The Violinists of Mulbagal

Among the violinists from Mulbagal (Kolar district, Karnataka), four are prominent:

 

  1. Madhavayya
  2. Ramachandracharya
  3. Venkatappa
  4. Sethumadhava Rao

Among these, Madhavayya was the best when it comes to his command over the instrument and proficiency in the Ragas. But Sethumadhava Rao was the most senior in terms age and experience. Hence, I shall commence by narrating about him first.

Sethumadhava Rao

Sethumadhava Rao belonged to the Vaiṣṇava Deśastha Brahmin community. People spoke about his ancestors being affluent. Sethumadhava Rao was a serene and content person. By the time I had seen him, he was an elderly man whose age had crossed seventy. He had already lost his wife and sons. Hence, his boarding happened at a far of relative’s house and lodging elsewhere. He spent his time in the practice of violin, zestful chit chat and playing cards. Occasionally he would visit Narasiṃha-tīrtha to get some Pūjā offered to deity. Every evening he would visit the Prāṇa-deva (Hanūmān) temple. In his last days, people addressed him as Sethumadhava Dasa. Overall, a jovial being.

In the period of Jyeṣṭha-māsa (falling in the month of May/June), the Rathotsava (chariot car procession) of the Śrīpādarāja-svāmī takes place in Narasiṃha-tīrtha. Sixty years ago,[1] eight to ten thousand people used to gather.

Śrīpādarāja-svāmī was a scholar par excellence. He is among the pioneers in the field of Music and Literature in Karnataka. The Vṛndāvana atop his Samādhi is very large and a sight to behold. There is a roofed corridor surrounding it which offers comfort to people performing Pradakṣiṇā[2]. Apart from this, the presence of Yogā-narasimha Temple, Āñjaneya Temple, Vyāsa-rāya’s study centre, the Samādhis of the other departed Svāmījīs, a huge Puṣkaraṇī by name Narasiṃha-tīrtha – all these have made the spot fascinating for devotees. As per custom, the day after Śrīpādarāja-svāmī’s rathotsava, pallakkī-utsava takes place. On that day, the Svāmī’s Vṛndāvana would be placed on the pallakī, and the procession would be carried with trumpet music through the main streets of Mulbagal and then brought to the Śrīpādarāja-Maṭha in the centre of the town where Maṅgalārati and Prasāda are offered, and then the procession would leave back to Narasiṃha-tīrtha. Sethumadhava Rao would be a part of the procession.

The procession arrangement was as such: The Meḻa[3] would lead. This was followed by the troupe of Haridāsas. They would sing devotional songs. Then the Mādhva Brahmins group. Then the pallakī carrying the Vṛndāvana. The rest would follow.

The leader of the bhajan group was Accappa-dāsa. His remarkable personality deserves a separate narration by itself.  He too treated Sethumadhava Rao with respect and admiration.

The procession would stop at two to three places, take a break for five to ten minutes and then proceed. As the sit-out in front of our house was vast and was cool due to the shadow, it was a usual practice that the procession would stop there for some time. The bhajan troupe would sit on the platforms. Sethumadhava Rao would take his violin and play for some time. Everyone would appreciate the playing. But after playing for five to ten minutes, Rao would turn towards the people and exclaim, “How long can I play? If only I had the physical strength? I have become old! “. A few people there would comment “Yes, Yes. What a pity. During the youth, those muscles would have laboured a lot”. Some would laugh furtively.  Rao was not averse to these comments.

Sethumadhava Rao had composed a few devotional kīrtanās. Among them the one that I have heard:

 

Śpādarāyara- smaraṇeya māḍalu

Pāpagaḻellavū- parihāravo raṅga ||

 

Rao would sing this with utmost devotion. It was in Behāg-rāga, if I remember correctly. After a few minutes post Rao’s singing, a person who was familiar with him would ask, “You have found out a very good idea- to wash away your sins. What was there until now has been eliminated. From now on the counting starts afresh, right? “. Rao would respond with resentment on his face, “Yes, you...bast***ds”. Still there used to be smile on his lips. Few other miscreants would sing

Strīpādarāyara….

to poke fun. This would further infuriate Rao. But there was no rage or hatred in him. The very next moment, everyone would laugh.

The impression that has been left behind in my mind overall is of a Rasika devotee. Rao’s good deeds and sins would be a private affair between him and the divinity he believed in. But for the rest, Rao’s simplicity, the expression in his music, his generosity was always there to be seen and experienced.

Madhavayya

He belonged to the clan of Naṭuvaṅgas[4]. He earned his bread through agriculture. He owned a piece of land and practiced farming.

