Tete-a-tete – R. K. Padmanabha

R. K. Padmanabha (b. 26 September 1949) is a multifaceted personality. His rich and powerful voice, coupled with a deep knowledge and strict adherence to sruti, has made him one of the top concert performers of Karnataka. His equal command over both the practical as well as theoretical aspects of music has made his lecture-demonstrations a treat to learned scholars and laymen alike. A special feature of his concerts is his excellent rendition of different varieties of Thana, a very challenging aspect of Manodharma Sangeetha.

He established the musical institution, Sharada Kala Kendra, in Nov. 1990. Apart from providing training in music to scores of students under its auspices, he also pioneered the concept of Goshti gayana, group rendering of kritis, with the intention of promoting classical music among the common man. Since 1994, he has trained hundreds of people to sing kritis of great composers, such as Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Shyama Shastry, Mysore Vasudevacharya, Purandaradasa and Vadiraja, in perfect unison. In addition, he has a number of cassette releases and publications to his credit. He has brought out around 200 compositions of Mysore Vasudevacharya in 21 cassettes, sung by leading artistes, with accompanying notation booklets. This is undoubtedly an unparalleled achievement. It is the first time in the history of Indian music that such a comprehensive and authentic collection of the composer has been compiled. Also, the compositions of Vadiraja, Kanakadasa, Purandaradasa, Raghavendra Swami, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Thyagaraja have been brought out in both cassette and book forms. Released only with the aim of being educative and to popularize classical music, these cassettes are available only at his institution.

R. K. Padmanabha has a special reverence for the kritis of Vadiraja. These beautiful kritis, until recently, had not been popular among performers or audiences. R. K. Padmanabha has single-handedly been responsible for tuning and popularizing around 90 compositions of Vadiraja, as a result of which, these kritis are being sung on concert platforms as well as in hundreds of households across Karnataka. He established the Sreemadvadiraja Aradhana Trust, through which the construction of Vadiraja Kala Bhavan, in Hulimavu, Bangalore, was completed in 1999. Vadiraja Kala Bhavan is special in more ways than one. It is probably the only monument of its kind dedicated to a Haridasa. The Dhyana Mandir adjacent to the Bhavan is unique for its beautiful idol of Vadiraja, as well as for the acoustically excellent construction. A beautiful auditorium has also been constructed now.

The divine and attractive environs of Vadiraja Bhavan have fast made it a centre of cultural activity in the city. Every year, celebrations of aradhanas commemorating the contributions of great composers are held here. In fact, the celebrations of Dikshitar and Vadiraja aradhanas are unprecedented successes, with huge crowds thronging to the Bhavan on these occasions. Special concerts by leading musicians are arranged, in addition to Goshti gayana, adding further to the grandeur of the celebrations.

To promote classical music among the youth, he organises two residential music camps at Vadiraja Bhavan every year, where the gurukula system is followed. The first is a camp for young upcoming performers, and the second is a summer camp for children to introduce them to the intricacies of classical music.

R. K. Padmanabha has been portraying the characters of Muthuswamy Dikshitar in the play Nadajyoti Muthuswamy Dikshitar and the character of Purandaradasa in the play Dasa Purandara, to much critical and popular acclaim. He has also directed a unique musical play on Thyagaraja – Prahlada Bhakta Vijaya. He himself plays the role of Thyagaraja in the play.

He has recently written and composed a set of kritis in Kannada; the kritis are musically vibrant, yet simple to learn, in accord with his continuing effort to make classical music easily accessible to the common man.

In recognition of his invaluable service to the field of music, R. K. Padmanabha has been honoured with many awards and titles such as Rajyothsava Award (2004), Purandara award (2005), ‘Ganakalabhushana’ (Karnataka Gana Kala Parishat), ‘Sangeeta Kala Bhushana’ (Thyagaraja Gana Sabha) and Goshti Gana Kala Chetana.

R. K. Padmanabha has retained his humility and down-to-earth nature. He is popular with youngsters and adults alike and is known for his wit and sense of humour. An orator par excellence, his command over language and expression is renowned in music circles. His sportive nature is a reflection of the fact that he is a keen sports enthusiast, fond of swimming and playing ball-badminton.

As a teacher, he is a role model. He takes a deep personal interest in each of his disciples. He believes that the responsibility of a guru is not confined to mere teaching of music, but extends far beyond, to inculcating the right set of values and moulding the personality of the student. This he does by being, at varying times, a friend, a teacher, a guide or even a parent to his students. He demonstrates his ideals and principles, not by preaching them, but by practicing them in his life. His unselfishness, generosity, humility, frankness and disdain for money are to be admired and emulated by all.

A truly remarkable person!

Do you come from a family of musicians?

No. What inspired me to music was my village Rudrapatna (Hassan District Karnataka). There’s music in its very air, the environment inspiring me to like music even as a child.

