Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXV No. 16, December 1-15, 2015
K.V. Ramanathan, distinguished civil servant, writer, scholar, music expert and sports enthusiast all rolled into one, passed away last month at the age of 87. An avid reader of Madras Musings and S. Muthiah’s long running-column Madras Miscellany, he was a regular correspondent with both. He was also a great mentor and friend of mine. He will be sorely missed.
KVR as all his friends referred to him, was a true man of Madras. His memories of the city, as his memories of other things, were sharp and he rarely ever mixed up years and dates.
He would recount the exact route the Madras Trams serviced, with the names of the stops on each line. Sadly, I never bothered noting them down. A great one for names, faces and happenings, he would have anecdotes about every famous Madras personality of the past. To many of us, he was a ready reckoner – we could get even the smallest details of the past clarified with a phone call. Everything appeared to be available on tap – he rarely had to consult books or other sources. Veteran journalist and author T.J.S. George wrote of him as a “one-man encyclopaedia of Carnatic music. Names, dates and details are forever at his fingertips.” The same recall applied to politics, administration, history, business and sports.
Of KVR’s career in the IAS, I know little beyond the fact that he rose to great heights and retired as the Executive Director at the Asian Development Bank. He did write about his early years in the service for a compilation of reminiscences of IAS officers of the Tamil Nadu cadre that was brought out a few years ago. In 1950, Madras was an undivided State comprising large parts of Andhra and so officers had to learn Telugu. To many it may have just been an additional subject but to KVR it became a passion – he could read and speak the language very well. He once told me that while it stood him in good stead in his job, it also brought him very close to Tyagaraja, the great composer.
Truly, there was hardly a song of Tyagaraja’s that KVR did not know the lyrics and meaning of. And in his long life, he had heard most of them sung by various artistes. He once remarked that it was sacrilege if an artiste performed a concert without even one Tyagaraja song in it. Not that he was a bigot – he admired the works of several others, Papanasam Sivan whom he had seen frequently during his Mylapore years being a great favourite. But Tyagaraja was the first among equals. He knew even the most obscure facts about his musical idol including the usage of Urdu words in his kritis!
KVR loved music of the theatre as well and his hero there was S.G. Kittappa. As for the Carnatic performers, his personal affinity was always for G.N. Balasubramaniam. This was not surprising for when KVR was in his teens, it was GNB who was numero uno. Another favourite was M.S. Subbulakshmi though he did confess sheepishly that he fell fast asleep in the first concert of hers that he attended. But he was really appreciative of good music from anyone, including the present day artistes. His involvement in arts did not go unnoticed even while he was in service for he was drafted on to the Sangeet Natak Akademi committee.
Having grown up in North Mada Street, Mylapore (his father K.V. Venkatasubramania Iyer was a professor of Law and later a successful lawyer), his favourite recollection was that of listening to Madurai Mani Iyer performing at the temple tank during the float festival, the music being broadcast over the PA system and he along with hundreds of others sitting at water’s edge, everyone lost in the music.
KVR’s reading was vast and varied. P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie jostled for his time along with the great classicists such as Dickens, Thackeray, Ovid, Shakespeare and Jane Austen. He would also reel off a whole host of obscure names, writers long forgotten by the present generation. His list of favourites in Tamil was long, and included writers such as T. Janakiraman, Asokamitran and Indira Parthasarathy. He translated the last named’s Yesuvin Thozhargal into English as Comrades of Jesus.
After his retirement from service, KVR served as the Madras editor of the Indian Express. It was then that Randor Guy was commissioned to write a series on old Madras and its famous personalities, with KVR giving him as much as half a page of the paper every week. These articles in English were simultaneously translated into Tamil and published by Iravatham Mahadevan (another former Civil Servant) in the Dinamani, the vernacular paper of the Express Group. The latter were compiled and published in two volumes titled Anraya Chennai Pramukhargal (Manivasagar Pathippagam) in 2002. There were some interesting fallouts – the story on the Lakshmikanthan murder saw threat mails coming in, fifty years after the incident! All were anonymous bar one, which was ostensibly signed by M.S. Subbulakshmi (of all people), and which said that if the stories did not cease, both writer and editor would be finished off with an AK 47 rifle! KVR and Randor chuckled long over it and the postcard remained a prized possession of KVR’s. It was also during this time that KVR began a column himself, under the name of ‘Caviar’. Titled Gaffes and Gobbledegook, it compiled errors and pompous verbiage that appeared in newspapers and magazines, each one appended with a comment by him. Among the friendships formed then was the one with T.J.S. George. When the latter wrote M.S. Subbulakshmi’s biography, KVR was one of the resources and George wrote in his preface that it was KVR and not he, who ought to have written the book.
Being a close friend of Sruti’s N. Pattabhiraman, it was but natural that KVR joined its Advisory Committee. Gaffes and Gobbledegook moved to the magazine, this time looking exclusively for errors in musical writing. The pickings became even richer. He also wrote on serious topics. His summing up in one issue on the Swati Tirunal controversy remains a fine piece of writing. When Pattabhiraman died in 2002 and Sruti was left rather rudderless, KVR was asked to take over as editor. In that capacity he encouraged several new writers on the arts, and at least two, Lakshmi Devnath and I, benefitted immensely, for we were asked to write on a variety of subjects. He stepped down once Sruti’s long-term survival was assured in 2007, after it was taken over by the Sanmar Group of companies.
Post-retirement, KVR went for long walks near his lovely house in Valmiki Nagar and was the acknowledged leader of the group that set out each morning. He indulged in his passion for watching various tennis and cricket matches on TV (an interest which like music he shared with his gracious wife Ganga) and also found time to edit the letters addressed to S. Satyamurti, the patriot who was yet another of his heroes. The Satyamurti Letters, The Indian Freedom Struggle Through The Eyes of a Parliamentarian (Pearson Longman), came out in two volumes in 2008.
Journalist Sushila Ravindranath, whose father S. Krishnan was a close friend of KVR’s, remarked that a renaissance man had passed on. KVR would have liked that epitaph.
The Man from Madras Musings has had many mentors and one of these, who used to write under the pen name of ‘Caviar’, passed on recently. His speciality was pointing out gaffes in music publications and writing, which he regularly highlighted in a column titled ‘Gaffes and Gobbledegook’. He would have been amused to know that MMM recently received an artiste’s CV that described her as a ‘Platform Singer’.