Sugama Sangeeta, Kannada lyric music, doesn’t have a long history. In its relatively short journey of say 80 years, what it has been able to achieve is rather amazing. Picking up ideas and idioms from other musical languages it has constantly evolved, making its articulation more sophisticated and refined. If one has to mark the golden epoch of this form, it was between the late 70s and mid 90s, and if one has to map it in terms of the people who bestowed greatness upon it, it is from P. Kalinga Rao to Mysore Ananthaswamy to C. Ashwath. This includes a whole lot of singers and instrumentalists who gave shape to the abstract dreams of composers, rendering it immortal.
If the 70s can be recognized as the defining moment for Sugama Sangeetha, Ratnamala Prakash occupies a prominent place. An extremely talented and competent musician who entered the scene during this period, gave voice to some of the iconic compositions of stalwart composers like H.K. Narayana, Padmacharan and of course, the legendary Ananthaswamy. For nearly two decades, Ratnamala held sway over the world of Sugama Sangeeta with a voice that not only traversed the octaves with consummate ease, but with also a timbre that could produce subtle emotions. It was no surprise that she became the natural choice of every composer and poet. Ratnamala became a household name in every corner of Karnataka and her concerts drew thousands, which was the envy of even top ranking classical vocalists.
When Ratnamala made her entry, Sugama Sangeeta had already travelled quite a distance. Outstanding musicians like Jayavantidevi Hirebett, Amirbai Karnataki, Balappa Hukkeri, C.K. Tara, Anuradha Dhareshwar, H.R. Leelavathi and others had already made their mark. The songs they sang were based in classical music with the notion of orchestration being fairly simple. But with Kalinga Rao and largely Mysore Ananthaswamy, the idea of Sugama Sangeetha became more complex and nuanced. It moved away from the classical, and bursting with fresh musical ideas it captured the spirit of the poem in all its textures, the orchestration inspired by Western symphonies became multi-layered — the form gained a distinct identity.
Ratnamala’s sensibilities – nurtured in chaste classical but formed in the relatively modern climate of Hindi film music — were a perfect fit into this period of transition. Her training in Carnatic classical began when she was five, by her father, the doyen of Carnatic music, R.K. Srikantan. Ratnamala’s imagination however, was captured by film music. The renditions that haunted her in her growing up years were those of P. Susheela, Vani Jayaram, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar. “I secretly listened to Binaca Geetamala in those initial years and it would upset my father.But as days went by, Srikantan encouraged Ratnamala’s talent and has remained her mentor and connoisseur.
Entry into Sugama Sangeeta was through All India Radio competitions for which she was guided by her father’s favourite student, H.K. Narayana. She won the first prize at the National level with which she became a graded singer of All India Radio. “I was fortunate to have worked with Mysore Ananthaswamy,” recalls Ratnamala. “Ananthaswamy could play harmonium, tabla, and flute. He was a perfectionist and extremely gifted. He would make us practice from morning till night,” she says, recalling his compositions packed with artistic tension and restraint. With Ananthaswamy’s MSIL Geethegalu, a one hour Sugama Sangeetha programme broadcast on AIR’s Vividha Bharath channel, Ratnamala’s renditions like “Karunalu Baa Belake”, “Ede Tumbi Haadidenu”… became etched in the Kannadiga’s mind. “I must call it madness,” says Ratnamala. “Night and day I used to practice. I could think of nothing else but these songs. In fact, there were times when I used to practice late into the night, and my husband Prakash would fear that I would fall ill.” This passion, Ratnamala adds, was pure and existed for its own sake. “We hardly got any money. In the beginning it was Rs. 50, later Rs. 100, and much later it was Rs. 500. But money was never a concern for us, we were madly in love with what we did…,” says Ratnamala, speaking for all the singers of her times.
Those were not the days of cut and paste technology. A singer had to be perfect with the song before entering the recording studio. “Poets sat with composers while the song was being tuned with every single word being scrutinized. We have benefitted hugely from all this. If Mysore Ananthaswamy gave me a strong foundation in Sugama Sangeetha it is All India Radio that is responsible for my status. I am eternally grateful to both.” Slipping into the past, Ratnamala says that even while the rehearsals for “Yaava Mohana Murali” were going on, she knew that it was going to be a path-breaking composition. “What a composition that was! It haunted me even in my dreams.” However, Ratnamala feels that over the years the song has grown so much within her that now she can sing it far better than what she did then.
Composer C. Ashwath with whom Ratnamala had a long association, was completely different from the earlier composers. Ashwath, who could neither play an instrument nor write notations, infused great drama into his music. Ratnamala’s career reached a pinnacle with songs like “Neenillade Nanagenide”, “Deepavu Ninnade”, “Toura Sukhadolagenna…” “It was difficult to work with Ashwath. He was temperamental,” she recalls. “He would literally pluck his hair in frustration and scream. But when he was happy, he would say, ‘you are a monstrous talent!’. He had great faith in me.” Ratnamala’s preparation would always be thorough. With unrelenting sadhane, she would work on the skeleton before she went back the next day complete with her interpretations. “I have worked very hard and I did it with immense joy. I don’t think there is any short cut to excellence,” states Ratnamala, remembering her group Bharathi Vrinda, her years of duet singing with Malathi Sharma and many more.
With the comfort of technology, and a huge market, days of limited fame and monetary gains are long over. With it, great songs that have withstood the test of time have also disappeared. “With so many compositions being churned out now, nothing remains in public memory. So much so that singers now have to continue sing songs of the past to retain their popularity. I would never exchange all the money and fame that present-day singers enjoy for what I got. I worked with great people and sang masterpieces. It is priceless…,” says a visibly moved Ratnamala.
This ‘Haadu Hakki’ with her timeless songs, remains in the heart of listeners, and that is perhaps her ‘birudu-sanmana’.