He had two daughters: Gaurī, Padmāsāni. Both used to sing magnificently. Occasionally, their concerts would happen at events such as weddings conducted by the wealthy families.

Aspirants seeking to learn violin from Madhavayya would come from other places. Among them, I can quote two names. First was Puttaswamy. He was the brother of renowned singer Nāgaratnamma from Kolar. Their mother Nanjuṇḍasāni was a very well-known singer and danseuse. She showcased her expertise at large conventions organized in Bengaluru and Madras and had won awards. Puttaswamy was well known in Bengaluru. He had displayed his talent and skill at Advocate D. Raghavacharya’s house and other places and had earned appreciation. He expired in his middle age.

Another disciple of Madhavayya was Ranganatha Rao. He was a Brahmin. He resided in our house and partook meals. There is one incident related to him that I must narrate. Occasionally, he would talk to my grandfather expressing his dissatisfaction about his Guru, that he was not given respect by him. One day my grandfather saw Madhavayya asked him in an accusative tone (in Telugu): “What is this, Madhava? Have you become overly proud? You are disrespecting Brahmins?”

Madhavayya’s house was very close to our house. Hence, my grandfather had a familiar association. Apart from that, my grandfather had the habit of speaking in an overbearing demeanor due to him bossing around the town. Everyone had accepted his conduct as such.

Madhavayya on hearing the above objection did not show anger. He replied with humility, saying:

“Will I ever disrespect any Brahmin, sir? Would that happen any time? You have known me since childhood. I had sought his help in farming and just asked him, ’While tilling the land, the bullocks will get tired, so please push the wheel a bit ‘. If that was wrong, I shall fall at your feet right now”.

My grandfather understood the situation. He asked Ranganatha Rao,” Shouldn’t you take care of your teachers? Does (music) knowledge come free of cost?  He is a scholar. What Gurudakṣiṇā have you paid him? If asked to do some small chores, you should gladly oblige.”

Another day, a more bitter incident happened. While having dinner, Ranganatha Rao, with a morose face said, “Madhavayya hit me”. My grandfather responded, “All right, let us enquire. You have your lunch in peace”. That evening when Madhavayya was passing by on that street, my grandfather asked him in an enraged tone, “What is this? You are hitting (students), is it? When did you start this lesson?” Madhavayya replied like this:

“Sir, I have been teaching him a kīrtanā from many days. It is a very beautiful composition of Tyāgarājā. It is in kāmbojī raga like this:

O-O-O-raṅgaśāyī

eni pilacite rā-rā-rā ||

In this, O and should not come in segments. Music should not be split into pieces; it should come in an unbroken flow. In this kīrtanā, we should feel the experience of placing the Lord in the cradle and gently push it. The O-O-O and rā-rā-rā should come as if to match the forward and backward movement of the cradle. The letter pronunciation should come like a wave, one continuously following the next without a break. How many ever times I tell this fellow, he sings by breaking without singing the letters in a contiguous fashion. He does not pay attention to my words. Will the kīrtanā become a gīte if split and sung? He does not have focus on the lessons. I got angry and, in that rage, I poked him with the bow of the violin. (Pointing at me) He was there at that time. You can ask him, did I hit, how much was he hurt, tell me”.

My grandfather understood. He said to Ranganatha Rao, “You cannot receive music lessons here. You have greatly disappointed your tutor. That is not the right attribute of a student.  If you want music lessons, go elsewhere “. I do not know what Ranganatha Rao did after that. I wouldn’t have remembered him if the above chain of incidents hadn’t occurred.

Madhavayya was a very good person. Decent; soft-hearted. In his performance, the Rāgas would be filled with emotion and would flow like an unimpeded river. I was blessed by destiny with opportunity to listen to the performance of many eminent violinists. I have experienced the exalting play of Thirukkotikaval Krishna Iyer three to four times. I have also listened to the performance of Govindaswamy Pillai. I feel that if Madhavayya had tread out of the unknown Mulbagal and journeyed toward Madras (erstwhile name of Chennai), Thanjavur, he would have become renowned. His talent lacked opportunity to grow further. But he never felt disappointed that he couldn’t become famous. He did not even know what fame meant. Teaching others, what he was taught, to the best possible extent; performing to the best possible extent on the task that was at hand – this was his only priority.

Ramachandracharya

Around 1906, I paid a visit to the Headmaster, K.A. Krishnaswamy Iyer’s house to meet him. He was a renowned scholar in English literature. He has written an authoritative book called ’The Science of Reality’ about Vedānta. He was a music aficionado too. When he saw me, he asked

K: “Where do you belong to?”

