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Venkataraghavan, creative & melodious musician
The sweet strains of Mohana raga hooked me one December morning during my usual stroll in Girinagar. Mesmerised, I stood rooted in front of the house from where the music emanated-I was lost savouring the nice swara patterns. Subconsciously, I soaked in the magnetic pull of music mixed with melody. The human voice indeed has a powerful influence when musically articulated. I can aver this and I am sure many will agree with me.

Like a safety pin drawn to a magnet, I got dragged to the entrance of the house. I was in some kind of a trance. When I opened my eyes, I saw the man who was singing. His sweet voice created immediate impact as it traversed the three octaves with ease and resonance.

Amazingly, the voice had remarkable similarity to one of the modern day legends in Carnatic music. Soon, I found I was lost in the utterly beautiful musical creation, and lost in nostalgia, remembering the living legend. I was also, however, suddenly brought down to terra firma, remembering that the singer of the haunting melody was indeed a different person.

Meet Vidwan Mysore Govinda Rao Venkataraghavan. He is different than most of his ilk. He's a multi-dimensional and multi-faceted personality - an exemplary Carnatic musician, a great teacher, film play-back singer, music director, documentary producer and a television actor, all rolled into one.

At four, when a mere toddler, he was initiated into music by his mother, mentor and guru, Smt. Savithramma, and learnt music from her for about fifteen years. He gave his first public concert when he was a boy of eight. By eleven, he had become adept in singing most melakarta ragas, displaying the hallmarks of a musical prodigy.

The tall, handsome youngster won many accolades during his college days. He won the AIR Presidential Award in 1977 and thereafter several titles including the Gana Ghandarva, Nada Hamsa and Gana Kala Saraswathi.

Recalls Venkataraghavan: "There was one elderly scholar and musicologist, a Vidwan Rangayya who had composed his kritis in all 72 melakarta ragas. He was a family friend. He was also the one who encouraged me to sing in many unfamiliar melakarta ragas."

He completed his degree in B.Sc. and later the AMIE course in electronics and telecommunications engineering. He opted to focus on music, ignoring many lucrative overseas job offers.

He then hitched his future to a polestar in music hoping he himself would become one in time. For close to six years, he did "gurukula vasam" with a legendary Carnatic musician, living with him like a family member, disciple, and confidant.

A musical family: Vidwan Mysore Govinda Rao Venkataraghavan with wife Sunita and daughter Hamsika
How was it learning from this trail-blazer musician? Venkataraghavan says no one should "doubt his musical abilities". The iconic singer is "highly original", he noted, adding, "In melody and in diction, in the singing of rare ragas and in the presentation of rare kritis of the Trinity or other composers, or in the singing of cascading swara patterns, he is unique."

"He didn't teach me in the ordinary sense. He would give me a scale-some rare scale at that-and ask me to sing the raga. I imbibed quite a lot that way and also by attending his concerts. Very often he lauded my abilities and said there wasn't much that he needed to teach me," says Venkataraghavan. He says it was his guru who recommended him for the Madras Music Academy scholarship, which he was awarded for two years.

One stark incident has left a deep impression him. He had on one occasion accompanied his guru to Hyderabad. A function was organised to mark the 50th birthday of his guru and a local musician was to give a concert in the evening. The concert was cancelled as it began raining heavily and there was power failure. Venkataraghavan reminisces: "Suddenly, the heavens seemed to open up. I had never seen such a heavy downpour in my life. The city was plunged into darkness." Surprisingly, his guru asked Venkataraghavan to sing in the dark auditorium, and without a microphone.

He says: "For three hours I sang my heart out, because it seemed the heavens had opened up sympathizing with me. Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao and other dignitaries such as Smt. Yamini Krishnamurthy, Dr. B.V. Raman, renowned actor Nageshwara Rao and electricity minister Batta Sri Ramamurthy were all present. Everybody was spellbound and later congratulated me for singing beautifully. Some even said they thought it was my master who was singing!"

Let me break the suspense. Venkataraghavan's guru is none other than the living legend, Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna. Yes, it was he who initiated Venkataraghavan into some of the finer aspects of the finest of fine arts, Carnatic classical music.

He rues about the old days with this pithy comment: "But without getting enough opportunities for exhibiting my creative talents, I was left with little choice but to come back to Karnataka, first to Mysore, and then to Bangalore."

While in Chennai, he had knocked on many doorsteps including that of many film music directors, without much success. What perhaps irks Venkataraghavan most is almost everybody who had listened to him acknowledged the fact that he was endowed with exceptional ability and an amazingly original voice with the right timber, a voice which is mellifluous, melodious, and one that could scale octaves with ease, very similar to his guru.

"I too find it remarkable that our voices have similarities but I do have my own style" he says and adds as an afterthought "I have also sung many new ragas."

