More than three decades ago, Chennai’s December Season wasn’t as extravagant as it is in 2017 when more than a five dozen sabhas organise the cultural festival across the metropolis in a span of no less than 45 days. In the early days of one such Margazhi music and dance festival way back in 1984, the Tamil Nadu capital received the news of the untimely death of a distinguished musician: Jon B. Higgins, 45, was killed in a road accident in his native US.
The trans-Atlantic December 7 tragedy gave the world of Carnatic music more reasons than one to mourn. For, Higgins was not just a pioneering Westerner to have carved a niche in south Indian classical vocal; he was considered a reasonably known artiste in the field where ethnicity was generally counted as a reason for comparatively easy grip over the form. For many buffs, the American master was, simply, Higgins Bhagavatar.
The musician was planning a protest concert in South Africa against that country’s racist regime that sought to perpetuate apartheid when Higgins, while walking with his dog on a road adjacent to his home in Connecticut’s Middletown, was fatally hit by the drunken driver of a vehicle.
Almost eight years later, Carnatic music lost another illustrious musician when Maharajapuram Santhanam died—the car carrying him collided with a stationary tractor near Tindivanam, over a 100 km south of Chennai. This week marked the 90th birth anniversary of the vocalist, who was extremely popular even while being a classicist and a torch-bearer of a mellifluous style of Carnatic rendition initiated by his father Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer.
Santhanam (1928-92) did have his years as a musician in another country—as was the case with the 1939-born Higgins. The Tamil vocalist, who was born in Sirunangur village along the fertile Cauvery belt, had spent five years of his life (from 1960) in Sri Lanka, where he taught Carnatic by serving as the head of the department at the Ponnambalam Ramanathan College of Music at Jaffna. Now, that is a green tropical belt in the island-nation’s northern province, where civilisation existed even two millennia before the birth of Jesus Christ.
That is in contrast with Andover. The Massachusetts city had barely three centuries of history of human settlement when Job was born there in 1939—to a lady who taught music. The boy’s father was an English master as the local Phillips Academy, where Jon did his higher schooling.
Higgins, who later attended Wesleyan University, was proficient in Western classical music. From the 1831-founded varsity, he received a B.A. as a double major (in music and history) in 1962, and went on to complete his master’s in musicology two years later. In 1973, Higgins did his PhD in ethnomusicology—two years after he had founded an Indian music studies program at York University in Toronto. That was a joint venture with famed mridangam player Trichy Sankaran, who had begun living in that Canadian city. The American subsequently served as a professor of music at Wesleyan and was the director of the Center for the Arts.
Higgins’s tryst with Indian music studies made deeper inroads as a Wesleyan scholar who was taught by ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown (who is credited with coining the term ‘world music’) and mridangam percussionist T. Ranganathan (1925-87) and later his brother T. Viswanathan (on a Fulbright scholarship that brought him to India). Soon, Higgins performed gave a performance at the famed Tyagaraja Aradhana in the saint-composer’s birthplace of Thiruvayyar—a taluk under which Maharajapuram village fell.
Not many seem to know that Higgins also learned Bharatanatyam under the renowned T. Balasaraswati, who is a sister of Ranganathan-Viswanathan, and even wrote a dissertation on the dance’s music.
If modulating microtones the Carnatic way is a great challenge to most non-Dravidians, Higgins managed to overcome that cultural issue with sheer dedication. All the same, he wasn’t particularly keen on giving upper registers a nasal touch that is a major characteristic of Indian singing.
That way Santhanam was a master who gained reputation in possessing a resonant voice that sounded incredibly sweet towards the higher notes as well. Also having learned vocals from the eminent Melattur Sama Dikshitar, he was a crowd-puller at concerts that often featured his own compositions that were big hits. Santhanam won a Padma award in 1990, a year after winning the coveted Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy.
In Chennai, which was the city he made his home after his return from Lanka, the downtown T. Nagar had a Griffith Road that got renamed as Maharajapuram Santhanam Salai in honor of the celebrated musician. His sons S. Srinivasan and S. Ramachandran are senior Carnatic vocalists, while Ganesh Viswanathan, a grandson, is gaining name in the field. Jon’s son, Nicholas Higgins, is a Carnatic musician besides being an ethnomusicologist.
Cut to the 21st century, and Carnatic music has vocalists from the east of the globe as well. Chinese-origin Chong Chiu Sen performs kacheris, having learned music under a couple of teachers in his native Malaysia. His higher-degree tutors include (late) D.K. Pattammal and Madurai G.S. Mani.
Like Higgins, Chong is also trained in Bharatanatyam. Known also as Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar, he has also learned the veena under Kalpakam Swaminathan, who taught in Chennai’s Kalakshetra as well.