I have fond memories of spendng a great deal of time with Thanjavur Sankara Iyer in the 80s.
Those days I was a paying guest at Sangeetha Colony in KK Nagar Chennai.The landlady was a distant relative of TSI and her daughter a senior disciple of his.TSI used to stay in that flat too but it was only after 6-8 months of observing me and my listening habits that he decided to get close.
Those were early days for me in CM appreciation.I had a great thirst for CM but was finding it difficult to lay my hands on hight quality recordings.Most tapes available in the market were of 45mt durations and the practce of publishing live concerts was not yet in vogue.
Over a period of time I got very very close to him.Mainly because of our love for the music of Usad Amir Khan.He had some personal contact with the Ustad (probably in Bombay ,during his stint with School at Shanmukhananda Sabha) and we spent so many hours listening to those gems-and he was hearing many of them after a long long time.
It was during this period that Neyveli Santhangopalan used to visit him (on a moped .. seems like yesterday) and he was advised to listen to as much as possible of Amir Khan at my room.
My mother who had insisted on visiting me to see -first hand -if I was being fed properly had a reason to cheer too.Hailing from a joint family where she had to cook for a minimun strength of 10-15 members , she was getting all the proportions wrong while cooking for two.
With TSI and Neyvelis love for Chappathis etc , she was happy she could now cook for three on most days and four on occasional days.
Those were wonderful days - though I was ignorant of the importance of the happenings.
I sincerely hope that some of these anecdotes throw more light on this wonderful Composer.
The first thing that struck me was his simplicity .His smile can light a thousand lamps.It is so pure.And then as I spent more and more time , I started getting a clear idea of what it is to be a practitioner of CM.
Call them by any name - a composer , an artist ,or a practitioner or an exponent ...the sincereity is unmistakable.
I cannot believe today that on atleast three different occasions in that period , he narrated a dream of his over a morning cup of coffee , and he sang a new composition for me which he had composed in his half-asleep-half-awake state.
These experience really put me on a path of obsession with CM.
And this is something he was quick to locate in aspiring students - this magnificent obsession - without which he felt , nothing substantial could be achieved.
"Ha ! look at all my students who demand a break to watch sapthahiki on doordarshan (then a popular weekly capsule) - I have no big hopes for them -"he would confide to me.
I was also very useful to him whenever he tried to build on issues of aesthetics , for his students.
On occasions he would ask me to nod in approval or disapproval) as he sang various passages.
And whenever I came across something that I did not relish he would stop and say
"Look this chap.He has no past experience of CM but his areas of discomfort are so telling .And he has been listening to HM all his life.This is that unmeasurable aspect of our music which one can only acquire through constant listening to high quality stuff.Never for a moment lower your tastes if you want to reach greater heights " he would teach his students.
As I write these . more memories flood in.
His waking me up one night for Kumbakonam Betel Leaf (his stock had run dry) and treating me to some glorious Veena at 2 am or so.
His insistence on my accompanying him to a private concert of his (where he wanted to introduce me as his friend) .It was a wonderful house in Mylapore (cant locate it now though)
with a small a small theatre that could hold 100 people.And at the sight of the small audience , I started getting the shivers -all the big names of the day in CM were there.
I was so nervous that I did not stay for the after concert pleasantries(including dinner) only to get a reprimand the next morning.
I must say that I was fortunate to see the Practice of Carnatic Music in a totally different light.What happens on a concert platform is just a passing mirage.Here at ground zero , I had a chance to observe how artists would just drop in casually , how conversations would develop ,the wide range of subjects that CM encompasses (philiosphy , artistry, tradition, theory-) how the visiting artists would settle down to a practice session of what was being taught etc
On many a hot afternoon I decided to stay back and listen to a Dwaram Mangathayru or a Veena Sunder play and discuss.
To cut a long story short, It was a period where I realised what it meant to be a Upasaka .
There are so many images which move in and out .It is so difficult to describe the full picture.
What remains with me is
an enduring image of a man from whom compostions would silently exlpode as though they could not stay inside him anymore.
So ,The term composer or a vaggeyakara has never been the same to me again.
And the sound of an accomplished performer ,performing to himself with only the strains of a Thambura to accompany him , lost in thought-
BTW on the subject of his favourite singer , He once asked me that same question.I must have have mentioned a few names , but at the end he remarked ..
I know that these can only be personal choices , but let me tell you one thing.
I can see that you are on a path of discovery and that you are finding it quite exciting.The music of many artists will prop you up on your way and you may discard some and add some favourites along the way.
I may not be near you when you have progressed a lot but remember one thing.
if you do conclude- like I have - that GNB was a very singular and attractive influence on CM affecting it like no other musician has done , then you can conclude that your education has come full circle.
I mention this not as a subject to be debated , but only as something I find quite appropriate while discussing Thanjavur Sankara Iyer