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Vol. XXVII No. 19, January 16-31, 2018

The surprise that stayed the course – Sruti

by V. Ramnarayan

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N. Pattabhi Raman.

When Dr. N. Pattabhi Raman started Sruti, a “south Indian classical music and dance magazine” in October 1983, it was by and large a family affair. His two elder brothers Sundaresan and Venkatraman were publisher and financial adviser, my maternal uncle S. Ramaswamy was senior editor, my fellow assistant editors, Anandhi Ramachandran and Gowri Ramnarayan were closely related to me, ‘research staff’ was Kamakshi, Gowri’s cousin, business manager Ravi Rajagopal was a nephew of Pattabhi, T.A. Narayanan, the printer, was his cousin’s son-in-law, and photographer Pat Raman was, well, Pattabhi.

Pattabhi was by no means the first journalist or writer in the family. His great-uncle A. Madhaviah had been one of the early Tamil novelists. An uncle, P.N. Appuswami, had been a well-known science writer. Madhaviah’s son M. Krishnan, an eminent wild life expert, photographer, columnist, author and aesthete, became an early contributor to Sruti. Pattabhi’s father V. Narayanan had been an M.A., M.L. by qualification, but also an unhonoured genius of a writer in three languages – English, Tamil and Sanskrit. His contributions to the Tamil lexicon and sloka books of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham were as considerable as his role as editor of the Indian Express. Sundaresan retired as The Hindu’s sports editor. Pattabhi himself had dabbled in journalism in his student days, bringing out a magazine he had grandly called The Societarians.

A polio victim, Pattabhi did not allow his physical disability to hamper any of his activities, playing cricket and table tennis as enthusiastically as any normal young man, much to the consternation of my father, Venkataraman, who constantly ran after him trying in vain to protect him from injury.

Pattabhi graduated with an economics honours degree from Vivekananda College, Mylapore, going on to acquire an M. Litt. from Madras University and set sail for the US. There he obtained a doctorate, researching the trade union movement in India, then served the UNDP with distinction for many years. While in the U.S., he also cut his teeth in journalism, writing for the Indian Express, Financial Express, Commerce, Deccan Herald and the Illustrated Weekly of India.

In 1981, Pattabhi took premature retirement from his position as a director in the UNDP, and decided and try to settle down to a quiet life in Madras. He became a patron member of the Madras Music Academy and started listening to his own impressive collection of tapes and LP records of Carnatic and Hindustani music – when he was not indulging in bathroom singing in the best Mylapore apaswara tradition. The peace and quiet, however, did not last long. He had only himself to blame for it, because he stirred things up when he decided to put to use his journalistic experience and try to change the way classical music and dance were promoted, performed and appreciated in his home State.

Over the decades, Pattabhi, exposed to the sophistication and professionalism of Western classical music, had come to expect a certain level of decorum, style, and customer satisfaction as an informed follower of the performing arts. Eager to reacquaint himself with the South Indian art scene as a rasika, he was in for a rude shock – in fact, several rude shocks. Poor acoustics, absence of concert etiquette on the parts of performers and audience alike, lack of professionalism, poor taste in stage décor and auditorium aesthetics and negligible remuneration for the artists were among the many irritants preventing unfettered enjoyment of the artistic experience. The modern concert format attributed to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, an innovation of the 20th Century, was one of the few remnants of what was now presumed to be tradition. The contemplative aspects of Carnatic music were relegated to the background by an increasing preoccupation with speed and razzle-dazzle, the elaborative components of erstwhile kutcheri-s like the ragam-tanam-pallavi were endangered species, and fidelity to sruti was fast turning into a major casualty of the widespread craze for virtuosity at the expense of depth and grandeur.

With his first major preoccupation in Madras completed – the construction of his home in the heart of Alwarpet, right next to The Hindu’s family estate – Pattabhi found the raison d’etre of his post retirement life: a crusade for the preservation of tradition and promotion of innovation in Indian classical music and dance, starting with Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam.

