This is an ode to one of the funniest human beings. A doyen of Carnatic music and a member of the erstwhile royal family (or should I say despite being), he is also one of the simplest men I have ever seen.
Prince Rama Varma or fondly known as Varmaji, a descendent of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal and a disciple of Dr Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, is a well-known figure among Carnatic music aficionados around the world. There is enough and more written about his musical prowess and achievements. However, not everyone has a full appreciation of the sense of humour he possesses.
There is a perception that all Carnatic musicians are elitist and a very serious lot. Varmaji is the first person to admit this in spite of being a Carnatic musician. That is no different from the view I hold of accountants, despite being an accountant myself. The truth is there is no bigger exception to that view about Carnatic musicians than Varmaji.
You may wonder on what basis am I making such a tall claim. Being born with 207 bones (the extra one being a large funny bone), I can identify a humour sapien from a distance. I attended a couple of his music workshops and got two for the price of one – it was both a music workshop and a standup comedy!
Given his virtuosity in music, I would classify his humour into saptha swara hasya :
Shadjam or ‘sa’ hasyam (sarcasm)
It is funny when Varamaji calls the event organisers as The Boss, Mr Fine Arts, etc and compares them to Mr Universe and Mr World and states that we can do anything in the sessions only with their blessings.
Varmaji chided the signers who have a wrong perception that the more complex songs and ragas they sing, the more superior a musician they are. He recollected singing a Nottu Swaram in Madras Music Academy (purported mecca of Carnatic music) and added that if a legend like Muthuswami Dikshitar can compose it, then he can very well sing it.
He also took a dig at the composers saying that the content of all Carnatic music lyrics is normally sad. He feels it will always have them crying to God and complaining that God is not being considerate despite praying for long. This also shows his concern at the lack of variety in the subject of Carnatic music.
Talking about the importance of knowing the language of the song and using correct diction, he gave the amusing example of a famous singer from Kerala who has sung in many languages, which he feels all sounded like in Malayalam.
Rishabham or ‘ri’ hasyam (irony)
In a session, Varmaji asked everyone if they had watched the video he had shared before. When a person replied that she had watched a little bit, he responded by saying a little bit is more not watched than watched.
When he asked someone to sing swaras of Valachi raga, a lady started singing without announcing herself. He enquired who is singing to which the lady replied ‘me’. He responded by saying we all call ourselves ‘me’ and asked her name. And for the rest of the class, she was called ‘me’.
While teaching a Tillana, he asked out of the blue if the singer could drive a car. Surprised, she answered in the affirmative. To which he replied that if one could drive a car, one could sing a Tillana too because while driving you have to focus on the clutch, brake, accelerator, gear, steering, etc and that singing a Tillana is also similar.
At the end of the workshop, the participants presented gratitude messages to him, to which he replied that if he were a millionaire, he would have sent flight tickets to all of them for his upcoming concert in Chennai.
Gandharam or ‘ga’ hasyam (caricature)
Varmaji is a great mimic and mimics most famous singers like Balamurali Krishna, MD Ramanathan, etc. He also goes on to explain the method to imitate MD Ramanathan which is by touching the roof of your mouth with the tongue while speaking or singing.
Referring to Mohanam raga, he stated said that the Carnatic musicians’ faces will be so contoured while singing that it will look as if they are experiencing physical pain and that the face will hardly be ‘mohanam’ (pleasant) at all.
While teaching the Kriti ‘Sreesha padmanabha’ in Khamas raga, the first few lines had small ‘ni’. But when big ‘ni’ came, he remarked ‘Big ni was feeling bad since only small ni was coming till now. Now big ni has come and is happy finally’.
Madhyamam or ‘ma’ hasyam (mordant)
The method Varmaji follows to teach is to sing one line at a time and asking the participants to identify the swarams (notes). When asked, one participant guessed the swaram as ‘pa’ to which he blankly replied ‘No, but now you have six more choices.’
While teaching a song that had the word suhasini, the lady was not getting the notes correct. He remarked that at least you are looking suhasini which is correct, but you should get the notes also correct.
When one singer got the tune correct after a few attempts, he asked her to keep it there and not to change it even in October or November or December. And when one singer didn’t get it right after few attempts, he asked her to listen to the song later, not once or twice, not thrice, not 10, not 20 times, but 200 to 300 times.
Panchamam or ‘pa’ hasyam (puns)
During one session, Varmaji was teaching a song that had the word ‘varadaayaki’. He said that if we don’t sing the swaras of ‘yaki’ correctly it will be yucky and added that it will be yummy only if we sing correctly.
When a singer was singing the word ‘srikrishnaayanu’ with a pause after ‘srikrishna’, he said you will get more punyam if you sing ‘srikrishnaayanu’ (without pause) than ‘srikrishnaa nayanu’ (with pause).
During a song when two ‘ma’ swaras came together in a line, he asked the participant to think of her uncle (‘mama’) to get it right. While teaching a song that had the term Ratnangi in it, he called on a participant with the name Rathna as it is apt for her to sing that line.
Dhaivatham or ‘da’ hasyam (deadpan/dark)
One of the sessions got extended beyond the stipulated time and Varmaji was getting late for his next session. He excused himself saying he doesn’t want to be called Late Rama Varma.
Voicing his displeasure about the crowd in Dadar flower market during Ganesh Chathurthi in the midst of the pandemic, he stated that people will first buy flowers for the puja and then they will have to buy flowers for the funeral.
Apparently, a group of well-wishers in Hyderabad celebrates his birthday every year. However, when they called him in August this year, he politely declined saying he would like to be around to celebrate his birthday next year also.
Nishadam or ‘ni’ hasyam (anecdotal)
Varmaji narrated an instance when his friend from France had come to Kerala for a 10-day music festival he was organizing. After a few days, when he checked on his friend, the Frenchman replied that everything was fine except that he did not like coconut being added in all food items. So Varmaji took him to a nice 5-star hotel that served continental food.
All was well till the dessert came when to their dismay, they found that the Chocolate Mousse too had coconut shreds sprinkled on it. Varmaji drew a parallel of coconut in Kerala cuisine to how gamakams are overused by Carnatic musicians, whether it is required or not.
Varmaji was teaching a Thillana where the phrase ‘Dhir’ was written ‘Dr’. Seeing the confusion of the student, he recounted the story of a great scholar from Mysore who had released an album of Tillanas. Each Tillana started with ‘Dhir Dhir’ but the CD cover said ‘Dr Dr’ for all the songs and Varmaji said he used to think of this CD as ‘Doctor Doctor’ songs.
Varmaji had once surprised Manna De with the rare recording of the song ‘Poocho Na Kaise’ sung by SD Batish, which he played in one of the sessions. Varmaji seems to have more musical gems in his archives than treasure in Nilavara B of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple.
Shudha Hasya Sangeetham or Shudha Sangeetha Hasyam
The above are just some examples and I don’t think I have been able do justice to the spontaneous humour he creates with expressions and tone of his voice. If these are the things one could pick from a few formal short group sessions, imagine being a fly on the wall when he is discussing politics or, even better, human behaviour in an informal setting.
In hindsight all that I said above is redundant. Instead I could have just said the man enjoys watching George Carlin, Bill Bailey, Joan Rivers, and Spike Milligan on YouTube!
It really begs the question if he is a comic who is also a musician or a musician who is also a comic.
(The author is CFO of a US multinational company and a mentor-advisor and independent Board member to many startups in India and abroad.)