Contemporary Composer Ambujam Krishna -
A profile by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan
When Ambujam Krishna showed, for the first time, a selection of her early songs to her husband T.S. Krishna, the well-known industrialist of the TVS group, his amused comment was: “Find out first whether they are songs at all.” Ambujam had been married to Krishna for twenty-two years then. The TVS family, known for its modern and progressive outlook, had encouraged Ambujam, after her marriage, to take a diploma in home science, which she did with distinction from the prestigious Lady Irwin College, New Delhi. Although she kept herself well in the background, behind the charismatic personality of her husband, people who came to know her were struck by her charm, erudition and grace.
Kichu — or ‘TSK’ — as he was fondly referred to by those close to him, was aware of his wife’s potential, her utter sincerity in whatever she undertook, and her fervent bhakti which was the most dominant aspect of her character. Yet, the writing of songs in Tamil revealed an altogether new facet of her personality, even to him.
Taking her husband at his word, Ambujam brought her maiden efforts rather diffidently to Musiri Subramania Iyer. The veteran musician was visibly impressed. “It is good,” he assured her. “There is a liquid flow in the word.” Subsequently he set to music some of her songs which were included in the second volume of her compositions.
Ambujam Krishna had undergone conventional instruction in Carnatic music from Karaikudi Ganesan and later from Ganesa Bhagavatar, both of Madurai. Her father Ranga Iyengar, a brilliant product of the Presidency College and Law College of Madras, was a leading figure in the legal profession at Madurai. He was also a lover of music and often spent his rare leisure hours listening to Carnatic music. Ambujam Krishna’s maternal grandfather S.T. Veeraraghavachary was an eminent High Court judge in Trivandrum and a scholar. There were a good many rasikas in this branch of the family also. But this kind of family interest in music was nothing unusual in the Brahmin community in those days. There was nothing unusual, either, regarding her early familiarity with the important pasuram-s such as Pachai mamalaipolmeni, which any young girl in a Vaishnavite household was expected to know by rote. There was, in short,certainly nothing to suggest an eventual creative outburst which found expression in mellifluous songs.
Sometime in 1951 Ambujam visited the samadhi of Tyagaraja at Tiruvaiyaru. She found the experience deeply moving. One day, a few months later, in August 1951, she gave utterance to her first song, Unnai allal on Goddess Meenakshi. It was a spontaneous creation, not the result of someone working at creating a song. Thereafter the flow of songs has been steady over the years. Numbering around 600 to date, mostly in Tamil, the collection includes a few in Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit, Hindi and Manipravalam (a mixture of two or more tongues). Except for passing the Pravesika Examination in Hindi, Ambujam Krishna’s knowledge of the other tongues has been obtained through a natural instinct and a ear for languages, rather than through systematic instruction. Interestingly, and for no apparent reason, the bulk of the twenty-five or so songs in Telugu were written in the years 1953-54; hardly any were written later. Songs in other languages are fewer still in number.
Although in the preface to Gitamala (Volume I), her first book of songs, she says that the divine bliss she experienced on her visit to Tyagaraja’s samadhi inspired her to “compose” these songs, gradually she realised that the songs “came” to her as though dictated and that there was little she could call her own contribution. In the preface to her third book she states emphatically: “God shows his benevolence to various persons in various ways. I presume that He has chosen to bless me with this [spontaneous creativity] so that I may think of Him. There is not a jot of my own skill or knowledge employed here. I consider it His divine gift.”
Reminiscent of Nammalvar’s utterance, Ennai thannaakki ennil thannai in-thamizh paadiya Easanai — (The Lord who transformed me into Himself and through me sang of Himself these sweet verses in Tamil) — her sentiment stresses the concept of divine inspiration. To skeptics who would look askance at such a claim which borders on the mystic, the only reply would be that the creative process of an artist’s mind would, after a certain level, defy rational analysis. In psychoanalytical parlance, it may be termed as the surfacing of the vast storehouse of memories and impressions in the unconscious. But bards through the ages have been convinced that it is the ‘divine spark from heaven’ that has made them sing. In his critique of the British poet William Blake, Sir Maurice Bowra has observed that, “for Blake the imagination is nothing less than God as He operates in the human soul.” Also Coleridge, a mystic among the romantics, has said: “The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as the repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.” Every great creative artist has time and again stood in awe of his own creation, wondering whether it could be the work of an ordinary mortal like himself. It is this that enables him to view the work with detachment and perceive its beauties with the delight of a third person.
When we ask Ambujam Krishna how she feels at the moment she ‘gets’ these songs — mind you, she never says that she composed them — her spontaneous response is: “I feel happy. Maybe tears are coursing down my cheeks on certain occasions when I am moved by the emotion. Nevertheless I feel happy when I get the song. It is almost as though God -is reaching out to me, and the experience is exhilarating.”
