Sri M. D. Ramanathan - a brief biography

1994 is the tenth anniversary after the death Sri M. D. Ramanathan. I offer this article as a sincere homage to this great musician. 

His life

M. D. Ramanathan (MDR) was born in Manjapara, Palghat District, Kerala on 20 May 1923. He had his early exposure and training in music from his father, Devesa Bhagavatar, who was a music teacher by trade. MDR attended Victoria College in Palghat, where he attained a B.Sc. degree majoring in Physics. He was well known in college as a talented vocalist. During this time, Ramanathan continued to progress his music studies and after completing his degree, he was taken to Madras by his father to further his musical career.

This was also the time when Smt Rukmini Devi Arundale had initiated the Sangita Siromani music course at Kalakshetra with the distinguished and respected Sri Tiger S. Varadachariar as Principal of the college. MDR auditioned for the course and was the only vocal student in the very first batch commencing in 1944.

Being the only student in the course meant that Ramanathan could receive extra special attention from Tiger Varadachariar. It is to be noted that Ramanathan is recognised as Tiger's most renowned disciple. Ramanathan held his guru in very high regard and always showed the highest respect towards him. Indeed, a special relationship between the guru and sishya developed with Tiger also recognising his sishya's talents. It has been said that MDR inherited even his guru's squint! This relationship continued for six years until the death of Sri Varadachariar.

After his graduation at Kalakshetra, MDR continued on at that institution - firstly as an assistant to his guru and later as Professor of music. He held this post, as well as being principal of the college of fine arts teaching both music theory and practice. Through his association with Kalakshetra he taught many students out of which perhaps the late Jaya Pasupathi is the best known.

Ramanathan's musical knowledge was highly respected among fellow musicians. He received the 'Padmasri' in 1974, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1975 and the Indian Fine Arts Society's 'Sangita Kala Sikhamani' title in 1976. He was a member of the Madras Music Academy's Experts Committee for many years. He was coveted for the Academy's Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in the 1983-84 season but the politics within that institution did not grant him the honour. Some have suggested that he be granted the award posthumously.

After a long illness, MDR passed away aged sixty on 27 April 1984. His death was due to heart failure. He is survived by his wife and his adopted son (MDR's sister's son), Balaji, who was about 10 at the time of MDR's death. A memorial fund was set up by a number of musicians and music lovers (including Sankara Menon, T. N. Krishnan, K. J. Yesudas and T. V. Gopalakrishnan) to assist his family after his death. There has been a film made about his life but it yet to be made commercially available. I believe there are only three pre-recorded cassettes of his available (one starts with Mahaganapathim in Nattai and the other the Kanada Ata tala varnam. The third is a double album starting with Viriboni in Bhairavi and has a Pallavi in Sankarabharanam). (A short video of MDR is now available. See the Postscript.) His music was heard for many years as the first item of the day on All India Radio in Madras.

M. D. Ramanathan is remembered as a gentleman and a musician's musician. His dedication to his guru, God and music was below none and his music lives on in the hearts of his admirers.

His Music

The music of M. D. Ramanathan is quite unique. There is no one who has a similar style of music, a style that has captivated the hearts of many music lovers. A colleague of MDR (D. Pasupathi) notes that Ramanathan was a nadopasaka - one who worships sound/music. He sang music for music's sake and was not bothered by a lack of audience or criticism of his style. He also sang for his own satisfaction. His style was in striking contrast to many of his contemporaries and offered peaceful music rich with bhava.
Ramanthan's music was sober, serene and soothing. There was prasanthi in his recitals. is slow rendering not only gave him time for introspective exploration, but also provided the audience with the opportunity to receive the message and ponder over it. The atmosphere he created during a performance was comparable to the bliss one would get while seated on a river bank on a moonlit night. (B. V. Raman & B. V. Lakshmanan in Sruthi No. 8)
MDR's music is easily recognised. Perhaps foremost is the rich, deep voice. Next, is the tempo of his music. By and large MDR preferred the vilambita kala (slow speed), although it is wrong to classify his music as totally slow - he would often include a few faster items with speedy kalpana swara passages. Nonetheless, MDR knew where his musical strength lied and his deep voice was suited to the vilambita kalam and it is was in this that Ramanathan excelled. The combination of these two features makes his music very relaxing. It has been suggested that continued listening to his music can lower the blood pressure and relieve stress.

His raga alapana-s were characterised by effective use of gamakam. They were full of bhavam. Again, his bass tone complemented this facet. His raga essays were not long but were concise and precise. Close listening to these essays will reveal the necessary phrases of the raga, without going into gimmickry or wizardry. The listener was always clear of what the raga was and could get the sweetest essence of the raga. Ramanathan's alapana-s in Sahana, Sri, Ananda Bhairavi, Reethigowla and Yadukula Kambhoji will forever hold a special place in Carnatic music history. These moving ragas took on a new dimension when rendered by MDR. Some other ragas that were his favourites include Kedaram, Kambhoji, Hamsadhwani. Like many of the old time greats, MDR did not venture into complicated arithmetic during kalpana swaras but was always had a good control of layam.

