As a new comer, how did you react when you had to perform alongside legends like Chembai Vaidhyanatha Bhagavathar and Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar?
Performing alongside legends such as Chembai, Ariyakkudi, Semmangudi, GNB, Alathur Brothers and others at a very young age was intimidating, but at the same time quite thrilling. The strong foundation I had with my cousin and first teacher P A Venkataraman, and the later training under my guru Palani Subramania Pillai helped me to face the challenges. There was a lot of hard work behind it. As a senior disciple Palani Subramania Pillai of Pudhukkottai tradition, it was expected of me to discover and learn by experience (this is the essence of Gurukula system) because the teacher does not tell everything. I learned many things on stage.
How do you put young artistes at ease when they have to perform with you today? Do they find you intimidating?
Of course some young artists find it intimidating to perform with me. But I never fail to encourage and appreciate them if they play really well and respect the senior artists like myself on stage. The sensitivity, proportion and the team spirit that they show in the ‘call and response’ sections of performance matters a lot to me.
What were your early days in Trichy like? Which areas did you frequent and spend time in?
I lived with my parents at Woraiyur in Salai Road, at a place called Panju Iyer Store. It was a complex of 15 houses, the neighbours were quite helpful and loving. I was the alarm clock for the entire store as I would begin my practice playing Ta Di Tom Nam at 4 in the morning. My schooling was at SM High School, Woraiyur. I would often visit the Rockfort Vinayagar temple. My debut took place at the Nanrudaiyan Vinayagar temple in the concert of Alathur Brothers at the age of 13, where I performed in tandem with my guru Sri Palani Subramania Pillai. Sri Lalgudi G Jayaraman played violin for this concert. I hardly played any sports as I was seriously involved with music and followed a disciplined schedule.
How different would your life have been in terms of your career if you had lived in India instead of settling down in Toronto?
I did not choose to settle in Toronto early on in my life. The invitation came to me straight from York University to join as a faculty member in the music department along with Jon B Higgins. My sustained academic interest, interest in propagating this art in the west, performances, collaborations with contemporary musicians and world music artists, my own innovative approach to teaching and creating new compositions – all these factors culminated in making my stay longer in Toronto.
Had I remained in India, probably I would have played many more concerts and most likely would not have missed out on some Padma Awards. But it should be noted that I have been coming to India every year during December music season and I have never been away from the performance scene. In fact, by being away, I have a better perspective about our own culture and music and have more time to research and work on new creations.
What has been the toughest challenge for you in putting together the Tyagaraja festival there?
In my very first year in Toronto I felt homesick and the winter was also quite brutal. In February 1972, longing for the Thyagaraja Festival, I organised a festival at my friend’s home. I involved Jon Higgins, Lakshmi Ranganathan (veena artiste) and some local artistes to take part in rendering the Pancharatna kritis. It was on a very modest scale and then the following year, it was made bigger with the participation of York University, Bharathi Kala Manram, and Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in providing facilities. Over the years, the festival has blossomed and become a most attracted calendar event each year. It inspired the Cleveland Festival to start in 1976.
Is it possible to impart training today with the same intensity with which you received training as a child?
Teaching this art form at a university level in an academic setting was a new and challenging experience and that too to a different cultural milieu. I assessed the situation with north American students wanting to improve their rhythmic skills and adapt to their own music (be it jazz, classical or rock) early on in my teaching career at the York university and devised a curriculum to accommodate the needs of western musicians. I created a course of study that successfully solved the pedagogical problems inherent in cross-cultural education that enabled musicians of any culture to grasp the essentials of Carnatic rhythm and theory. So, the intensive training that I received cannot be compared to the methods that I created in teaching as the academic setting and the goals are different here.
MS Subbulakshmi played a yeoman’s role in taking Carnatic music to the west. What is the understanding of Carnatic music in the western world today?
It is one thing to take Carnatic music to the Indian audience in the west. But taking it to the western audience as well as Indian is quite another. I belong to the second category. I am proud to say that I am one of those selected list of artists who have pioneered the efforts of propagating our Carnatic music in the west through performing, teaching and collaborating with musicians of the West. Thanks to all our efforts, I would say that the understanding of Carnatic music in the Western world is excellent. Not only the individual artists but many cultural organisations have immensely contributed to the success rate of Carnatic music in North America.