Keshav Desiraju – Gone too soon

“Do you know Keshav Desiraju?” asked my mentor KV Ramanathan. “You don’t? Well you must meet him when you are in Delhi next. He is one of the finest minds I know when it comes to Carnatic Music and much else.” Coming from KVR this was high praise indeed and I looked forward to the meeting as and when it would happen. In the meanwhile Four Score & More, the History of the Music Academy Madras, written by Malathi Rangaswami and me was released and Keshav wrote a review of it for a paper in Delhi. It was not exactly a flattering review but the underlying fairness was clear. That made me want to meet him even more.

The opportunity came when good friend Indira Menon organised a talk by me on Devadasis at the Habitat Centre in Delhi. Sarada and I made it a holiday of sorts, taking the boys on an extended tour of all my happy hunting grounds – Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri. The talk had a good audience turnout thanks to Indira who was indefatigable in her publicity for it. Among the attendees were Ram Guha and Keshav Desiraju. We became friends thereafter and regularly kept in touch. And then when he retired from his distinguished career in the IAS, Keshav decided to settle in Chennai, not far from where I live. We would meet often for tea and discuss our favourite topic – Carnatic music. We liked the same artistes and that was a great foundation to begin with. (On an aside, when Sarada and I met in 1992, the only thing we had in common was Carnatic music and a liking for the same artistes – I must say that on that foundation we have got along very well). The conversations would also include delectable sprinklings of stories on his grandfather Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, uncle Sarvepalli Gopal and career in the IAS. He had a whole lot of observations on the pillars of our society – never malicious but always pithy summings up loaded with humour.

Keshav had another side to him – his expertise on public health and his concern for building facilities for handling mental health in India. He was on the board of some of Chennai’s famed public and charitable health institutions. Of that aspect I know very little other than that those who worked with him were in complete awe of his expansive knowledge, his dedication to the cause and his ability to move heaven and earth to help.

It was Keshav’s dearest wish to write a biography of MS Subbulakshmi. I was one of those that tried to dissuade him from the task – what was left to write about her after TJS George and several others? But he was quite firm and laboured long and hard at it. The project took ten years and the actual writing around a year and a half. It was published by Harper Collins as Of Gifted Voice and released a year or so ago. I ordered my copy with no great expectations on anything new. And then I realised how mistaken I was. Keshav had taken up an entirely new angle – that of music as the bedrock of the story. Everything else – Shanmukhavadivu, Sadasivam, Meera, the charities (all the standard stock in trade for an MS bio) – was there but clearly second fiddle to the core – which was her music. Keshav painstakingly analysed her concerts – from lists, recordings and reviews – over her career spanning from 1932 to 1977 or so, and brought forth several startling truths long forgotten. Here was an artiste who had an extensive repertoire, that sang RTPs regularly and brought a great freshness to each song rendered, no matter how many times she sang it. Keshav also did the unthinkable – he was critical of this idol, especially when it came to her concert planning at venues outside of the citadels of Music Academy, Tyagaraja Aradhana and the Tamil Isai Sangam. He had some sharp observations on Sadasivam but conceded that MS herself had made a choice and had to live with that. In that sense she too carried some of the blame for what her music eventually evolved to represent – bhajans and chants.

Couched in perfect language, the book looked at the world of women artistes in detail and there were many moments during my reading when my eyes filled with tears and snorts of emotion made me pause. I later told him that while MS may have been the central character in the book, there were several more jostling for space – Madras Lalithangi, T Brinda, TMuktha, T Balasaraswathi, ML Vasanthakumari, DK Pattammal and NC Vasanthakokilam. He had made his work a tribute to all these formidable artistes. He agreed. In my view it was the finest book on an Indian musician. To be able to write on MS, you had to be a Keshav Desiraju. The grand old lady had clearly pulled strings from up there. It had taken a while but it was well worth the wait. MS had a fitting epitaph, one that would set the record straight, much needed after the kind of immature stuff that was written about her in recent times.

The book came in for critical praise and was received well by the public. Keshav gave talks on it at several forums, COVID lockdowns notwithstanding. He was happy with the response. A couple of days ago I invited him to speak on the music of MS Subbulakshmi in this year’s December series of lecdems at the Music Academy . He agreed. But that is now not to be.

I am sure Keshav had a lot more to contribute in all the areas of life that he was interested in. Which is why I cannot understand why he had to go so soon. Certainly my life will be somewhat lonelier – the number of people I can just call to laugh with or ponder over matters has shrunk. Farewell my friend. That you had to go on your grandfather’s birthday makes it all the more poignant. But tell me, whom am I to call to rejoice over the latest vintage recordings released over YouTube by channels such as Nadabhrnga and Vaak?