It was Subbulakshmi’s good fortune to have had the right persons walking into her life at the right time—Sadasivam, Radha, Semmangudi, Musiri, Dilip Kumar Roy. The last of the musicians to make a dynamic contribution to her music had a long innings of composing many of the best-known MS songs.
Born in 1929, Kadayanallur Venkataraman studied at the Swati Tirunal Music College, Thiruvanantapuram, and worked as a concert tambura player in his early years. A job with AIR Madras made for closer association with Semmangudi, whose disciple and accompanist Kadayanallur became. Though his extreme reticence kept him out of the music circuit, one aspect of his talent fortunately came to be recognised without any effort on his part.
MS was required to sing a range of new pieces for many occasions, and fresh compositions were in high demand. Recommended for the task by Semmangudi, the self-effacing Venkataraman found himself at MS Subbulakshmi’s residence. There was nothing impressive in his brusque manner. Said MS, “When he began to sing, I knew he was a godsend.” Time and again, Kadayanallur was able to compose music that was perfect for MS’s voice. The ragamalikaKandu kandu uniquely matched verse by melodic verse poet Poondanam Nambudiri’s ranging reflections on the uncertainties of life. Kadayanallur’s arrangement, brought to life by MS’s spectacular rendition of the chorus Krishna Krishna, transformed a standard litany of the Lord’s names into the expression of a philosopher’s world weariness and human distress. Kadayanallur showed through this piece and many others that he could internalise the bhava and find the exact raga to expound core themes and emotions, valuable strengths in a composer.
When the Tirupati Devasthanam decided to popularise the works of Annamacharya, the fourteenth-century poet credited with thousands of Telugu devotional lyrics, MS Subbulakshmi was entrusted with the job of recording his oeuvre. All the original music was lost, though a few songs could be acquired from vidwans like Nedunuri Krishnamurti who had set them to music. But most Annamacharya pieces had to be set to ragas afresh. MS loved to narrate how Kadayanallur came up with scores to suit every mood and every need. He could arrange a Kedaragowlai (Koluvudi) in an imposing grid, innovate a Kalyani chittaswaram (inSarvopayamuna) beyond the pale, invent a playful Khamas (Dolayam) for the oonjal ritual, or conceive a Kapi (Jo Achyutananda) brimming with a mother’s love for her child. Sometimes he surprised even himself, as when he set Kannula dutite in a raga he later decided had to be Jog. He tamed the lyrically unruly Entamatramu so that verses cascaded in a frenzy of devotion. “I cannot forget the day he came in without a single word, played the sruti box and began to intone Bhavayami gopalabalam in Yamunakalyani,” MS recalled. The song begins in tenderness and ends in rapture, as does that evergreen gem Krishna ni begane. MS would be shaken by a tingling shiver when she touched the suddha madhyamam in that song.
To watch Kadayanallur compose was an experience. Sitting on the mat, eyes closed, nothing but sruti in ear and mind, he came up with endless variations, all of them tailormade for Subbulakshmi’s voice. He could get the best from her voice, whether glide, glissando, or plain note. A perfectionist, Kadayanallur monitored recording sessions to make them flawless. Sometimes, he played the tambura for MS, though few realised that the man in the rear had so much to do with the music she made.
The Balaji Pancharatna Mala, a set of five records (the sixth came later), was recorded by Subbulakshmi for the Tirupati Devasthanam. The focus was on Annamacharya, but a range of poets like Jayadeva and Chaitanya were also included.
When the first LP record was released, it was placed on the Tirupati temple niche where copper plate engravings of Annamacharya’s songs were accidentally discovered in the modern age. Listening to those recordings is to be astounded by the commitment of a singer who learned so many new compositions, getting every syllable right, every note right.
The project achieved its purpose. Today many of those songs are part of the music and the dance stage.
What made the partnership so creative? Was it Kadayanallur’s grasp of raga swarupa? His swara gnanam? Perhaps it was his attitude that struck a perfect chord with MS. He did not understand commercial goals. “We don’t take up music as a profession because we want to make money. There are other, surer ways of making money. We take up music because ... Well, if you are the sort of person to whom I have to explain it, you won’t understand anyway.” It is clear that Kadayanallur didn’t have to explain anything to Kunjamma. His gift of music and lack of worldliness assured him her abiding regard over 20 years.
Excerpted from MS and Radha: Saga of Steadfast Devotion