N Rajagopalan of The Garland series

A small obituary notice last week in The Hindu alerted me to the fact that ‘Garland’ N Rajagopalan (IAS retd) had passed away. He was 95. A ripe old age and I trust that his last days were peaceful. By now he must have been gathered into the arms of the Carnatic musicians of the past, all of whom must have been grateful for his having kept their memories alive.


Rajagopalan retired after several postings of responsibility in the IAS in 1981. In the service he was known for his scrupulous honesty and the way he put down all kinds of illicit activity. His post-retirement years he dedicated to his passion – Carnatic Music. While young he was one of Papanasam Sivan’s early students. Later he tried to continue with learning the art but his postings in the IAS put paid to that. He however retained a lifelong association with the art for which he gave all credit to his mother who was a talented amateur musician.


His dedication to Carnatic Music took on a unique mode of expression – writing brief biographical notes on composers and musicians of the past, and some seniors of the present. In the 1980s this was a path-breaking project. Carnatic Music had traditionally never bothered with documenting its practitioners, almost the first attempt being the Vaggeyakara Charitramu section in Subbarama Dikshitar’s Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini published in 1904. Rajagopalan felt there was a need to document the lives and he spelt out his goal thus –


“Great men of the past had believed in NishkamyaKarma – service without expectation or ego. Who had built the countless temples, dug the tanks, constructed the choultries we have inherited and struggle to maintain? The prima donna of varnams, Viribhoni continues to thrill but not much is known of its author. In fact even his name is spelt differently. When Adiappayya was known as the composer of the jewel Viribhoni what other facts were needed people had thought. Values are changing. The Nation therefore has a sacred duty to remember them all, recount their services and ‘relate their artistic tales’.”


It was a labour of love. Rajagopalan went about his task meticulously, scouring the back issues of The Hindu, other newspapers and the Sruti magazine, regularly visiting the libraries of places such as the Music Academy, interviewing stalwarts such as S Rajam, reading the books of scholars such as Professor P Sambamoorthy and talking to countless lay listeners of music. Today, much of the information he put together is on the internet, with most sources not even acknowledging the fact that they have lifted their content from Rajagopalan. But in his time, it was all primary research, undertaken by him.


The first book, A Garland, A Biographical Dictionary of Carnatic Composers and Musicians, came out in April 1990 with a Srimukham from the Acharyas of Kanchi and a preface by M Gopalakrishnan, then Chairman and Managing Director of the Indian Bank which institution helped with the publication. The book itself came out under the auspices of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Rajagopalan did not stop with that. At least four more books came out – Another Garland, Yet Another Garland, Fragrant Garland and Melodic Garland. At the end of the exercise, around 1,500 music personalities had been covered.


During the process Rajagopalan came across several tricky issues – there were scores of doubts on places and dates of birth for many musicians. His entry for Gopalakrishna Bharathi, one of the longest in his books, states that while 1811-1881 is the accepted lifespan of the composer, 1810-1896 is another version that exists. Likewise, his entry on Narayana Teertha faithfully lists all three variants of his time period – 1675-1745/1580-1680/1610-1705! Rajagopalan waded into the controversy surrounding the place of death of this composer – Varahur or Thripoonthuruthi – and resolutely stuck to the former, a view that brought him into conflict with those espousing the latter location. The battle was duly fought in the pages of The Hindu and remained inconclusive but then, Rajagopalan was not a man to belabour a point. As he once humorously remarked, such controversies were not unique to Carnatic Music. According to him, Beethoven swore till his dying date that he was born two years later than the date of birth officially given out! But he did express his anguish when memorials and markers to great composers were obliterated.


He would rarely make his presence felt at music conferences and talks though he attended many. On one occasion I spoke on Papanasam Sivan and quoted extensively from A Garland. At the end of the speech a man clad in white came up to me, thanked me, and left. It was only later that I came to know it was Rajagopalan! May he be with the Carnatic Music greats.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 22, 2019