Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan

I was requested by Sruti magazine to write an article on my association with it. This was published in their November issue.

It is rather interesting that in the span of one week, I am writing articles on my association with two publications of our city – The Hindu, which turned 140 in September and now Sruti, India’s best-known magazine in the field of fine arts.

My association with Sruti began from the first issue. I was in Calcutta, in the final year of school and my cousin brought home the magazine. It featured a detailed interview of DK Pattammal and had her photo on the cover as well. That was certainly an auspicious beginning and one that augured a long life for Sruti. Had not the great Madurai Mani Iyer, when asked to perform the first concert at the fledgling Narada Gana Sabha suggested that they invite DK Pattammal instead as a harbinger of good fortune?

My exposure to writings on Carnatic music had till then been restricted to articles that appeared in Tamil magazines and reviews in The Hindu. It was a revelation to read Sruti’s first issue – the interview with Pattammal was of the frank and forthright variety. It brought to life the valiant struggle that the artiste underwent before she made it big. I can still recall the wonderful photographs that accompanied the interview. And I know that somewhere in the stacks of books in my study, there is a precious though somewhat tattered copy of that first issue of Sruti. In the 1980s, when I studied in Delhi and later worked in Calcutta, my perusal of Sruti issues was sporadic. When I did read it, I always began from the last page, for Anami’s Whispering Gallery was my favourite. I read it once just for the language, a second time to decipher who was being targeted and a final third time to guffaw, having put two and two together. I know that those who were the butt of Anami’s acid were not so amused and the Methuselah of Carnatic Music (to quote from Anami), once dismissed Sruti as a yellow journal just on the strength of that column.

In 1999, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and I launched, a portal on Carnatic Music. It is a happy coincidence that the present Editor-in-Chief of Sruti, V Ramnarayan, who had become a dear friend by then, wrote the first review of that site, for one of the city dailies. Sangeetham had to be kept updated with articles and that meant writing quite a bit. The back issues of Sruti, all sourced from various second-hand shops, became our reference material. We read and re-read the numbers that dealt with musician profiles. Some remain favourite bedside reads – the issues on Ariyakkudi, Maharajapuram (father and son – who can forget Aeolus’ brilliant comparison of the two styles), Dhanammal, Vasanthakumari, Semmangudi (which alone became a book), Balasaraswathi, Tiger, Mali, Palani Subramania Pillai, TN Rajarathinam Pillai, S Balachander…the list is quite endless.

Similarly, the raga notes by S Rajam were an encyclopaedia by themselves. His detailed writings, that invariably included the mention of a film song or two based on the featured raga, were lessons in musicology.  There was very little to be said thereafter and even today I find several raga notes where the S Rajam/Sruti touch is unmistakable. He also did cassette reviews and could be scathing about printing mistakes on sleeves. I can still recall one where he pointed out that the name of the grandsire of Carnatic Music was printed as Purandara DOSA!

One day, the phone rang and there was N Pattabhiraman himself at the other end. He had seen Sangeetham and wanted to meet me. I drove across to Alapana, the house where he lived and which was also Sruti’s office. I can still recall Janaki leaning out of an upper verandah rather like the Blessed Damozel and welcoming me in. It was a proud moment for me. I was subsequently invited to a chamber concert at Alapana, though I cannot recall who sang that day. That was when I met KV Ramanathan and S Rajam, two people who would become my mentors. It was also through Sruti that I met two other mentors of mine – Randor Guy and VAK Ranga Rao. I became very close to all four.

Pattabhiraman’s sudden passing thrust KVR to the fore and that was when I actually began to write for Sruti. Another person who did the same at this time was Lakshmi Devnath. My first full-length profile was on Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan. KVR was an encouraging boss, full of history and anecdote. Working with the team of Janaki and Sudha was good fun and I particularly remember the way we would keep calling each other as the deadline approached and my stories were still work-in-progress. I could email the stuff in a jiffy but Sruti then operated out of an assembled PC that was moody in the extreme. Deadlines saw it unable to cope with stress.

This was also the time when I began writing books. My first was Carnatic Summer, the lives of twenty-two exponents of the art. I was commissioned by East West Books Limited in 2003 and the book was due a year later. I assumed that I had enough time but I had to keep travelling to Saudi Arabia of all places. Research was next to impossible at such a remote and most unmusical location. It was Sruti to the rescue – Janaki sent across several back numbers of the magazine by parcel post. It was a miracle they escaped the religious censors of Saudi, especially given that S Rajam’s sketches frequently adorned the cover as did S Krishnan’s photographs of ancient sculptures celebrating the feminine! The book was completed in time.

My second book, The Devadasi and The Saint, was inspired entirely by an early article written by T Sankaran, another pillar of Sruti, on the life of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. I had read it in 1983 and it somehow stayed in my mind. What a life! And when I wrote the book I made sure that Sruti was the first to be acknowledged in it. Another Sruti-related factor in that book was VAK Ranga Rao who having personally known Nagarathnamma, filled me in with anecdotes in his unique style. Anami came back as a guiding force when I co-authored with Malathi Rangaswami Four Score & More, the History of the Music Academy, Madras. I dipped frequently into the Whispering Gallery columns, alas by then a thing of the past, and even featured one entire page of it in the book.

Sruti was in dire straits financially in the late 2000s and it was therefore great when the Sanmar Group offered to take it over and get Sukanya Sankar to run it. I played a very small role in the process and gave a presentation on the life of MS Subbulakshmi on the day the first colour edition, with TN Seshagopalan on the cover, was launched. KVR wanted to step down in view of his age and my friend Ramnarayan became editor-in-chief. He brought a third dimension to Sruti, which had hitherto focused on music and dance. Theatre became a welcome addition. Under Ram, Sruti has become contemporary and that is important, for it is a challenge for a print magazine to remain relevant in this internet age.

I would have gladly continued to be a Contributing Editor to Sruti, which I became in ?, had it not been for an eye ailment that curtailed my writing in 2008. By then I was already assisting S Muthiah quite a bit in Madras Musings and it was a question of making a choice. I gave up Sruti with many regrets but have continued to stay in touch with the magazine and more importantly, its wonderful team starting from Sukanya, Ramnarayan and Janaki. It is essentially love for the arts that drives all of them. Given Sruti’s unchallenged position as a commentator on the arts, it’s managerial and editorial personnel could have long ago become lobbyists for and against various vested interests of which there is no dearth in the arts. That they never once even considered such an option speaks volumes about their dedication to the true spirit of journalism.

Looking back, there is much that I owe Sruti. It is a debt that can never be repaid. Much of my knowledge of Carnatic music history is because of what I read in it, and later, what I wrote for it. I formed many valuable friendships through Sruti and they have played important roles in my life. The magazine itself has become a mentor to me, like an old uncle to whom you can always turn to when you need facts to be rechecked or an anecdote to be verified at short notice. Its vast collection of photographs has been used by me for several presentations, books and articles. I can at best say a heartfelt thanks for all that it has given me. May Sruti prosper and may it continue to be published for all time to come.