This is a year of birth centenaries in the world of Carnatic Music. Madurai Mani Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyer, T. Brinda, Alathur Srinivasa Iyer… the list of vocalists is long. Tucked away in the middle of these is Alangudi K. Ramachandran, one of the foremost ghatam exponents of his era. There is however, very little information available on him in the public domain.

Born on June 22, 1912, Ramachandran studied with percussionist Kuttalam Kuppuswami Pillai and his son Sivavadivel Pillai before apprenticing himself under the thavil maestro Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai. However, it would appear that despite the great lineages from which he acquired his art, the initial years were ones of struggles. And as it happened in the case of several others who made it big, it was Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar who provided the early crucial breaks.

Ramachandran has acknowledged this in a letter he wrote on August 2, 1954, to Ellarvi, Chembai’s biographer. “It was Sriman Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar who introduced me to the music world” he wrote. “He made me accompany him at various concerts, gave me performing opportunities and encouraged me to play well. He has been a great support to me and I will never forget it.” The association with Chembai was to be lifelong and the latter’s last concert in October 1974 had Ramachandran providing ghatam accompaniment.

It was during the process of grooming under Chembai that he came to the notice of his friend and accompanist T. Chowdiah. The warm-hearted and affectionate master of the seven-stringed violin took him under his wings and furthered his career. One of these opportunities was a performance during the Navaratri durbar in Mysore. Ramachandran arrived at the palace in his usual attire – a dhoti, a ‘mel thundu’ and no shirt. The durbar bakshis objected to this as proper protocol demanded that artists wear the usual levy costume of turban and close-necked coat. On coming to know of this Chowdiah intervened and spoke to the Maharajah who immediately and perhaps the only time, waived the dress regulations. Ramachandran performed and was duly honoured.

The next success came at the Music Academy. Up until 1947, the august body held firm to its rules that mandated that no upa-pakkavadyam was needed for Carnatic performances. The ghatam, moharsing and ganjira artists were kept away. Sometime in the mid 1940s, Ramachandran became a regular accompanist for M.S. Subbulakshmi’s performances, the introduction probably being made by T. Chowdiah. Those were the years when M.S. was boycotted by the Music Academy for her role in promoting Tamil Isai. Peace was made in 1947, when guru Semmangudi became the Sangita Kalanidhi. The Academy needed M.S.’ support in raising funds for its new auditorium and invited her to perform. She sang on December 28, that year, and perhaps to emphasise her point, included several Tamil songs in her performance. And, more significantly, she became the first artist to sing for the Academy with an upa-pakkavadyam in addition to violin and mridangam. The performer was Alangudi Ramachandran.

N. Rajagopal in his book The Garland, notes that “Ramachandran was one of the ghatam experts who brought out the hidden, unnoticed capabilities of the pot and was given respect for rich, imaginative and attractive play accompanied by intricate fingering.” In B.M. Sundaram’s view, as stated in a monograph, he took the status of the ghatam to its pinnacle.

Apparently, Ramachandran was very particular in selecting his ghatams and firmly believed that while it could not be tuned, each pot had a pitch of its own and while taking a pot to a concert, the instrument selected ought to be as close as possible to the pitch of the performer. His house had an array of ghatams, all neatly arranged and each bearing a sticker indicating as to which musician it was most suited for. Among his favourites were GNB and Madurai Mani Iyer. When the latter died, a tearful Ramachandran, it is said, smashed all the pots that had stickers bearing Mani Iyer’s name. A few months before his death, Mani Iyer had, in February 1968, arranged the debut concert of his nephew T.V. Sankaranarayanan. The accompanists on that occasion were T.N. Krishnan, Vellore Ramabhadran and Alangudi Ramachandran.

Ramachandran travelled abroad as well, going to Sri Lanka, the Edinburgh Music Festival and countries in Europe. The end, rather aptly, but sadly all too soon, came on stage as well. This was at a concert at the Shanmukhananda Sabha in Mumbai on June 15, 1975. According to The Hindu, which reported briefly on the matter on the 16, “Mr Ramachandran complained of pain in the chest during the performance and a doctor was called in to examine him but he died shortly afterwards.”

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This article appeared under the Encore column in The Hindu dated 20th July 2012