There is no set pattern either in the events or the emotions which might have inspired the compositions. She has visited and worshipped at numerous temples. But only about twenty-five of these visits have borne fruit in the form of a song on the deity concerned. Noteworthy among them are Karumuhil vannam on Badrinarayan and Nindra tirukkolam on the Lord of Azhagar Koil near Madurai. Nor have all the moments of creation been serious and sublime; for example while she was witnessing a film on Krishna, a chance phrase uttered by one of the characters brought forth a song immediately !
There is no regularity or predictability about her creativity. All of a sudden, songs rush in one upon another, day and night, sometimes for a week at a stretch. There have been occasions when she has put down as many as three songs within a day’s span. On the other hand, there have been weeks, even months, when she did not put down as much as a single line. Initially her songs were by and large on Rama, whom she looks upon as her ‘ishta deivam’. There are several compositions as well on other deities such as Ganesa, Meenakshi, Sundareswarar, Muruga and Saraswati. Inexplicably, over the last decade, the songs on Krishna have been on the increase to such an extent as to outnumber those on Rama. She is herself puzzled by this phenomenon and is unable to attribute any reason for it.
On two rare occasions she was requested to compose songs on specific themes. One was when K.R . Kedaranathan, a senior disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, suggested that she should compose an opera on the Radha-Krishna theme. She refused at the outset, declaring that she could not compose at will. Surprisingly, a few weeks later, she started putting down songs relating to the theme. Kedaranathan set the pieces to music and presented it over the AIR under the title Radha-Madhavam. He later introduced her to the genre of pada-varna-s. This resulted in her writing two pada-varna-s for which he subsequently composed the music. The other occasion was when vidwan Madurai Krishnan requested her to compose an opera on the life of Lord Krishna. Once again she pleaded inability. But Krishnan told her confidently: “I’m quite sure that you will get the songs.” And she did, the first of the series ‘coming’ to her even before he took his leave. This collection of songs was subsequently set to music by Krishnan himself and presented by him as an opera entitled Krishna Leela Maadhooryam, once at the Brahma Gana Sabha, Madras, then at the Sathguru Sangeetha Samajam, Madurai and finally over the AIR.
Apart from these instances, her songs have always come unannounced and unsolicited. Her fervent faith detects the hand of the Divine in the significances of a good many of these songs. She recounts with joy the day she wrote the song Aaj bara jeewana pyala jab tuma aaye Nanda ke Lala — ( Now that you have come, O Nandalala, the cup of my life is full). Later on that day her husband arrived from Delhi and brought with him a beautiful marble image of Krishna, given by a friend. She is convinced that Lord Krishna had indeed announced his arrival through the song he had sent ahead.
She also says that there have been several songs whose significance she realised only long after she had written them. One such instance is the song Adaikalam adaikalam, the superficial meaning of which she was aware when she got it. However, a few weeks later, when she heard a discourse on the Vaishnavite concept of ‘saranagati’ or surrender, she realised with a thrill how every word of the song had a much deeper meaning, which lent a new dimension to it.
Nearly 250 of Ambujam Krishna’s songs have been set to music and three volumes entitled Gitamala, comprising fifty-one songs each, have been published. The songs in the first volume brought out in 1951 were set to music by Professor V.V. Sadagopan. The initiative for bringing out the songs in print was first taken by her mother-in-law Smt. Lakshmi Sundaram Iyengar, wife of the pioneering industrialist T.V. Sundaram Iyengar. The second volume published in 1967 contains songs set to music by Semmangudi R. Srinivasa Iyer at the request of her husband Krishna and by Musiri Subramania Iyer. The third volume brought out in 1980 and dedicated to the memory of T.S. Krishna, who had by then passed away, contains songs set to music by Dr. S. Ramanathan and Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan. A fourth volume is now under print. It has songs set to music by K.R. Kedaranathan.
A critic once suggested to Ambujam Krishna that she should compose the music also for her songs, remarking that this alone would bestow upon her the status of a true Vaggeyakara. “I do sing these songs to myself, they do come set in a raga. A string of songs in Kalyani, a good number in Todi and so on,” says she. “But,” she adds, “perhaps He who willed me to write the songs, did not will that I should sing them as well. And it would be presumptuous on my part to compose the music with my limited knowledge. I am not ashamed to say that I am more a rasika than a musician. Hence I have sought persons of musical competence to compose the music for these songs.”
In the Carnatic music scene, a lyricist who has his songs set to music by another is not a rarity. Arunachala Kavi, the composer of Rama Natakam is one such. The late Rangaramanuja Iyengar, in the preface to the fourth volume of his Kriti Mani Malai, has reminded us that the compositions of Purandaradasa, the Tallapakkam coterie and Oothukadu Venkatasubbier were all set to music by later-day musicians, since the original musical notations had not been recorded for the posterity by these composers. To quote an example closer to us in time, the lyrics of Subramania Bharathi are being freely handled by modern-day music composers, often with highly gratifying results.