When did you start learning music?

I used to sing but casually. I loved to talk to people, organize, watch musicians; I was fascinated with the way musicians dressed for concerts. More than listening to the music, I used to love watching Chowdiah for I liked the way he carried himself. In January 1974, when I was 25 years old, I joined the Vijaya College of Music in Bangalore.

Your teachers?

I received my training in music from Mysore Nanjundaswamy, Vidwan Seetharama Shastry and Prof. H. V. Krishnamurthy.

I haven’t learnt much from my gurus. Most of what I have learnt is on my own, even the techniques of voice culture.

Usually when we talk about vagyekaras (composers), we relate more to Purandaradasa, Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Very few are aware of Vadiraja’s compositions?

Till 1990, even I was not aware of any kriti of Vadiraja. One of my friends gave me a book of Vadiraja’s compositions, published by Prasaranga, Mysore. As I read that book there was a change in me; it was as if Vadiraja was directly talking to me, asking me to bring those compositions to light. Since then there was no looking back.

The first composition of his that I sang was Narayana enniro sajjanarella. I tuned twenty-five compositions in twenty-five days. I have published about 120 kritis of Vadiraja. Many cassettes of his songs have also been released. Every Sunday, every year from October 29 to December 25, I give concerts exclusively featuring Vadiraja’s compositions.

Vadiraja’s compositions are now better known all over Karnataka.

How different are your concerts?

Whenever I give a concert, I want to educate my audience, who are common people most of the time. Whether I sing ragam, tanam, pallavi or compositions in different ragas, rather than just entertaining them. I feel it is also my responsibility to educate them. I talk to them about Carnatic music, the compositions I am singing, the ragas and so on.

I am one of the happiest, contented musicians. My music has reached the common man and that has given me a lot of satisfaction. That has been my main objective.

How did the concept of goshti gayana (group singing) come to you?

I started this in November 1994 with the objective that everybody should be given an opportunity to sing Carnatic music. There are those who have learnt music but do not sing, there are many who want to learn but cannot; there are some with inhibitions, some without opportunities. So goshti gayana is my way of making them all come together and sing together. In goshti gayana I make them sing pure classical kritisvarnas, javalis, padas, etc., each time taking the compositions of one of the composers, Thyagaraja, Purandaradasa, Vadiraja, Vasudevacharya, or Dikshitar.

950 people sang nava varna kritis in the Gana Gyana Yagna organized by my institution recently. For six months, every Saturday, I trained these people between 4 and 6 pm, without taking any fees from them.

Could you tell us about Vadiraja Kala Bhavan which is perhaps the only monument dedicated to a Haridasa?

I wanted to do something lasting for my aradhya devata, Vadiraja. That’s how Vadiraja Kala Bhavan in Hulimavu, Bangalore, came to be constructed.

Often we hear artists complaining that they find it tough earning even their livelihood. How did you raise money to construct such a magnificent Kala Bhavan?

I am a very happy and satisfied artist. The Sreemadvadiraja Aradhana Trust collected one crore rupees for the Kala Bhavan in 1998, all with the support of the common man.

Tell us about your recent programme Gana Gyana Yagna.

Gana gyana yagna‘ involved a wonderful week of dawn-to-dusk music and music-related programmes. There were poojas, yagnas, talks on music, music concerts and goshti gayana. We created the ambience to suit the occasion.

Your future plans?

Propagating music is my mission. I love teaching and have 25 students of age-group 18-25 years. Other than teaching and talking about music, I take them out once in three months; more like a picnic but with the focus on musical activities. My students get completely involved and come up with a lot of queries on music, often talking only about music. Some students become good performers and some develop a good ear for music. I never take fees from my students. Students are my assets.

You have also acted in many plays where you portray the character of Haridasas. How did you get to acting?

I think acting is God’s gift to me. I have always liked plays. Whenever I sing a composition, I go deep into the lyrics and understand why and in which context a composition has been written. This has enabled me to portray the characters of Muthuswamy Dikshitar in the play Nadajyoti Muthuswamy Dikshitar and the character of Purandaradasa in the play Dasa Purandara, to much critical and popular acclaim.

You have released many audio cassettes of your compositions. Are they available in the market?

I have come out with about seventy compositions of my own in the form of audio cassettes. There are publications on various kritis with the notation published by my institution. My institution has released 56 audio cassettes of various composers. If any one is interested, they can contact me or my office for the cassettes. Many students of different teachers also buy these publications and audio tapes.

Your message for youngsters?

I feel our classical music is quite safe in the hands of youngsters. Prathibhe and sadhane is very important for an artist. Pratibhe is temporary which gets an artist to one level, ultimately what remains is the sadhane. Youngsters have all the facilities these days – medium, publicity, platform, money but one has to be serious. Hard work will pay off.