by Vani Rao
Karnataka has always celebrated its festivals with grandeur. Most Kingdoms that ruled the land were patrons of art and music, be it the kings of Vijayanagara, Hampi, Hoysalas of Belur or Wodeyars of Mysore. Music and art have been given a lot of encouragement and has flourished under the aegis of these kingdoms.
During the pre-independence era, lot of stress was given to community celebrations of festivals. Important among these were Sri Rama Navami and Ganesha Chaturthi.
Sri Rama Navami brings to mind music concerts. It is similar to the MargaZhi Utsavam music concerts held in Chennai in December, co-inciding with MargaZhi, or winter.
Bangalore has seen several organizations conducting music concerts during Rama Navami, but one name stands above all these organizations, and that is the Sri Rama Seva Mandali of Chamarajpet.
It was in the year 1939, that Sri S V Narayana Swamy Rao began this momentous journey. A young lad of 14, enthusiastic about celebrating festivals like Kamana Habba and Ganesha Chaturthi with community participation was left with Surplus money after these two festivals. It was then, by a freak accident that he decided to use this money to celebrate the next Rama Navami festival.
It was a momentous decision; one that he stood by till the very last day of his life.
In the beginning, the Mandali’s activities were limited to conducting PuraaNas, Bhajans and Devaranaamas.
It was a practice in several houses of those times to have an exclusive concert for a limited audience at home. Sri Rao was fortunate to attend some such concerts. He felt that the talent and expertise of some of those greats was not reaching the masses adequately, and also his inherent love for music drew him to organize concerts himself.
In the year 1946, the Rama Navami Celebrations moved from the footpath of 3rd Main Road Chamarajpet to the Rameshwara Temple nearby. After that, there was no turning back.
For nearly 15 years, Mandali’s programs continued at the same venue after which it was shifted to the open area near BDCC Bank. In 1962, the Mandali moved again, this time to the more spacious open space, capable of seating 2000 people, near the Bangalore City Institute.
After 16 long years, Mandali moved to its present premises, the Fort High School Compound. The Government has magnanimously allotted this land to Mandali to hold concerts every year, on a permanent lease.
As Sri Rao grew, so did the Mandali; he quit studies when he was in the Eleventh Standard. He was employed with HAL and KGID but found it difficult to manage time for his passion, music. He decided that music was his life and resigned and plunged full time into this activity.
The Mandali was fortunate to be associated with Violin T Chowdaiah, Flautist T R Mahalingam etc. who performed here and also encouraged other musicians to perform at this venue. T Chowdaiah was famous for enticing musicians to perform for the Mandali.
Mandali was also fortunate to be guided by Sri A N Rama Rao, Sri N Lakshmana Rau and others who efficiently managed the helm of affairs.
Sri Narayana Swamy Rao was a devotee of Sri Rama, and felt that it is Lord Rama himself who is guiding him to organize “Sangeetha Seva”.
He was very meticulous in organizing the concerts. Every year, in November – December, Rao would set off on a pilgrimage to two places, Tirupathi, to seek blessings of Lord Balaji, and Mantralayam, to seek blessings of Sri Raghavendra Swamy, in whom his belief and devotion was complete.
After that, it would be a visit to Chennai to attend the concerts of the Madras Telugu Academy. This was a two-pronged visit, he would get to hear the music he so loved, and also book the dates with musicians to perform in the Mandali.
During the month long celebrations, Sri Rao stayed day and night at the pandal erected for the concerts. He moved to the pandal the day the idols of Sri Rama, Seetha, Lakshmana and Hanumantha were carried in and moved out only after they were carried out, a day after the concerts ended.
Mr Rao earned a lot of goodwill in the music fraternity and many senior musicians performed for him without treating the Mandali as a commercial enterprise. Sri Rao gave equal impetus to both Karnatic and Hindustani Schools of Music, which is why, on the performers list, we get to see greats like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan on one side and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar on the other.
It was customary for a long time in the Mandali to commence the festival with the performance of Sri Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar.
It is also a record of sorts that the one and only Smt M S Subbulakshmi performed for the Mandali nearly 31 times.
Sri Rao faced several blocks on his path, nature’s fury, obstacles from the administration and eccentric musicians to name a few. Nothing deterred him.
It is a treat to see the Pandal put up with special care. The present Pandal can seat nearly 8000 people. There are vehicles of the fire brigade, Police Vans and an ambulance too, for the needy. There are makeshift shops selling short eats and cool drinks, along with music companies putting up their stalls beside them.
There is a huge volunteer turnout from the Bharat Scouts and Guides each year who help with the general management of the concerts, like guiding people to their seats, ensuring smooth passage for vehicles etc. There are also special buses arranged during this event.
The Mandali enters its 70th Year during 2008-09. There are plans to build a music school that would impart training in all fields of music, following the Guru-Shishya Paramapara style of teaching.
Organizing concerts on this scale is no easy job. Sri Rao’s better half, Smt Narasamma has to be given due credit for bringing up and educating their children to become responsible and good citizens while her husband was busy with his work, and inculcating the same spirit the father had, in them also.
It is because of this spirit, that, even after 7 years of Sri Rao’s demise, the Mandali is still going strong, managed by his sons and a capable group of trustees, ensuring that the general public of Bangalore do not miss their annual dose of classical music.
After Narayanaswamy Rao’s demise in 2000, his admirers and well-wishers constituted the national award in his name to be presented to a senior musician of the country every year. The first recipient of this award was Smt M S Subbulakshmi in 2001. Later on, it was conferred on M. Balamuralikrishna, R.R. Keshavamurthy, A.K.C. Natarajan, R.K. Srikantan and Lalgudi Jayaraman who have contributed immensely for the growth and upkeep of music. This year’s recipient is Nedanuri Krishnamurthy.
Sree Rama Seva Mandali, which brings the best of the best from the Classical Music world to Fort High School Grounds, has been an inseparable part of Bangalore’s cultural life, bringing on its stage all the greats of Karnatik music.
Music lovers, who faithfully await this event year after year, seek the blessings of lord Rama on this auspicious day of Sri Rama Navami and thank Sri Narayana Swamy Rao for starting the Sangeethotsava, because concerts like Ramanavami music festival not only preserves the Indian heritage but also encourages budding Indian artistes who are the cultural torchbearers of the future.
69th Sri Rama Seva Mandali’s music festival will be inaugurated at the Fort High School Grounds today.