These arguments apart, judging by the outcome, as borne out by the volumes of Gitamala, one would scarcely wish that the music should also have been composed by Ambujam Krishna herself. She has never suggested to the musicians even the raga-s for her songs. Except for mentioning the madhyama kala lines, she has given them absolute freedom to choose raga-s and tala-s as dictated by their individual genius. The handling of songs by different musicians, widely varied in their approach to music and in their styles, has been fortunate in more than one sense, for a rich crop of compositions in a wide range of raga-s and Ambujam Krishna speaks moods have resulted. Ranging from the ghana raga-s like Todi, Kambhoji and Sankarabharanam to rare raga-s like Hindolavasantam, Nitimati, Natakapriya and Ragapanjaram we have here, to borrow a phrase, ‘god’s plenty’. Kedaranathan recounts how he took special care to present even familiar raga-s from a fresh approach so that the songs would be striking in their novelty, thereby rendering them distinct from others in the same raga. The song Aadiya sevadi thedi paninthen in Hamsadhvani bears ample testimony to his claim.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who is full of appreciation for the first volume set to music by V.V. Sadagopan, remembers that it made his task more challenging when he himself embarked on the second volume. “Sadagopan had chosen a good number of rakti raga-s and I found I could not very well omit the entire lot merely for the sake of offering something new,” he says. “Even while preserving the mood of the lyrics, I had to strike a new approach.” Thus, the treatment of Alaya viduthal by Sadagopan and Gati neeye by Semmangudi, both in Todi, differ so markedly as to -highlight the nuances of the two songs. None delights in this aspect more than Ambujam Krishna. She expresses her heartfelt gratitude to the maestros who, she says, “have totally adopted these compositions and enhanced their beauty.” And she adds: “I would readily call them their compositions rather than mine.”
Even a superficial survey of Ambujam Krishna’s songs makes it evident that the pervading mood is one of fervent bhakti. The soul in quest of the divine is surely the overall theme. Even songs in the genre of pada-s, depicting the nayaka-nayika bhava, have a sublime tone and eschew any suggestion of the earthy and the erotic. Examples are Nee poi azhaithu vadi and Ododi vanden Kanna, portraying different moods of this bhava.
The one-to-one approach, which Tyagaraja assumed in his confrontations with Rama, is also found in Ambujam Krishna’s compositions. Charged with an emotional content that is the spontaneous outpouring of the soul, this aspect accounts for the immediate appeal of the compositions. Instead of being a sonorous stringing together of namavali, there is always a thought, enriched by emotion, conveyed through the songs. Engini chelvane and Gati neeye, in which the intrinsically poignant yearnings of the bhakta find expression, underscore this aspect.
The overtones of Vaishnavite philosophy are apparent features of almost all the compositions. Even the seemingly straightforward songs like Azhagu tirumeni convey images characteristic of Vaishnavite thought. There is, of course, the all embracing philosophy of treating earthly pleasures as trivial and the anticipation of the lasting bliss of ‘perinba veedu’ or the heavenly abode.
Apart from the music, the songs merit a niche in Tamil music because of their literary content. In his preface to the third volume of Gitamala, the renowned Tamil scholar Ki. Vaa. Jagannathan has pointed out instances of exquisite poetic thought in three songs: Panniya punniyam, Kanamenum iniyenum ilaippaaruvai, and Kuzhalosai ketka. Images and similes enrich the compositions without evidence of any attempt towards ornateness.
The song Gaana mazhai paints a beautiful scene of contrasts of the earthly inhabitants dancing in ecstatic abandon around Krishna playing on the flute, while the celestial beings, beholding the scene from above, stand in mute wonder, their immobility a result partly of the absence of the Lord in their midst.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Dr. Ramanathan both mention the diction as one of the features that appeal to them most in her songs. Says Srinivasa Iyer: “Her songs are simple enough to be understood by everyone, which is an important factor in determining the extent of their appeal.” Ramanathan buttresses this assessment, saying: “The style is simple and effective without resorting to colloqualism.” While there appears to be no conscious effort to steer clear of Sanskrit words which, whenever they occur, serve to enhance the easy flow of the lines, the songs in chaste Tamil are greater in number. Characterised by an endearing simplicity and innate lyricism, the words fall musically on the ears. The economy employed in the choice of words and phrases and the total absence of excessive syllables to fill up the metre, are other commendable features.
T.N. Seshagopalan, who was introduced to the Divya Prabandam at a tender age by his mother, finds Ambujam Krishna’s compositions evocative of the bhakti-laden verses of the pasuram-s. He commends the simple, yet musical diction.
