G.S. Mani’s penchant for composing

Veteran vocalist Madurai G.S. Mani’s Sanskrit kritis have been compiled into a book by his disciple

Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, the great composer of the early 20th century, was visibly pleased with the little boy who had just sung Mysore Sadashiva Rao’s ‘Evarunnaru nannu brova’ (in Balahamsa). Earlier, the seven-year-old had been introduced to him as a “boy who sings well”. Muthiah Bhagavatar held the boy’s hand and made him sit next to him on the oonjal in his house.

Who knows, may be it was in that moment that a transmission of the art of composing took place, for the boy, Madurai Gopala Swamy Mani, would produce hundreds of compositions, in three languages, in the coming years.

G.S. Mani clearly remembers that 1941 incident, including the minutiae of Muthiah Bhagavatar’s sartorial resplendence and heady perfume. “Muthiah Bhagavatar and my father were friends,” says Mani, as he reminisces about the milieu in which he spent his formative years.

In the last seven decades, the vocalist-composer has created about 200 songs in Sanskrit, a 100 each in Tamil and Telugu (his mother tongue), and some 50 varnams, including the one called ‘uttara raagavali’, in nine Hindustani raags like Maand and Jaunpuri.

Mani’s student, Dr. Usha Prasad, has now brought out a book titled Rajapujita Ramyam with 101 Sanskrit kritis composed by her guru. ‘Rajapujita’, a word that recurs in his compositions, is a complete work with notations for lyrics and transliteration. The book is expected to be formally released soon.

The 88-year-old vocalist, who lifts weights every morning to stay fit, says he did not write these songs. “They came from above; they came through me and not from me.”

Asssociation with MSV

If you pay attention to the lyrics of songs like ‘Raja mathangi’ in Chandrakauns or ‘Gambheera gaja nayakam’ in Gambhira Nattai or ‘Damodhara maamava sridhara’ in Kalyana Vasantham, you cannot miss the seamless flow of emotion-filled expressions. This feature is common to his compositions in all three languages. Mani’s Varamu creation ‘Ponnambalam Thannil’ in Tamil drew praise from the great poet, Kannadasan. Mani and Kannadasan knew each other well because Mani was part of film music director M.S. Viswanathan’s team for a decade from 1957, assisting in notating tunes as MSV played them on the harmonium.

The textural richness of Mani’s compositions has much to do with his eclectic, multi-hued music. Mani first trained under Jalatarangam Babu Iyengar, grandson of Poochi Iyengar, another renowned 19th century composer. His eyes light up when he speaks about Babu Iyengar. Jalatarangam is played by tapping porcelain bowls containing water with small sticks — Babu Iyengar would produce gamakas (oscillation) by striking the bowl and quickly swirling the water in it. Mani imbibed a lot from nagaswaram artistes also.

Introduction to Qawwali

As a young economics and political science graduate, Mani joined the US trade cell in Delhi as a liaison officer on a salary of ₹ 630. During this time he often got to meet the renowned singer, Begum Akhtar. At her suggestion, and to get a hang of Qawwali music, Mani visited a kotha in Delhi. “It was great music,” he recalls.

Observing and imbibing Hindustani music helped Mani craft Carnatic ragas differently. Mani’s singing is marked by slow, gliding alapanas, defined by long dwells on notes (karvai) — a sharp contrast to the rocket speeds that reign today. He is not fond of needless gamakas in Melakarta ragas. “In some ragas like Thodi, oscillations are fine, but not in all,” he says. He demonstrates two shades of Chakravakam, one with an oscillating ‘ri’ and the other with a rigid ‘ri’, and shows how the non-oscillating one sounds better, no matter if it resembles the Hindustani Ahir Bhairav more closely.

These days, Mani also spends time on his other love — physics. The conversation segues from music to icons of quantum mechanics such as Paul Dirac, Schrodinger’s cat experiment, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and, of course, Einstein. Referring to German physicist Hans-Peter Duerr’s quote, ‘The more you study matter, the more you know it doesn’t exist,’ Mani says Adi Sankara also said so a millennia ago.

Will he compose a song on quantum mechanics? “It has to come from ‘above’,” he says with a smile.

Unfortunately, not many of Mani’s compositions have made their way to concert halls. Vocalist Madurai Seshagopalan has sung his composition in the raga Suvasini, which, by virtue of featuring Mohanam’s arohanam and Natabhairavi’s avarohanam, uses both the upper and lower gandharams and dhaivathams. But Mani’s vast treasury of compositions is yet to enter the mainstream; perhaps Usha Prasad’s book may remedy this — and make Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar smile from heaven.

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