South Indian Classical Flute’s True Maestro
The world of South Indian Classical (Carnatic) Music has lost one of its doyens and probably one of its greatest Flautists after the legendary T. R. Mahalingam, on the 9th of April 2015. Kalaimamani and Sangeetha Natak academy Awards are two highly respected awards conferred on this humble genius loved and admired by all those who know him. Although he deserved every award that is in the music field, the commercially inclined organisations with lack of awareness about the quality of music, catering to the culture of clamouring for awards prevalent in the music field, this unassuming great flautist was left out. But, he didn’t care for awards and recognitions. His was a simple life dedicated to music, students, family, friends and scores of admirers in both the music and dance worlds. This maestro is none other than T.S. Sankaran, the legendary T. R. Mahalingam’s favourite student and also his trusted friend.
‘Sankaran Sir’ as most of his students respectfully address him was such an unassuming person, generous in how he shared his art with his students and a great master of his art. He didn’t have Godfathers to promote him. His success was through sheer hardwork, self-reliance and of course, his genius musical brain. He was born in Sathanur, a hamlet near Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu. His great grandfather Sri Sathanur Panchanatha Iyer was an authority on Dikshitar’s compositions, who was also one of the guru’s of the legendary Veena player Dhanammal. Sri T. S. Sankaran’s father Sri T.N. Sambasiva Iyer, was also a renowned flute player, who was the asthana vidwan (court musician) of the Mysore palace for several years.
I have never heard a flautist play with more classicism than my guru Sankaran sir. Everyone that is hailed or hails him/herself a maestro in the present day music world pales in comparision to my guru Sri T.S. Sankaran’s music and the technique. His music was for musicians, yet so accessible and enjoyable even to a lay man. His technique – probably one of the very best ever, his raga alapanas (improvised elaborations) – the very essence of the ragas he handled. It was a lesson in classicism each time he played. His laya (rhythmic aspects) – a tight rope walk even for the high calibre percussionists. His blowing on the flute – one of the most sophisticated with extra ordinary modulations. His sruthi (pitch) perfection – matchless. His exposition of the timeless compositions – a lyrical expression of the emotion therein, on the instrument. His flute sang as he knew the sahitya (lyrics) of each composition he played. He was someone I would call a complete maestro.
Sri T. S. Sankaran never craved for fame and he was so simple that he probably didn’t bother to promote himself. His name spread out as the natural scent of a flower that spreads on its own due to its innate nature. His well-wishers and his admirers spoke about him and his music, thus drawing the attention of music organizations that invited him to present his music in their festivals. I am personally so grateful to the late Pallavi maestro and guru to many senior musicians, Sri Pallavi Venkatrama Iyer for introducing me to Sankaran sir in the 80s when the former visited my house when I was playing a raga and a composition on the flute, after having learnt only the basic lessons. Sri Pallavi Venkatrama Iyer told my father and mentor
I . R. Rama Mohan (a mridangam artist) that he wanted Sankaran sir to see me play and give his opinion. I was very young and not did not understand the significance of that discussion. When we visited Sankaran sir, he heard me play and said I was a natural in music and on flute. He said he would be very happy to teach me further. Thus started my journey of studentship with the maestro Sankaran sir. Each time I went to his house, I wondered at his simplicity. His demeanour at home was so simple but graceful. He always wore a beautiful gold chain with a medal he received in a felicitation function and a few golden rings on his fingers. He was so simple in his clothes and in how he carried himself without any sort of showmanship. He always was so dignified and magnificent in his appearance when he played on the flute without any mannerisms. He used to give his 100% energy to his flute playing when teaching his students even when he seemed tired due to his daily activities. I cherish his hand-written notes of those varnams and keerthanas he taught me, which he used to write for me with utmost patience. His hand writing was so beautiful like his heart. He was a giver par excellence. He practised yoga which he had reduced as years passed by as he got immersed in music, teaching and traveling. His posture was so erect with a straight back and to watch him perform was a treat to the ears and eyes as his appearance on stage was that of a dignified greatness. He was so much sought after by top class dancers around India and abroad for his extraordinary skills in setting to tune, their dance repertoire, composing for thematic presentations and for his authoritative lead on the orchestral side which invariably increased the quality of their presentations thus ensuring that the performances were always grand successes and dancing to his music – an uplifting experience in sheer classicism.
Although some with vested interest tried to disrupt Sri T. S. Sankaran sir’s classical solo performing career with spreading of misinformation that he was busy playing for dance, he shut them all up with his matchless performances in such prestigious festivals like Akashvani Sangeeth Sammelan, regular prime-time concerts on the All India Radio, state and national television and concerts in reputed organizations, always accompanied by the best in the field. I have noted with reverence how humble he would be after completing a fantastic concert, towards his accompanists, often profusely thanking them for their ‘help’. He need not have been so humble, but that humility was what made him so special and humane. Everyone who came in contact with him loved him and respected him. He used to phone me and ask me to come to the All India Radio station for his recordings to play the talam to support his accompanists who would find it difficult to cope with his intricate calculations during his swara prastharas (rhythmic improvisations to the compositions set to specific metric cycles). I had great privilege to be there on many such occasions and in his public performances too. Even to me, a humble student who admire his musicality greatly, he used to say ‘I haven’t taught you much, you are playing all of this due to your natural talent’, which I feel, he had only said due to the greatness of his heart, but I feel it is due to his generous blessings, that I am able to play whatever I do play. He gives his students so much confidence. He believes in each of them and so they believe in themselves.
Sankaran sir used to travel to the USA and other countries often and hence there used to be long breaks between when I used to go to him, but, he used to make it a point to give me a call as soon as he came back to Madras (Chennai) from his tours. There were many occasions when he had introduced me to other artists and his acquaintances, talking very highly of my music, which used to show the great soul in him that is so good at heart and full of compassion. I have not seen him ever show any signs whatsoever of any sort of insecurities that we often witness in the music field if not the entire art field. He was always generous in priase for others. He believed in the philosophy of live and let live. He had shared with me several anecdotes about his guru, the legendary T. R. Mahalingam which I treasure. Sankaran sir attended several concerts of mine on the flute, violin solos and vichitra veena and blessed me with his presence and appreciative blessings. Sankaran sir’s legacy is being carried forward by some of his dedicated students among whom flautist/vocalist Sriram Gangadharan and grandson flautist J.A. Jayanth are two note-worthy names. Sankaran sir’s family can be said as a musical family as his wife Late Smt.Sundari ji was a fine vocalist and a dedicated teacher and his son S. Jayaram is a fine mridangist along side his highly demanding career in the Indian Government service. There is a lot one could do as a student of the legendary Flautist Sri T. S. Sankaran, and the most important of that is to let the music world know that some of his flute playing techniques, importance he gave to lyrics, his understanding of certain finer aspects of handling of the ragas and the compositions, are first of their kind ever in Flute’s history and also he probably was the last of the maestros we have seen as of now. Sankaran sir was the finest example of a truely great musician with generosity, humility and thirst for more knowledge and also the rare quality of the ability and willingness to share what he knew with students and others. Everyone who had come in contact with him directly or indirectly can confidently and proudly say that there lived a true genius, a true maestro of flute, a fine human being and a great example of a musician! The younger generation needs to know about him and definitely must take a leaf out of his book in understanding what qualities a musician should possess. His family and family of students will miss him dearly, but he lives in our hearts and in his music forever.
– Vijay Venkat