Born on the 20th of July, in the year 1923, Manjapra Devesa Bhagavathar Ramanathan was an exponential Carnatic musician and vocalist. He was popularly referred to as M. D. R. He was one of a kind in the field of music for he created a unique style of singing rich in Bhava and Laya.
M. D. Bhagavathar Ramanathan was born in Manjapra (the town after which he was named), in the Palakkad District of Kerala (the then Madras Province), India. He was born to Devesa Bhagavathar, his father, who, by profession, was a music teacher. He pursued his schooling in the Palakkad district. Later, he graduated with a degree in Physics from Victoria College. After having completed his education, he moved to Chennai along with his father to enhance his musical skills.
Around the same period, Rukmini Devi Arundale, an Indian theosophist, dancer and choreographer of the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam, commenced a new and innovative course on Sangeeta Siromani at Kalakshetra. Ramanathan auditioned to take up the course and he was the only student to have been selected for the first batch, which commenced in the year 1944. Gradually, he became to be Tiger Varadacharia’s (a Carnatic music vocalist from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu) most favorite and close disciple. This was because, he was the only student in the batch and therefore, his tutor gave him special attention. After having graduated in music, he continued to work as an assistant for his Guru Varadhacharia. The relationship between Ramanathan and his Guru spanned for a period of six years until the death of Varadhacahria. After a few years, he became the professor of music at Kalakshetra. He also held the privilege of having been the Principal of the College of Fine Arts at Kalakshetra. During his association with Kalakshetra, he tutored a number of students, among whom, the late Pasupathi remains to be one of the best known.
D. Ramanathan was always renowned for his unique style of singing. He was blessed with an extremely bold and booming voice. In addition to having had a unique voice, he rendered most of all his songs at an extremely slow pace in order to provide ample time for the listeners to feel and enjoy every phrase of a musical composition and gauge its meaning. His performance was incorporated with adequate Bhava (the expression). He had sung in many of the Ragas of Carnatic music. Few of the many such Ragas are Sahana, Sri,Anandabhairavi, Reethigowlaand Yadukula Kambhoji. Along with these, Kedaram, Kambhoji and Hamsadhwani are few of Ramanathan’s favorite Ragas. He himself had once admitted that his renderings of the Vilambita Kaala Gaanam performed during the Kathakali dances had deeply influenced his style of singing. Though he usually rendered most of all his performances through his slow pace singing, which was his trademark style, he also implemented the use of a few relatively fast and brisk renderings in his musical performance on and off.
Overall, his style of singing was completely different from that of the brisk style of rendering that had been quite famous then. Because of this, many music critics had often given him a fair share of criticism on his singing style. He often tried to implement his ideas into his performances. He often made changes and embellishments to the lyrics while rendering the Krithis. He would often start his krithi with the Anupallavi and he would move to the Pallavi. This was one of the biggest highlights in his style.
As stated earlier, Ramanathan’s style of musical recitals were very much different from that of the other musicians of his age. No other musician of his age could captivate the hearts of the listeners as much as he could. D. Pasupathi, one of his disciples cum colleague, dearly called Ramanathan a Nadopasaka (a person who worships sound and music). It can rightly be stated that Ramanathan style of music was based on the famous saying, “Art for Art’s Sake”. He rendered all of his performances only for the sake of music. He was never bothered by the lack of the number of audience nor was put down by negative criticisms of any kind. He made sure to perform to the fullest of his satisfaction.
Ramanathan had sober, serene and soothing qualities in his style of renditions. All of his recitals had Prasanthi (peace). He created a peaceful yet magnificent atmosphere during his performances, which can be compared to the bliss that one would experience while sitting around a riverbank during a moonlit night.
All of the fellow musicians of Ramamanathan highly respected him. For many number of years, he held the privilege of being one of the many members of the Madras Music Academy. 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.