With his passion for teaching than performing, Carnatic maestro Mavelikkara Prabhakara Varma helped transform his students in myriad ways, a commemoration function notes.
In a virtual gathering today, colleagues and disciples of Mavelikkara Prabhakara Varma came together to remember the contributions of the vocalist to Carnatic music, noting that Kerala’s tradition of the south Indian classical system continues to owe immensely to the teaching and performing culture of the late artiste.
Varma died on this date 12 years ago. The end, on November 2, 2008, came at his sister’s residence in Tripunithura. The place was very familiar to the musician, who had taught at the RLV College of Fine Arts in the heritage town south of Kochi. Varma was 80 years when he breathed his last, 24 years after retiring from RLV.
From 2009, Tripunithura has been hosting an annual function in memory of Varma. The organisers chose the musician’s birthday for the occasion. Going by the Malayalam calendar, the date this time fell on November 1, coinciding with the state’s (65th) formation day.
In the times of Covid-19, the ceremony was online. Its highlight was the conferment of the Sangeetha Prabhakara title in the name of Varma, a prime torchbearer of the style of 20th-century great Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. The 2020 honour went to mridangam maestro Parassala B Ravi.
The septuagenarian percussionist was handed over the award by Varma’s frontline disciples Ponkunnam Ramachandran and Mavelikkara P Subramaniam in the presence of composer-reciter Jayaprakash Sharma. The virtual function also featured a string of brief speeches by musicians and pupils of Varma, besides a mridangam concert.
Mridangist Ravi said his personal relation with Varma goes back to 1960. That was the year Ravi joined Swathi Thirunal Music Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, 35 km northwest of his native town bordering Tamil Nadu. “Varma sir was a lecturer in the academy when I enrolled there as a student,” said Ravi. “From then, till his death, we shared close ties. He continues to live within me.”
Not many know that Varma played the kanjira, Ravi pointed out. Varma found joy in his trysts with the frame drum of the tambourine family. “His above-par knowledge about Carnatic percussion was obvious at his concerts. You change the gait a wee bit for a short while on the mridangam, and he would sense it immediately,” said Ravi, a top disciple of Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair (1926-2012) who learned mridangam from legendary Palakkad Mani Iyer.
Another specialty about Varma was his keenness to plan a concert. “Be it spanning 30 minutes or four hours, he wanted to ensure a good mix of certain elements he thought would be aesthetically pleasing,” Ravi said.
The programme concluded with a 15-minute mridangam concert by Ravi along with his son-disciple Venu Raveendran.
Earlier, Ponkunnam Ramachandran took the occasion to also pay tributes to mridangam artiste M Balasubramoniam. The percussionist, who died on September 6 at the age of 63, was serving as the director of the South Zone Cultural Centre established in Thanjavur by the Government of India. A native of Thiruvananthapuram, he, too, learned under Velukutty Nair.
The late percussionist had been instrumental in organising the Varma Jayanti celebrations from its first edition, recalled Mavelikara Subramaniam. The vocalist spoke of his music guru one who ruminated a lot on music before striking the right mix of ideas. “That was what he eventually served in classrooms and the concert dais,” Subramaniam said.
Nagaswaram veteran Thiruvizha Jayasankar (winner of 2019 ‘Sangeetha Prabhakara’) and mridangam maestro KV Prasad noted the penchant Varma had for giving classes. Varma seldom went by strict time-table while teaching in college. This trait of freewheeling teaching sessions has been a highlight of Ravi as well, they added.
Senior vocalist PR Kumarakerala Varma said Prabhakara Varma kept honing his scholastic skills all his life. At the function, he hailed Ravi’s role in charting a syllabus for mridangam in the music colleges of Kerala. Musicians T S Radhakrishna and Thamarakkad Krishnan Namboothiri, too, spoke at the event anchored by vocalist P Muraleedharan.
Varma, born into the erstwhile royal family of Mavelikkara in what is now Alappuzha district, was the grandson of Malayalam poet-grammarian AR Raja Raja Varma. He learned from the Swathi Thirunal Academy, then worked there and eventually served as the principal of RLV for three years till 1984. The Kerala government honoured him with the prestigious Swathi Puraskaram in 2006.
Renowned disciples of Mavelikkara Prabhakara Varma include Neyyatinkara Vasudevan, K Omanakutti, MK Sankaran Namboothiri, Thamarakkad Govindan Namboothiri and Cheppad Vamanan Namboothiri, besides Kumarakerala, Subramaniam, Ramachandran and Krishnan Namboothiri.