During his time at Kalakshetra, MDR taught many students. Since Kalakshetra was primarily an institution for dance, many leading dancers have had music training under MDR. I have spoken to several graduates from Kalakshetra and many have told me that at first they thought MDR's music was strange and unconventional (perhaps due to his mannerisms) but as they learnt more about the art they could appreciate his music more and could realise its greatness. Rukmini Devi too, was also full praise of MDR's music and told her students that it was something special.

MDR had a large repertoire of songs but also had his favourite ones. Nonetheless, every rendition (even of the same song) was different. I have heard his Endaro Mahanabhavulu many times but each is different. On some occasions he begins with 'Mahanubhavulu'. During the raga alapana of Sri raga preceding the Thyagaraja's Pancharatna, he correctly avoids the use Dha as this swara does not occur in this particular composition. In many of Dikshitar's compositions where a madhyama kala passage occurs he will sing the passage in two speeds creating a dazzling effect. This is the case in Sri Subramanyena Namasthe (Kambhoji) and Manasa Guruguha (Ananda Bhairavi). Also, in the Arabhi pancharatna, he sings the charana-s in two speeds as in a varnam. He has started Sogasuga (Sri Ranjani) with the line 'mridangatalamu'. While singing kalpana swaras for the Vallachi (Navaragamalika) varnam he has returned to the pallavi line in (Kedaram) on one occasion while he has used Kambhoji finishing phrases with Ma Ga .. Padasaroja on another. There are many more such examples of his imaginative music that other MDR fans can relate. I look forward to listening to his renditions because they always offer something different.

Stage Mannerisms

Some will say that MDR was more famous for his stage mannerisms and abhinaya (facial expressions) than his music. His facial contortions are well renowned. Together with his squint and kudumi (tuft of hair), watching MDR sing was not the most aesthetic experience. If you listen to MDR's live concert recordings you are bound to hear him chat and joke with his accompanists or the audience. In one concert, while seemingly rapt in the lyrics, he interrupts a neraval to explain the meaning of the line to the audience.

MDR would take his own time before a concert, between items and even sometimes during items if he wasn't quite ready. Perhaps his kudumi was a little too tight (or loose) for his liking and he would thus tie and untie it on many instances during a concert. The mridangist would always have to be prepared to play an extra few avartanam-s (or three) between sections of a krithi. Likewise the violinist had to be careful not to rush on to another line or sangathi as MDR loved to repeat lines several times. 

His compositions

MDR has composed more than 300 compositions. This includes varnams, krithi-s and tillana-s. He has compositions in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu. Many compositions began from spontaneous singing at temples. In some of his later concerts he would sing these compositions. The mudra (signature) he uses is Varadadasa (after his guru). Some of his compositions (like the Bilahari tillana with a line about Kalakshetra), have become standard items in a Kalakshetra dancer's repertoire. I have included the text of this composition at the end of this article.

Some of his compositions include:

