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MDR, a maestro of melancholic melody!
By T.M. Anantharaman
BANGALORE, May 24: When I was young and had just started taking a liking for music, I never used to listen much to Carnatic musicians. But, over the years, I have developed a distinct interest, especially to simple compositions in Tamil and popular film songs, both in Hindi and Tamil. Having got used to music and its refreshing power to tide over stress-related situations in life, I often switched on the radio and tuned in All-India Radio (AIR) and other Vivid Bharathi channels, as also the then very popular Radio Ceylon, which played Bollywood melodies regularly in their morning and evening programmes.

We, as youngsters, were simply glued into the small red-coloured Alba radio set which our father had bought for the household after much cajoling and pleading from my mother and my brother. The indigenously assembled Alba set was cute and compact and, strangely enough, quite well-tuned to receiving Carnatic music as relayed by AIR or film songs played by Radio Ceylon.

It was sheer mesmerizing delight to hear the words ``Bhaiyon aur behano, zara dil taam ke bait jaayie. Mai hoon Amin Sayani aur mai aapki kushike liye aaj behatareen gane chunke laya hoon. Sabse pahle suniye Lata Mangeshkar ki meeti aawaaz mein film Anpadh ka Madan Mohan dwara rachaya hua gana: Aapki nazuronne samja pyaru ki kaabil mujhe; jee haan, Lataji ki dil taamnewala awaazme suniye ye gana…”

The AIR days
Or the very sedate straight forward AIR announcer saying, “You will now hear a flute recital by Shri T.R. Mahalingam and we begin the programme with the Kanada varnam “Nere nammithi” in Aadhi tala. No gushing, no cajoling or no banter with the listener. It was simple and direct and straight on to the music that was relayed. There was no pressure on AIR music directors to try and get the listener. If you had the time and inclination you lingered a little while longer savouring the music fare provided before rushing away to catch a train or bus to the office.

It is while listening to the tiny Alba set that I had developed a liking for Carnatic musicians and, for years, I was a hooked up fan of Carnatic music as relayed by AIR channels. Music concerts of a Madurai Mani Iyer, a GNB or an M.S. Subbalakshmi or MLV or Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, naadaswaram by T.N. Rajaratnam or flute recital by Maali (T.R. Mahalingam) were eagerly awaited by me and other family members. In those days, there were no radio-cassette players or SonyWalkman’s or IPods or Compact Discs for recording the music and then hearing it anytime of your choice. We had to listen to the concerts and then try and recall some of the memorable parts of the concerts and savour such moments giving us inexplicable moments of pleasure. As the years rolled by, I discovered the intrinsic power of our music, both Carnatic classical and Hindi and Tamil film music, to soothe tangled nerves and bring in peace and harmony within the listening individual.

Unique music
It is in the context of soothing tangled nerves that I would like to recall the music of M.D. Ramanathan (known simply as MDR among countless music aficionados). He was unique in all sense of the term. Tall, gangling, sporting a knotted tuft tied on the backside of his head and wearing the traditional “thiruneeru” over his forehead, he presented a gangling appearance even when he sat erect on the stage towering over accompanying musicians. My cousin Thyagu is a die-hard fan of MDR and often was very fond of mimicking the MDR style…the deep rumbling sensuous voice with an inexplicable tone of pathos to it, a voice which made you sit up and listen because it seemed to be coming from the very guts of the singer and often was gut wrenching.

You simply wonder in awe at the seminal depth which his voice plunged with a delicate ease and richness of tone and carved a melancholic niche within yourself relating to his musical fare. His voice was deep, poignant with resonance of the note and had most uncommonly for many musicians poise and grandeur while enunciating a kriti or raga or simply caressing the sapta swaras related to the song which he was singing.

We used to love imitation of Thyagu but, over the years, I had heard MDR a few and far between because I was stuck with the task of studying, working and earning at the same time for the weal of the family. Yes in those days we didn’t have the luxury of attending all concerts happening in the city as most days we were coming home late from the office and Saturdays or Sundays when the concerts used to be held were days meant for doing all pending domestic chores. It is, thus, I had not heard much of MDR’s music even though what little I had the opportunity to listen to I had become very fond of his style. He seemed to totally immerse himself in the music he was soaking in, and seemed to be in a different musical world of his own.

The messiah
If I remember MDR now with fondness and deep respect I must thank Indian embassy’s first secretary and then charge d’affaires Shri N.B. Menon who was my messiah of Carnatic music in Doha for many years. Knowing that I was deeply into Carnatic music he invited me to his house every Friday and virtually threw open his entire collection of Carnatic music and musicians. He would make me listen to a particular artiste and in the form of quizzing me riddled me with questions on the raga, compositions, singer et al. It was N.B. Menon sir who threw open the collection of his MDR music to me and when I heard in the Gulf state after a gap of many years MDR’s rich baritone voice and the grandeur of his “Giripai” in raga Sahana, I wept unabashedly. MDR’s music was not only moving, it was as if he was slowly leading me up the path of bliss in music with the poise and grandeur of his conception of Sahana and the wonderful kriti “Giripai …”.

After listening to his Sahana, I became a total convert to MDR and his music and since the mid-1980s, I have had the pleasure of listening to his concerts and also songs recorded and available in the net. His style of singing Kedaram or Poorvi Kalyani or Sankarabharanam was unique. You can listen to his remarkable Poorvikalyani and the Dikshitar composition “Meenakshi me mudam” or the Shyma Shastri kriti in Sankarabharanam raga “Saroja dala netri”. Both are simply simple and beautiful but also exceptional in bhava. When you hear MDR sing these you are transported to another sphere, a place from where you are reluctant to come back.

The pleasure
I have also had the pleasure of listening to his unique rendition of Bhairavi and the Thyagaraja kriti “Thanayuni brova” with rare poignancy and beauty of polished sangathis; a scintillating Keeravani and the kriiti “Kalikiyunte”, a slowly unfolding but gripping Dhanyasi raga and the uncommon Thyagraja kriti “Syama Sundaranga” and an exhilarating Bilahari raga followed by the lovely kriti of Dikshitar Sri Balasubramaniam” rendered in style and rather uncommonly for MDR in quick tempo. I can go on but will sum up by saying “for soulful music and inspiring spiritual awakenings in you listen to what MDR offers”. It will indeed be a memorable experience that you will relish for long.

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