Once he decided he would start an English language monthly to carry out his agenda, he turned to two of his young relatives interested in both these fields as well as writing – Gowri Ramnarayan, a trained amateur classical vocalist, Ph.D. scholar and English teacher, and me, a company executive and former cricketer with an interest in music. We were his chief partners in crime in the early days – though Gowri needed a bit of convincing that she had it in her to write anything other than scholarly material – as he began to put his ideas into practice at breakneck speed. The Sruti mob soon grew, gathering in its fold many other members of the extended family and numerous friends. (Pattabhi’s encouragement and the work experience at Sruti later helped people carve a niche for themselves elsewhere. An example was Gowri who played a major role; her work at Sruti led to her subsequent career in The Hindu.)

Gowri belonged to a family steeped in journalism, music and dance and she had access to some of the top musicians and dancers of Madras. Her background helped our cause when we approached D.K. Pattammal, requesting her to be the subject of our first major story. She happily gave us exhaustive interviews which led to Gowri’s two-part profile of her.

Pattammal was on the cover of the first issue of Sruti and so was 13-year-old U. ‘Mandolin’ Srinivas, thanks to his mastery of the tiny instrument hitherto better known in film music orchestras than in the kutcheri scene, where the lad was making waves.

Trail-blazing Traditionalist was the title of the DKP profile which Sruti carried on its cover on October 16, 1983 – a title that Sruti can well adopt as its baseline, for it has fought hard to conserve artistic tradition while at the same time blazing a trail of urbanity, fearless honesty and modernity in the manner it has covered the arts.

The early editorial board and contributors’ list were impressive, including as they did the likes of C.V. Narasimhan, S. Rajam and M. Krishnan. Yet, nobody gave the magazine a chance in hell of surviving beyond a few months, but survive Sruti did, shaking up the worlds of music and dance out of their comfort zones, setting standards perhaps no other publication of its kind has approached. It has tirelessly campaigned for good taste and accountability in the fields it covers, heavily treading on many celebrated toes. It has played a key role in the revival of ragam-tanam-pallavi, in the documentation of the often selfless work done by several men and women to keep their art alive, as well as particular schools of music and dance, it has unearthed several devoted custodians of our heritage and writers of merit who have helped record their endeavours, it has created a band of devoted and capable contributors. Arudra, Avinash Pasricha, V.R. Devika, Gayatri Sundaresan, P.C. Jayaraman, S. Krishnan, Lakshmi Devnath, Lakshmi Sreeram, S. Muthumeenakshi, K.S. Muthuraman, D. Narendran, T.T. Narendran, Nirmala Ramachandran, Dr. N. Ramanathan, Ranjani Swaminathan, T. Sankaran, Sarathy, Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, Sulochana Saralaya, Sunil Kothari, V.S. Sundararajan and his son V.S. Kumar, Vimala Sarma, the Waran Brothers Mani and Raman … the list is long and impressive. It has also developed a superb constituency of readers and well wishers in places high and low. The Sangeet Natak Akademi has, for instance, been a strong pillar of support throughout.


The first issue of Sruti, October 1983.

The Sruti Alliance, an idea conceived by Pattabhi, consisted of a number of organisations which extended financial support collectively, in effect underwriting the cost of production annually. The composition of the alliance varied from year to year.

To Pattabhi, the magazine was always only one of the activities, if the central one, of the Sruti Foundation, a trust formed a few years into the life of the magazine. Documentation and research – in the teaching methodologies of the various schools of music and dance, in particular – were areas in which he was keen to make a major contribution. A ragam-tanam-pallavi revival series of concerts, a national seminar on dance, books on Thakur Jaidev Singh, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and Balasaraswati, and seminars on the GNB bani and Lalgudi Jayaraman’s music, had all been Sruti activities over the years.

‘Samudri’ (The Subbulakshmi-Sadasivam Music & Dance Resources Institute), kickstarted by a Ravi Shankar concert as fundraiser, was Pattabhi’s ambitious project to set up a mega-archival centre that would enable researchers and teachers to record the oeuvre of their parampara for posterity. It became an obsession with Pattabhi in the last years of his life, though the way he went about it, there seemed no doubt in his mind he expected to live long enough to achieve his dream. He drove himself and his associates towards the achievement of seemingly impossible objectives, which included investment in considerable real estate a long distance away from the city to house ‘Samudri’. For the first time in years, Sruti, which had been put on a sound financial footing, began to feel the pinch as funds were diverted to the new project. The worst fears of Pattabhi’s friends and well wishers came true when he fell ill in November 2002 and died soon afterwards.

(To be concluded)

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