Me: Mulbagal

K: “Great! That is the place where my childhood friend resides. Do you know Purohit Ramachandracharya who lives there?”

Me: “I know him very well. He is one among my father’s close friends.”

K: “What is he doing now?”

Me: “He is a music teacher in the Girls’ School”

K: “We both learnt violin together. His hand is more flexible than mine. He has pursued the same (violin practice) as a profession, as a music teacher. My effort has got blunted.

This introduces Ramachandracharya. His brother was Purohita Krishnacharya. He was a Mādhva Purohit.

Sometimes Ramchandracharya and Madhavayya used to perform together. Madhavayya was a professional. Ramachandracharya learnt violin for joy. Even then his performance used to be filled with Rasa. There used to be a competition between them in playing kalpanā-svaras. The appreciation was mutual.

Ramachandracharya was a staunch Mādhvā by birth. But he was liberal by personal choice. Every Saturday night his dinner would be at our house. Reason being the onion Sāmbār. During the avare-kāi season, he probably partook meals almost daily at our house. On Ekādaśi day, his Phalāhāra was at our house. My grandfather jokingly even told him, “Smārthas too have some utility occasionally, isn’t it?

Ramachandracharya was a good man. He used to teach literature too. When he sat on the chair, he placed his right leg on his left leg and would shake both legs vigorously. I too am one among his disciples. I had once mischievously said,: “Now the svara practice has started from the feet:”  and was beaten up.

Venkatappa

He was from the performance troupe. He was known as Mahaḍi Venkatappa’. His house was the only one town with an upper storey (Mahaḍi = storey in Kannada). He was well settled. People came primarily from places such Palamaner, Madanapalle, Punganur to learn music. He offered boarding facility for students from his community who approached for studying.

His profession had three dimensions: (1) playing meḻa or Shehnai (2) playing Violin (3) Hair dressing.

He was not much into hairdressing. He attended only three to four known houses to offer his services (That too in left hand).

His house was behind ours. There was only one street separating his house from ours. As a result, we felt as though the music lessons that took place at his house used to happen at our house.

The music lessons would start early in the morning at around half past four or five. I would generally be woken up by the saraḻe-varase jaṇṭi-varase lessons.

Sasa riri gaga mama….

   Sariga rigama gamapa…

After this, the Alaṅkārās, Piḻḻāri songs, Varṇa, etc. In this way, I was introduced to numerous music lessons through my ears.

Venkatappa had a regular occupation at the Ś Āñjaneya-Svāmī temple. He was a devotee too. One pontiff of some Maṭha had appreciated his Nāda-svara talent and had gifted him one Nāda-svara made of silver. He carried around that instrument with pride. But he would still play with his old wooden instrument itself. When asked why, he replied, “Sir, it’s lacking in the purity of svara. No smoothness. What more can you expect if a silversmith entered the field of music instruments”.

He did not play the violin as frequently as the Nāda-svara. Not even as frequently as Madhavayya and Ramachandracharya. But he would play at least four times a month for the enjoyment of his friends. A gifted hand. Due to Nāda-svara performance, his focus was more on extension of Rāga. Even today, if I get to know that there is a Nāda-svara performance and violin performance such as his, I am ready to walk even four to five miles to listen to it.

After describing so much, this is a last note. Several years after Sethumadhava Rao, Madhavayya, Ramachandracharya and Venkatappa had departed from this life, I visited Mulbagal once. I enquired about Mahaḍi Venkatappa’s kin. Some people came stating they were his close ones and relatives. “Venkatappa’s Nāda-svara performance, Venkatappa’s violin performance – have you people continued or retained at least a bit of it (as your profession)?” I asked. They said –

“Sir, these days who will listen?”

“Why do you say so? There are many wealthy people residing in this town. Marriage and other ceremonies do keep happening?”

“Sir, what they prefer is (western style) band – the brass drum beats. If we do not adapt to it, we cannot survive. Nowadays what people need is noise, not melody.”

Our modern generation verily deserves this misfortune/fate.

This is the English translation of the fourth essay in D V Gundappa’s magnum-opus Jnapakachitrashaale (Volume 2) – Kalopasakaru. Edited by G S Raghavendra.

Footnotes

[1] Counted from the time of writing

[2] Circumambulation

[3] Musical troupe who perform at festive occasions with Nāda-svara and Drums

[4] Beat percussionists for Bharatanatyam

Author(s)

About:

Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.

Translator(s)

About:

Paresh Nadig is a solar energy professional with an MBA in energy management, currently working in Hyderabad. He has a keen interesting in history, philosophy, management, and literature. He also enjoys trekking and watching period films.