Late last year, the Violin Maestro of South India, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, passed away. Of my various journeys of South India, especially the one to Swami Thyagaraja’s Samadhi at Thiruvyar was only possible with the help of Kunnakudiji, because he was the General Secretary of the Thyagaraja Sabha at that time (1985). I strongly feel that realization of God, Guru and Discipline is much more in South than anywhere else in India.
To pay my musical homage to Swami Thyagaraja, I had to learn a composition (Krithi) in Rag “Shree Ranjani”. The message of the song was beautiful. I was moved! The great saint musician is praying or pleading to Lord Rama saying ‘My lord, Is it possible to understand in ones lifetime the meaning of all the seven musical notes, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni? The opening words of the song, was ‘Sauga Suga Mridanga Taalemu’.
I still remember that memorable journey to Trichy. The Samadhi is situated on the banks of the river Kaveri. Within 3 kms of the Samadhi area, one has to walk without shoes. The whole atmosphere was full of sanctity and reverence. I was the first North Indian musician and also the first Muslim to perform at the Samadhi. Later I was told that some conservative and conventional people raised their eyebrows to see a North Indian and that too a Muslim musician performing there. I strongly feel I received blessings and love, wherever I paid homage through my music. They were all pillars of our music.
Before the concert, my Tabla player told me that some fanatics from the organization told him to go back because Tabla is not allowed on this platform. He stayed on to take my permission to go back. Finally, I gave my concert with Tabla and Mridangam together. The Mridangam player, who was absolutely new to me, could only speak Tamil. But the concert was very well received. It was a great spiritual and musical experience.
To inaugurate the Annual Thyagaraja Music Festival, the then Information and Broadcasting minister, Mr. V.N.Gadgil along with many great musicians of South which included Dr. D.K.Pattamal, Smt. M.L.Vasantha Kumari were in the audience. It was a live telecast. Generally the musicians were given 5-10 minutes to perform but it was a great honour for me that I was given half an hour. That particular concert became one of the most memorable, emotional and spiritual experiences of my life. It was the strict rule in those days that one had to sing or play only Thyagaraja’s composition. I hope that the committee, now, allows musicians who have love and reverence for the saint musician to perform irrespective of north or south.
All the organizations in South India in the four states are generally called ‘Sabhas’ (organizations). Every sabha has several thousand or hundred members and each one is self sufficient financially. I wish the North also could have such financially strong cultural organizations. Unfortunately, most of North Indian music festivals including the Tansen Festival in Gwalior or Swami Haridas Sangeet Samaroh in Vrindaban are being handled, financed and organized by the ruling political party or the government.
My first journey to South India was to Chennai with my father and guru Ustad Haafiz Ali Khan Saheb in 1957. The Music Academy had a big festival where musicians from South and North were invited to participate and perform. Today the Music Academy has a huge building and a cultural complex but in those days they erected a thatch tent, almost like a big auditorium. It was a great honour and immense pleasure for me to perform with my father. The secretary of Music Academy at that time was Dr. Raghavan. I still remember the memorable performances by legendary Bala Saraswati, M.S.Subbulaxmi, Dr. Semmengudi Sriniwas Aiyar, Dagar brothers, Birju Maharaj and his uncle Shambhu Maharaj.
There was a Congress leader, Mr. G.K. Moopnar, who once invited me to his town ‘Kumbakonam’ for Ram Navmi celebrations. Mr. Moopnar was a landlord for generations and loved classical music. I was told that Kumbakonam had the maximum number of temples in India. The most important temple was called Lord ‘Uppali Appan” there and I was also informed that Lord ‘Uppali Appan’ was the brother of Lord Venkateshwara or Balaji of Tirupati.
I am so fortunate that while receiving the award from the Tirupati Fine Arts Academy by the then President of India Zail Singh, I could pay my musical salutations to Lord Venkateshwara-Balaji. In Kerala, I had the honour of having darshan of Sabrimala and with the help of the Legendary M.S.Subbalaxmi, our whole family could go to Kanchipuram and perform for the three Shankaracharyas. After my marriage to Subhalakshmi Borooah, who spent fifteen years with Rukmini Devi Arundale of Kalakshetra in Chennai, Athai, (as she was affectionately called) gave a very warm and big reception under the famous Banyan tree in Kalakshetra, the most important institution of Bharatnatyam in India today.
Over the years, I have had the honour of collaborating with the finest artists from South India. Lalgudi G.Jayaraman, Emani Shanker Shastry M.S.Gopalakrishnan, T.N. Krishnan, Doreswamy Aiyangar, Shivraman, Balamurali Krishna and more recently, L. Subramanium. The passing away of such doyens reinforces my thoughts that music knows no barriers such as north or south, east or west. More musicians must actively work towards bringing all zones of music closer in this great musical country of ours.