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Tribute: The violin falls silent

Last updated on: April 23, 2013 13:31 IST

Tribute: The violin falls silent

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Shobha Warrier in Chennai

It was five years ago that I spent an evening with Lalgudi Jayaraman, but the music still rings in my ears and the images are still fresh in my memory, writes Shobha Warrier

Blessed were those moments that were spent with the legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, D K Pattammal and violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman.

It was magical to listen to Semmangudi humming Carnatic ragas as he lay on his canvas chair with his eyes closed.

It was also magical to sit on the floor along with the students of Pattammal as she sang kirtanas to her students.

And it was heavenly when Lalgudi closed his eyes and played the violin as the photographer clicked pictures.

It was five years ago that I spent an evening with Lalgudi Jayaraman, but the music still rings in my ears and the images are still fresh in my memory.

He was slowly recuperating from a paralytic stroke which separated him from music for two years. He had lost his speech and vision after the stroke. His family played music for him 24 hours a day, and slowly he recovered, and after that, like a beginner, he started practising music, trying to get back all that he had lost for two years.

That was the kind of devotion and tapasya he had for music. "Music is a medicine given by God, and it is this medicine that saved me. I would have died if not for music. Even when I was a young boy, music was like tapasya to me. If you say I have achieved something in music, it is only because of this tapasya."

Violin was his companion "longer than the time" he could remember. The first lessons on violin and vaypaattu were from his father VR Gopala Iyer but he never tried to copy him. From a very young age, he showed his individuality and signature in the way he played the violin and it was appreciated by all.

"So, more chances came my way in violin. Many people wanted me to play the violin, and that was how I became a violin player," he said.

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Image: A photograph from the early 1960s, of Lalgudi Jayaraman giving a solo concert


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It was when he was just 12 that he first played the violin as an accompaniment at a concert. Soon he made a name for himself as one of the most-sought-after violinists by noted Carnatic musicians. He said that was because whenever he played for an artist, he merged with him and never tried to make his violin stand out in any of the concerts.

As a boy, he used to listen to the radio all the time. "I still remember listening to the shehnai of Bismilla Khan and nadaswaram of Rajaratnam Pillai and getting fascinated by both. And I wanted somehow to play the violin like they did the shehnai and nadaswaram. I tried, tried and tried, and finally I could play like them."

The biggest moment in his life was playing violin for Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, and that too at the tender age of 16 or 17. But he said he was not tense or scared at all. That was because he had listened to Chembai on the radio a lot and he knew every minute detail of his singing by heart.

"Chembai was very happy with the way I played and he blessed me. He said, 'you play like Malaikottai Govinda Swamy! You will be great one day.' Malaikottai Govinda Swamy was the ultimate as far as violin was concerned in those days. That was periya aasirvadam (a big blessing)!So, comparing me with him was beyond my wildest dreams. Not everyone would get blessed by Chembai like that. I feel I was honoured to receive such blessings from a great man like Chembai swami."

Another legend with whom Lalgudi played violin was with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. "I played the violin for Semmangudi for 40 years! He appreciated my very first concert with him. That day he sang for five hours. He couldn't believe how I, a teenager, played with him for so long."

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Image: A young Lalgudi Jayaraman taking the blessings of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar


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Not many know that from the time Yehudi Menuhin gifted him with an Italian violin in 1965, till his last kacheri, he had only used that violin. "He told me, 'You play the violin so well, and I feel extremely happy. I will give you an Italian violin.' When he gave it to me, I said I don't have the money to pay for it. 'No, you need not pay anything. Just continue playing the violin, and play this violin,' was what he said then.

"The sound of Italian violins is very good and pleasing. Do you know, from that day on, till my last kacheri, I have used only that violin, the violin gifted by Yehudi Menuhin."

That was when I asked him about Lalgudi Baani, his unique style of playing violin for Carnatic music. "When you are playing as an accompanying artist, you should not dominate the concert as yours is only an accompanying instrument. After playing the violin for so many great musicians, I don't know how I developed a style of my own. It just happened. After playing violin as an accompaniment for several stalwarts for around ten years, people started calling my style Lalgudi Baani."

His wife explained to me then, "Not only Carnatic musicians but even the listeners also started asking for him. They used to ask, is Lalgudi playing for GKB? Is Lalgudi playing the violin for Semmangudi? People came to listen to Lalgudi playing the violin. If the main artist sang for 10 minutes, he used play violin for four minutes and the performance used to be magical and that was when people started describing his style as Lalgudi Baani. His style used to be one with that of the musician."

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Image: A file photograph of Lalgudi Jayaraman presenting a memento to Yehudi Menuhin


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One thing that I will never be able to forget is the way he explained his music to me. "My family is a family of musicians. Not only my father but my grandfather also was a great musician. So, music is looked at with bhakti in my family and I also inherited that bhakti. I see God in front of me when I play music. It is only because of bhakti that I have been playing all these years."

That was when I asked whether music was like meditation for him, and he said with a smile, "Music is not like meditation, it is meditation for me. When I am playing the violin, I don't think of anything else; no sleep, no food, nothing. I only think of what I should play and what I should create. Music is the only thought in my mind then."

Yes, this is what is expected of a member from a family that was visited by the saint-composer Thyagaraja. His great grandfather, who was a great musician himself, once met him when he had come to Srirangam for a concert. He requested Thyagaraja to visit his house in Lalgudi. He also said, 'You should sit there and compose keerthanas', and the composer agreed.

"He came to our house and composed five keerthanas sitting there. They came to be known as Lalgudi Pancharatnam and are very popular. I feel the entire family has the blessings of Thayagaraja Swamigal. Whatever we have achieved is because of the blessings of great saints like him. I would say I have not done anything on my own; I have been guided by such great forces."

That was Lalgudi Jayaraman, a great musician who dedicated all his success to bhakti and tapasya.


Image: A file photograph of Lalgudi Jayaraman with his wife
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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