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Palghat Raghu - a trend-setter and a creative genius
CHENNAI, October 20: It is indeed a privilege for me to be called upon to write about the great and renowned vidwan who left for his Heavenly abode less than five months back. But it would be a hard task to attempt to bring to this short feature all the virtues that made this outstanding genius, the legend that he was, considering the fact that he spent a whole life time over creativity and significant contribution to the body of knowledge in the field of percussion art.

Palghat Raghu was, throughout his career spanning six decades, known for the intellectual content of his mridangam playing, as he never settled for mediocrity. Even in the early days of his career, as a young artiste, he came into the Carnatic music field as a "connoisseur's delight" and remained so till his last days. His mridangam was a treat to the trained and enlightened listener who came to the concert hall always expecting some intellectual stimulation through his fertile ideas and innovations in tala and laya. He believed in vetting the appetite of the connoisseurs while providing listening pleasure to the uninitiated listener. Through his intelligent and innovative approach, he always provided food for thought to the knowledgeable listeners, students of music, his peers and contemporaries and senior vidwans in the audience. He was always serious and sincere and believed in elevating the concert to a higher level, regardless of the occasion, venue or who the main artiste was. He felt it was the duty of senior artistes to cultivate and enhance the level of appreciation and knowledge of the rasikas by exposing them to the nuances of our music. He deprecated any attempt to dilute the standards and was always in the forefront propagating excellence.

But the greatness of this outstanding exponent of the art of mridangam playing was that he attracted lay listeners and the connoisseur alike and attained popularity without an iota of dilution from classicism. This was made possible by his extraordinary musical inclinations and aesthetic sense. He demonstrated through his mridangam that intelligence was a central element of the art and exploded the myth and misconception that "sowkhyam or ranjakam" cannot co-exist with intellectual content.

Palghat Raghu is credited with creating a separate "bhani" or style of his own. Not only his direct disciples, but also numerous admirers and students of mridangam follow this. This is a great tribute to this lifetime "tapasvi" who has made rich contributions to the realm of laya and tala as applied to the Carnatic music concerts. His style was a unique blend of the finest attributes of his illustrious guru, the all time great mahavidwan Palghat Mani Iyer and another stalwart and great exponent of the art of the same era Vidwan Palani Subramania Pillai. Palghat Raghu was inspired by the latter's playing even as a disciple of the former. It is a great testimony to the creative intelligence of Palghat Raghu that his guru openly acknowledged and gracefully approved his approach, which, in turn, speaks for the generosity and greatness of the master. It was a truly remarkable achievement to have attained fame during the lifetime of these great vidwans while being in their shadow.

Late Palghat Raghu with Pandit Ravishankar and Ustad Alla Rakha
The manner in which he embellished the music of the main artiste and facilitated a concert to be elevated to a higher plane is almost proverbial. It is not just his technical virtuosity, which came to the forefront most of the time, but his deep involvement in the music and its aesthetics. Rasikas and admirers of his who have closely followed him and listened to his performances over several decades will recall innumerable instances of concerts where the overall effect and success was substantially attributed to him. But for all that, his collaboration, though always active, was unobtrusive. His consideration for the main artiste was phenomenal.

While several honours and titles such as Padma Shri, Sangeetha Choodamani and Sangeetha Kalanidhi and numerous others were conferred on him for his contribution to the world of rhythm, what may not be too well known to many is that he was a trend setter and pioneer for many initiatives in the realm of music. For instance, we hear frequently about "jugalbandhi" and "fusion" where musicians from different genres collaborate and bring their music to a common platform in a manner that is pleasing and interesting to the general listener. It is noteworthy that Palghat Raghu was the earliest to embark on such experiments, playing mridangam along with tabla artistes of repute such as Alla Rakha, Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Kishan Maharaj besides accompanying Pandit Ravishankar on his concerts in the U.S. along with Alla Rakha on tabla and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan on other occasions. These concerts ran to packed houses and received the acclaim of the audience.