Krithi                    Ragam               Talam           Language        

Anaimakhkattanai          Manirangu           Misra Chapu     Tamil           

Aparadhamulellanu         Gowrimanhohari      Adi             Telugu          

Bhaja Bhaja Manuja        Behag               Adi             Sanskrit        

Bharatesanute             Arabhi              Misra Chapu     Sanskrit        

Brindavanaloka            Kalyani             Adi             Telugu          

Brochudaku Samayaide      Begada              Rupaka          Telugu          

Dandapani                 Ramapriya           Rupaka          Telugu          

Dari Neevale              Begada              Rupaka          Telugu          

Dharmavathi               Dharmavathi         Rupaka          Telugu          

Durgadevi                 Sri                 Adi             Sanskrit        

Emdukichapalamu           Purvikalyani        Adi             Tamil           

Ennakutram cheideno       Huseni              Adi             Tamil           

Gajavadana                Hamsadhwani         Rupaka          Sanskrit        

Gurucharanam              Kannada             Adi             Sanskrit        

Guruvaram Bhaja Manasa    Dhanyasi            Rupakam         Sanskrit        

Hariyum Haranam           Atana               Rupakam         Tamil           

Innamum I Chalama         Begada              Adi             Manipravalam    

Jagadambike               Kedaram             Rupakam         Sanskrit        

Janani Natajanapalini     Sankarabharanam     Misra Chapu     Telugu          

Jaya Jaya Sri             Vasanta             Triputa         Sanskrit        

Kamalakshi                Sankarabharanam     Jhampa          Telugu          

Kanda unakkinda           Thodi               Adi             Manipravalam    

Krishnananda Mukunda      Kharaharapriya      Misra Chapu     Sanskrit        

Lalithe                   Natakurinji         Misra Chapu     Sanskrit        

Mahadeva                  Abhogi              Adi             Sanskrit        

Manamai Ramanai           Sindhu Bhairavi     Misra Chapu     Tamil           

Manasa Sriramuni          Bhupalam            Adi             Telugu          

Mayamma                   Ranjani             Rupakam         Telugu          

Narayananenru Sollu       Desh                Misra Chapu     Telugu          

Neepadamula Nera Nammiti  Chakravakam         Jhampa          Telegu          

Neranamminanura           Hamsadhwani         Adi             Telugu          

Neranammina               Anandabhairavi      Misra Chapu     Telugu          

Nivale Daivamu            Yadukula Kambhoji   Misra Chapu     Telugu          

Nivamti Dhaivamu          Kapi                Adi             Telugu          

Nive Dinarakshakudu       Devagandhari        Adi             Telugu          

Palaya Mam                Begada              Rupakam         Manipravalam    

Pavana Rama               Atana               Rupakam         Sanskrit        

Padasaroja                Mukhari             Adi             Telugu          

Padasaroja                Saveri              Adi             Telugu          

Padayugamunu              Janaranjani         Adi             Telugu          

Paduvom Parandham         Purnachandrika      Adi             Tamil           

Palayamam                 Ritigowla           Adi             Telugu          

Parakelanayya             Mohana              Tisra Laghu     Telugu          

Parthasarathe             Surutti             Rupakam         Telugu          

Parvathi Parameswaram     Natai               Adi             Sanskrit        

Purnatrayesa              Purnachandrika      Adi             Sanskrit        

Ramam bhaja               Arabhi              Adi             Sanskrit        

Raghuvara                 Bilahari            Adi             Sanskrit        

Rama Raghava              Thodi               Rupakam         Telugu          

Rama Rama                 Nilambari           Adi             Sanskrit        

Sagara Sayana Vibho       Bagesri             Adi             Sanskrit        

Saketanatham Bhaje        Kamavardhani        Khanda Chapu    Sanskrit        

Sambo Satatam             Kapi                Adi             Sanskrit        

Sami Ninne Kori (Varnam)  Ranjani             Adi             Telugu          

Sankaram                  Sankarabharanam     Rupakam         Sanskrit        

Sarasijamukha             Yadukula Kambhoji   Adi             Telugu          

Sitamanohara              Kanada              Adi             Telugu          

Sri Ramadutam             Darbar              Adi             Sanskrit        

Sri Valmikapuravesa       Sama                Adi             Telugu          

Sriguruvaram              Hamsadhwani         Rupakam         Sanskrit        

Srimohana Rama            Mohana              Rupakam         Sanskrit        

Stanumalayum              Kambhoji            Adi             Tamil           

Sundaramurthini           Natakurinji         Rupakam         Telugu          

Thyagarajagurumasraye     Kedaram             Adi             Sanskrit        

Tillana                   Bilahari            Adi                             

Tillana                   Kapi                Triputa         Telugu          

Tillana                   Kathanakuthuhalam   Adi                             

Tillana                   Sindhu Bhairavi     Adi             Tamil           

Velavane                  Sahana              Adi             Tamil           

Venkatesa Girisa          Madhyamavathi       Adi             Telugu          

Vighnaraja                Sri Ranjani         Adi             Telugu          

Vinave                    Gowla               Adi             Telugu          
MDR's Bilahari Tillana in Adi talam


dhIm nAdhrudhim thOmdhridhIm thana dhIm

thathar thirAni thOm tillana (dhIm ...)


nAdhru thadIm thOmdhrithadhIm thana dhirAna

nAdhru dhridhru dhIm thana dhirana dhirana

nAdhruthathAni thOmdhrithadhAni thillAna

gugum thillAna gugum thillAna gugugu thillana (dhIm ...)


thripurasundari manOhara trijagadiSa vAlmIka purESa

prabhalamaina kalAkshétramunu kApadumaiya varadadASa sannutha

thAm tha-kita P D n P D P M G R G |jham M G R jham | jham S R G P D ||

S'S'N D S'R'G'P'M'G'R'S'N D dhi thAm|ginathOm dhi thAmgi-|nathOm dhi

thAm ginathOm || (dhIm)

this last section has the following notation:

x     1       2          3         x       .        x       .
S', , S'N D P D  n P D P M G R G | P , , M G R S , |, S , S R G P D ||
S'S'N D S'R'G'P' M'G'R'S'N D G'R'| , S'N D R'S , N |D P D P , G P D ||


Kuppuswamy, Gowri and Hariharan, M. (1981), Index of Songs in South Indian Music, B. R. Publishing Corporation, Delhi.

Rajagopalan, N. (1991), A Garland, Bharitiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay.

Sruti (1984), Issue 8 (June), pp. 30-32. 

Postscript: A short video on MDR is can be ordered through

Mohan Ayyar

Sydney, Australia

12th December 1994

mohan at

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