
Just like in our literary history, even in the history of music, occasionally the display of expertise (pāṇḍitya) gains more importance than emotional expression (rasabhāva). The speciality of a few Sanskrit poets lay merely in showcasing rare words and complicated usages.
varīvarti jarījarti sañjarīharti
Major portions of the poetry of Māgha and Śrīharṣa are just like this. Even in music, there was an era where the mastery of śāstras was highly revered (at the cost of emotional expression). Venkataramaiah too perhaps belonged to that school of thought.
He was equally sincere in teaching students as he was with his adherence to the śāstras. All in all, a life of poverty, but not of limitation.
Vīṇā Gopala Rao
Gopala Rao was the third vaiṇika. He was addressed as Vīṇā Gopala Rao. He was free from arrogance. He was skilled at recognizing (musical) talent. Whenever he came across anyone singing or playing an instrument, he would grasp the beautiful nuances of the music and openly express his joy.
His vīṇā-playing was mellifluous and smooth. He would effortlessly bring out lovely emotions on his vīṇā.
Gopala Rao’s grandfather was Holakal Narasimhaiah. He was one of the earliest to establish a printing press in Bangalore. The compositors at his printing block factory were vaidikas (scholars well-versed in the Vedas).
They would arrange the letter blocks between eight in the morning and noon; go home to finish their bath, daily rituals, and lunch; and finally return to the factory at four in the afternoon for one or two hours of work. The content of the books for which they were arranging the letters was committed to their memory, so the vaidikas didn’t need to have a written copy in front of them! Stotras (poems of praise) such as Viṣṇusahasranāma, Ādityahṛdayam, Indrākṣi, Śivakavaca, Navagrahastotras, Śivamahimna and poetical works such as Govina Kathe, Vibhīṣaṇabuddhi, Jaiminī Bhārata, Gadagina Bhārata (Kumāravyāsa’s poetical rendition of the Mahābhārata) were books that had great demand in the market.
Since the vaidikas knew these books from memory, all they had to do was to recite the words and arrange the blocks. There was hardly any scope for error. In this way, Holakal Narasimhaiah’s publications became renowned for being flawless. Those who went to the book shops would insist, “Give me Holakal Narasimhaiah’s copy!” The Kannada alphabets of those days resembled the Telugu alphabets with thorn-like strokes over the letters.
The bookstore existed even during Vīṇā Gopala Rao’s time. Ramayya, Gopala Rao’s father, looked after the shop.
Gopala Rao did not have much contact with the shop. He was a revered teacher at four or six houses.
He was civilized in his conduct, highly respected. He was held in high esteem by those who knew him; not just that, their bond with him was filled with friendship and trust.
Gopala Rao’s music was comforting and meditative.
Tayappa was renowned for playing the violin. His father Virabhadraiah too was a well-known violinist.
After some time, Tayappa became famous for singing as well.
One day, with a view to partake of some coffee, N Narasimha Murthy (Librarian at the Mysore University) and I had been to the Modern Hindu Restaurant, housed in Ahmed Building, Chickpet. As we exited and turned towards the west, we saw a canopy in front of a house and the assembly of a number of people. When Murthy enquired what was happening, we learnt that it was a wedding ceremony and that they had organized Tayappa’s concert for the evening.
“Can we also come?”
“You are most welcome, sir!”
We went back to the restaurant and filled our stomachs. We informed our respective homes that we would be returning late, passed time around the locality, went to the wedding house by half past eight, and sat down. It looked like the house of a trader, perhaps from the vīraśaiva community. By the time the audience had gathered and the concert started, it was half past nine. On that day, Tayappa was in an elevated mood. What I felt special about the concert was his rendition of the Tyagaraja kṛti in Gaulipantu rāga –
tirupati veṅkaṭa ramaṇa matsaramanu
It was late evening and the appropriate time for Gaulipantu rāga. For about ten minutes, my mind was absorbed in the singing. I was oblivious to the outside world. On that day, the accompanying instrumentalists too were equally good. Subsequently, I have requested many eminent vocalists to sing this song and have relished it. I have heard Tayappa himself sing this song. On that day, Tayappa’s state of mind, purity of voice, cooperation from the accompanists – perhaps combined with the timing of the concert – made it a special moment.
Tayappa’s house was situated in Gudumayyanapet, as per my memory. Every Friday he organized bhajans at his place. Lot of people would gather. For six to eight months, Murthy and I went for the bhajans on Fridays. That was a festival in my life.
Tayappa was a gentleman, genuine and generous.
Puttappa was affectionately called as Puttu. It appears that he was slightly younger than Tayappa. But both were equally good in all matters. They had the same level of expertise on their instruments; similar level of musical knowledge. Both would perform together. They were close friends.
When the Karnataka Sahitya Parishad was started, scholars from various parts had arrived in Bangalore. A small get-together was organised to honour them at the Central College hostel premises. The warden during that time, Prof. B Venkateshacharya helped in a multitude of ways.
In this get-together, after snacks, Puttappa’s vocal concert took place. The audience enjoyed the concert and appreciated the musicians. H V Nanjundiah whispered in my ear that the music was excellent. People from Dharwad and Mysore in the audience said, “We never knew that such wonderful music existed!”
Puttappa was extremely simple. A good-natured man and a pleasant friend.
This is the seventeenth essay in D V Gundappa’s magnum-opus Jnapakachitrashaale (Volume 2) – Kalopasakaru. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh and Karthik Muralidharan for their review. Edited by Hari Ravikumar.