Late Palghat Raghu with Dr.Yehudi Menuhin,
Dr.V.K.Narayana Menon
(former DG of All India Radio) and
Sri. K.S.Narayanaswami (Veena Vidwan)
Apart from being the first south Indian percussion artiste to take the art form outside the sub-continent in a big way, he was also credited with being the earliest to take up mridangam teaching assignments in universities in the U.S. All these events were in the 1960s. While on this, one cannot miss recalling what the famous international drummer Trilok Gurtu said in an interview to "The Hindu" when he visited India a couple of years ago. Trilok Gurtu, after having travelled all over the world and examining different facets of rhythm, had made a statement to the effect that when artistes abroad asked him about the tala patterns and the calculation method, he had told them to go to South India, the hub of classical music as nothing could match the Carnatic percussion system. "Carnatic music and Palghat Raghuji mean a lot to me. He is my mentor, my guru. In every interview, even on MTV, I speak about this great mridangist and his mind-blowing technique," he said. Gurtu continues to be an ardent admirer of the maestro and has had the benefit of some coaching from him along with blessings.

In this feature, it was not an attempt to bring in his biography and factual details of his life, as a lot of information is already on the public domain. I would like to conclude by inviting attention to just two aspects of Palghat Raghu's life as a great artiste. As an individual associated with him for over 50 years with an opportunity and privilege to listen to his mridangam at close quarters, I was quite amazed by his intellectual strength and mental alertness even in his 70s and till his last days. It is very rarely that you come across a mahavidwan who did not display any intellectual fatigue even after remaining at the top slot in the profession making significant contributions over decades. He constantly strived to come out with some new idea or the other and not rest on his laurels even after six decades of untiring efforts. When it comes to challenges and dealing with anything new thrown at him, one could not notice even a slight drop in the level of enthusiasm. He was always looking for avenues to deploy his razor-sharp brain to find new ways to satisfy a content-hungry listener. To state this in a more intelligible manner, he opted for the mundane sarva laghu only wherever appropriate, as he had enough of fertile imagination and creativity and needed no camouflage.

Late Palghat Raghu with Pandit Ravishankar and Ustad Alla Rakha
The amount of time and effort he spent on maintaining the instruments in perfect shape and condition throughout his life should be a lesson for every aspiring student of mridangam, not merely in the techniques of tuning and fine-tuning the instruments, but also in the underlying philosophy of treating all concerts with the same level of seriousness and sincerity.

One can only hope the great legacy left behind by him will be carried forward for the benefit of posterity by his numerous disciples, more particularly by his extremely talented grandsons Abhishek Raghuram and Anand Ananthakrishnan who have been worthy disciples of the great master. They have already demonstrated this in good measure by their skilful handling of all the challenges he posed to them during his lifetime. It is noteworthy that, in the midst of a busy concert schedule and consequent travel within and outside the country, he had spent considerable time training talented students, which aspect received scant attention in the hands of many of his peers.

With prayers that his soul may rest in peace, I place this at the feet of the master.
Harish Thyagarajan -
Sir, it is indeed a well worded article. My guru, Raghu sir, was indeed a person of principles, perfection and discipline. He was a strict tutor and ensured that each student practices and perfects the lessons before the next one. This was even when we had classes everyday. He also ensured that students know the ways and means to maintain mridangams. I really experienced what is gurukulavasam when I used to stay with his family. When we used to stay with them, I clearly recall in September 1998 where for 5 days he made me sit with the mridangam repairer where he made me tie the thoppi and right moottu with the teflon kayaru. He taught me how to select the skin for the kappi mridangam, the type of kappi and the mridangam kattai itself. He was so fond of his students that he would take interest in selecting the kattai himself. On food - Idha pathi sollavey vendaam. He used to love Palakkad chamayel, spicy pickles. I thank God to have a great gurunathar and a wonderful family.
T.K. Thyagarajan -
Namaskarams. I have gone through the article you have written in Carnaticdarbar dated October 20, 2009. You have clearly and aptly mentioned about Shri Palghat Ragu and his life style. I am also a mridangist in Mumbai and my father late T.S. Krishna Bagavather used to encourage music in Matunga in the late 50's or so. Great vidwans like Palghat Raghu sir, Mani Iyer, T.K. Murthy, GNB and many more vidwans used to come to our house and have good time with my father. This relationship made me to take my son to become his disciple for the last 15 years. In the middle of the night also, he used to check the mridangams for the next kutchery. We are all lucky to be his family friends. A very good article I am reading after a long time. When his grandson Anand plays, we can't differentiate at all. That's my experience. Of course Abhishek also plays kanjira and follow the kanakugal of Shri Palghat Raghu Sir. Looking forward to many more articles like this.