It is common knowledge that the Divya Prabandam Saathumurai Paddati is characterised by its soft enunciation of harsh sounding ‘vallinam’ letters or hard consonants. The mode of recitation is designed to bring out the cadence of the lines. To one who has been brought up on the pasuram-s, it is but natural to have a keen ear for the musical intonation of words.
All the musicians who have composed music for Ambujam Krishna’s songs are agreed that there never was any occasion to modify, change, increase or decrease the syllables so as to fit the requirements of tala. Kedaranathan, who has set to music a number of long pieces with more than one charana line, avers that he did not find it necessary to alter even a single word or line, even though some of the stanzas contained lines packed closely with words. In an interesting letter dated 9 December 1951, addressed to Ambujam Krishna’s son Ramesh Krishna, Professor V.V. Sadagopan has written: “The more I observe your mother’s songs, the more I wonder whether it would be right to make even minor changes to suit the music. They seem to be so divinely endowed.”
The recognition that the worlds of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam have bestowed on these songs bears testimony to their intrinsic worth and spontaneous appeal. Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, V.V. Sadagopan, S. Ramanathan, K.R. Kedaranathan, Trivandrum R.S. Mani, T.N. Seshagopalan ,
Maharajapuram Santhanam, M.S. Subbalakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, M.L. Vasanthakumari, Mani Krishnaswami, Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan, R. Vedavalli and Sitamani Srinivasan are some of the musicians who have included Ambujam Krishna’s songs in their concert fare. Often they have rendered the songs as one of the main pieces, with elaborate raga alapana, niraval and swaraprastara. Individual songs have been recorded on discs and cassettes by M.L. Vasanthakumari, Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan, Sitamani Srinivasan and T.N. Seshagopalan. In the cassette of Ambujam Krishna’s songs recorded by Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan under the title Sree Rama Bhakti Margam, the sequence of the first ten songs chosen depicts the spiritual journey of the bhakta or the jivatma towards unification with Sri Rama, the Paramatma. The other four songs are in praise of Lord Krishna. A shorter version of Sree Rama Bhakti Margam was presented at one of the morning sessions at the Music Academy, Madras.
A couple of years ago, one of Ambujam Krishna’s grand-daughters had the following experience. The Gnana Ratham, vehicle for propagating the truths and values of Hinduism, which was on tour of Tamil Nadu at that time, was passing through Kodaikanal. The villagers worshipping it were heard singing in chorus a song whose words sounded strangely familiar. As she strained her ears to catch the words, she realised that it was her grandma’s composition Chinna chinna padam, but sung in a catchy folk-tune. The singers, on enquiry, told her that they did not know the author, but since they liked the words, they had set it to their own music.
Another interesting anecdote is related by Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan. Having sung Ambujam Krishna’s Mariyemi kaavalanu in Telugu during an AIR concert in Hyderabad, she was complimented by the other musicians at the studio on this rare ‘Tyagaraja kriti’ never heard by them before.
Sometime back T.N. Seshagopalan was pleasantly surprised when he heard over the radio a nagaswaram vidwan playing Ambujam Krishna’s song Guruvayoorappane. As one who had composed its music, he was glad that it had caught on within such a short span of time as to become familiar enough to be presented on an instrument.
The emotive potential of the songs has caught the fancy of more than one Bharatanatyam dancer. Vyjayantimala Bali, Lakshmi Viswanathan, Sudharani Raghupathy and Shantha Dhananjayan are among the dancers who have presented some of Ambujam Krishna’s songs in Bharatanatyam. Students of Sudharani Raghupathy, the Dhananjayans and the Kameswarans have also performed her compositions on occasions. Kamala [Laxman] Narayanan has performed, along with her disciples, the ballet Krishna Leela Maadhooryam whose music was composed by Madurai Krishnan. Sudharani Raghupathy has presented the same ballet under the title Sri Krishna Prabhava.
Queried whether there has been any recognition of her compositions by official and aesthetic bodies, Ambujam Krishna replies in the negative. A reason may be that no one has made any special efforts to draw the attention of these bodies to her compositions. In fact the three volumes published so far have arrived quietly on the musical scene, without any fanfare. No functions were held for releasing the volumes. No advertisements appeared in the press. Until now, she has permitted no interview or write-up. She has shunned all publicity not only because she is a reticent person but also because she is convinced that she serves as a mere ‘postman’ to receive what comes from Him and deliver it intact to others. This SRUTI article is an exclusive ‘first’.
“God has been extremely kind to me and bounteous,” says she. “He has seen to it that I have had a full and wholly satisfying life. To top this He has given me these songs as a means to think of Him always. As far as I am concerned I look for nothing further. If there be others who derive similar happiness through these songs, it is only an added blessing.”
Courtesy SRUTI August 1985