He brings rare insights into the creative aspects of music and enunciates the classical idiom well, often coming out with enchanting sangathis imbued with creativity. In short, he enjoys his singing, and brings a touch of elegance by imparting and displaying creativity and rich imagination to his musical moods, be it kritis, bhajans, swara prasthara or raga delineations.

I can vouch for his unique talent for singing beautifully and singing rare ragas and kritis. Some ragas which he briefly demonstrated to me included not only the traditionally popular Bhairavi, Thodi. Keeravani, and Kambhodhi, but also Kalyanavasantham, Natabhairavi, and other unusual ragas like Jankaradhwani. On my request, he briefly etched out a melodious Behag and then a soulful Hamir Kalyani too!

I was truly impressed when I heard him sing a brilliantly evocative and tantalizing Gamanasrama ragam, thanam and pallavi from the recordings of the concert he had given for the local Udaya TV channel some time back. Also, I have heard him sing rare ragas like Kusumadharini, and Brihati (named by him after Goddess Saraswathi's veena). "Many of the ragas are as old as the melakarta scales. Only they were not highlighted because generally, musicians do not take the trouble of delving deep into this treasure trove and presenting their beauty to the world."

Should one sing new ragas? He asserts: "Most certainly, yes! The more you sing, the more our music becomes known for its glorious heritage and variety." What about acceptance? "Well, it all depends on how good the musician is at singing and popularising these. There must also be good compositions in these so that people remember the raga and the song for the lyrics."

On the "purity" of Carnatic music being spoilt when singing new modes (ragas): "As long as I don't deviate from the grammar of music, and make music more enchanting in my own style, why should anyone question my dedication to the purity of music?"

"As you know, tradition is nothing but "tree plus additions!" The tree is the established scales and the additions are various branches which sprout from a tree in time over the years," he explains.

As a composer, he has scored music in many languages like Kannada, Tamil and Malyalam and has tuned Jayadeva ashtapadis and Dasar Padas and Vachanas of Shiva Sharanas. Among the most creatively satisfying works, he says, are the devotional music he has composed for landmark films like Madhavacharya, Ramanujacharya and Shantala, and Adi Shankara (world's first film in Sanskrit) and compositions of Nirayananda Saraswati Swamigal. He also talks with pride about the documentaries he has produced on Vidwan Mysore Vasudevacharyar, Saint Thyagaraja (Thyagaraja Maanasa), Devi and Dikshitar for Doordarshan and other channels.

Venkataraghavan was honoured by the Karnataka Government in 2008 with the annual Rajyotsava Award in recognition of his meritorious contribution to the propagation of Carnatic music and musical art forms.

Earlier, the Karnataka Government had also conferred on him the prestigious title "Guru" for Carnatic music under the Guru-Sishya Parampara. He is also a lecturer for Carnatic music at the Bangalore University (Gnana Bharati) and a recipient of "senior fellowship" from the Government of India.

Not surprisingly, many flock to learn Carnatic music from him. He is busy and committed to imparting his muse on Carnatic music to a variety of students through the Nada Hamsa Academy of Music that he founded 20 years ago in Mysore, and is currently based in Bangalore. Some are software engineers, consultants, journalists, school teachers, housewives, college students (teenagers) and children. The magnet that pulls over 250 students to Venkataraghavan is his scholarship, melodious voice, and his dedication to Carnatic music.

I was so enchanted by his approach to music and his mastery over the art that I have recently become his student. I find that he brings in the same sweep of knowledge and dedication to impart to one and all his musical experiences over the last four decades.

What is his dream? "Well, I'm happy to be a teacher, but I also want to be known as one among the best singers!" he says frankly. He has the potential and the track record. He has the knowledge, the voice, the dedication, the personality and the desire to grasp greatness.

"The desire is to let the world know about the rare compositions of the Trinity of Carnatic music and other truly great composers and also the innumerable and incredibly beautiful ragas that lie buried within me," he admits with some emotion.

I can affirm that he has it in him to realise his dream. Are the music sabhas in Chennai and other states in India and abroad game for a rich, memorable listening experience? Rasikas can sample his music in the links given along with this article. He hopes that Lady Luck would smile on him and take him to the pinnacle where he wants to be. One hopes that the New Year brings him luck and makes his dreams come true.
Ramya Praveen -
This is really a great job indeed! I believe he is one of the brightest stars in the world of Indian Carnatic classical music. More of such articles need to be brought to light.

Roopa Murali -
This article about Vidwan Venkataraghavan gives an insight into a talented Carnatic musician. It is surprising to know that such a talented musician is not in the limelight all these years. We look forward to hear more about him and his mesmerising music in this website. We sincerely thank the author for publishing such a good article. Hope the artiste will get recognition at the national and international level soon.