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August 6, 2018 was a sad day for the lovers of Carnatic music and for fans of world fusion music.
Geetha Ramanathan Bennett, the torch bearer, disciple and daughter of Sangita Kalanidhi Dr. S. Ramanathan a.k.a Veenai Ramanathan, passed away in California after a silent battle with cancer for over 24 years. The music community in California lost a great vainika who delighted audiences over the last 30 years with many memorable veena performances.
I am an ardent admirer and was a friend of late Dr. S. Ramanathan whose life, when observed, gave me a glimpse of what the famed composer Saint Tyagaraja’s life must have been like (as is gleaned from the saint’s history). Singular devotion to music and the propagation of music adhering to the highest ideals dictated his life and this was evident to all that knew him. In the early 1980s, I enjoyed personal interactions with Geetha’s family on several occasions and I am deeply grateful for that link with her family.
Geetha was born on November 21, 1950, in a family of nine siblings, to Gowri and Ramanathan. She did most of her education in Madras (now Chennai) and moved to Madurai when her father became the principal of Sri Satguru Sangita Vidyalaya there. When he came back to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Geetha joined him and started playing veena duet concerts with him in the United States. Dr. Frank Bennett, an accomplished veena player and an acclaimed percussionist met Geetha at that time, and this resulted in a great companionship and marriage that lasted for more than forty years. Dr. S. Ramanathan was proud of Geetha and his son-in-law Frank who was also his veena student (after Frank’s earlier short stint with Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar). Frank learned the art of percussion from Ramnad V Raghavan at Wesleyan University and became an expert on Indian instruments – tavil and kanjira, and several other global instruments such as the drum set, marimba, vibraphone, tympani and xylophone. Geetha and Frank performed veena duets for several years in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia. Later, Frank became Geetha’s mridangam accompanist and they globe trotted in their avatars as musicians for several decades
In spite of a life led in the public eye because of her involvement in music, Geetha was always down to earth and spoke about her difficulty in ‘translating’ rather than enjoying, as-it-is, ‘Tamil humor’ with her lifelong companion, Frank. Like her, I have also written short stories in Tamil and always enjoyed a clever turn of phrase and understood her mild frustration on not being able to share humor in Tamil with Frank. In every other way, however, those who knew Geetha could see quite clearly her love and adoration for Frank. He wore many hats throughout the years – that of a manager, travel planner, veena and percussion accompanist, composer of fusion music for her performances, a gracious host for her students who visited, gardener, cook and, finally, a patient nurse and at times fulfilling the role of a mother too to their son. It was this pillar of love and strength that kept Geetha, smiling, lively, chirpy and laughing in spite of the painful onslaught of countless chemotherapy sessions over the decades. While the cancer moved from breast to bone, to esophagus to lungs, she relentlessly continued to perform, teach, travel and even sang until a few weeks before her passing.
In her performing career, Geetha refused to compromise either the hoaried sampradayam or her Appa’s veritable pATAntharam (established tradition or gharana!) while performing veena concerts. She spoke on many a platform about her father before playing any piece composed by him, especially about his genius in being a celebrated musician, musicologist and guru, all rolled into one. Her father’s raga alapanas (elaborations) were measured to the compositional excellence of any chosen keertanam and thus marked by brevity, but with an unerring exemplification of the contour of the raga. This unique bani of Dr. S. Ramanathan was evident in his veena playing which he in turn imbibed from the veena maestro Devakottai Narayana Iyengar. Geetha was a proud and devoted follower of her father in all of these established traditions and her father himself shared this observation with me years earlier.
Dr. S. Ramanathan was particular about the length of the improvisational aspects i.e. kalpanaswarams that were sung at the end of compositions soaked in emotion. He explained that a rasika will remember the compositional excellence only if the alapana and kalpanaswarams were utilized in a measured and ornamental fashion. He was one of the very few musicians who could be deemed to follow the lineages of the Sangita-trimurthi (Syama Sastri, Tyagaraja, Muthuuswamy Dikshitar). He was eloquent in both English and Tamil, while explaining sangita sastram, lakshanam, lakshiyam and other performing requirements. More about his uniqueness and greatness can be found in the YouTube talk on him at this link: https://youtu.be/ZlyFBkqwgxw
Geetha followed her father’s style of teaching in that her lessons in music were systematic. She would incorporate simple exercises to instill ascending and descending grammar exercises at various speeds for every raga taught as a prelude to explaining the beauty of the composition. As a worthy disciple of her father, she believed, that anyone aspiring to become an expert on a musical instrument should have a solid foundation in vocal singing and should “‘attempt singing first and playing next.”
Of all of Geetha’s veena concerts that I had the pleasure of witnessing – as a member of the audience, the more recent ones were highly emotional and, at times heart-wrenching; the first was held in October 2016 at the University of La Verne where she gave explanations in English before playing. The second concert was held in April 2017 at the IFAA inaugural ceremony honoring her father during his centenary celebrations. She was undergoing experimental medical treatments which were draining her, with her bones hurting while bending, but she insisted on following her conventional sitting posture on the floor for her veena performances. Whenever she played her father’s well-known composition ‘Bhavapriye Bhavani,’ she sang and played the song on the veena to highlight the emotive undercurrent and reminisced as to how she enjoyed playing that particular song with her father many a time. Another composition held dear by her father was one of her favorites too – ‘Mokshamu galada.’” She played this magnum opus of Tyagaraja in Saramati ragam in both concerts, offering the song with explanations along with her reminiscences. She lived her father’s music and played veena in his memory and in obeisance; she sang often in later performances while she played many of her father’s favorites and her own compositions on the veena. She concluded the last two concerts with ‘Va velava’ in Shivaranjani, another composition of her father’s in Tamil; she was visibly emotional while concluding the concert with that song in La Verne.
In 2011, The Indian Fine Arts Academy (IFAA) of San Diego honored her with the title of Sangeeta Kala Mani. Chennai-based organization Narada Gana Sabha bestowed upon her the title of ‘Best Veena Player,’ in December 2017, and Geetha won a similar title from the Indian Fine Arts Society there. Her veena performance will soon be featured in the upcoming movie Road to Happiness directed by Santosh Sivan with a musical score composed by Mark Kilian. She also sang for the Hollywood feature The Guru and her veena can be heard in the Imax film The Everest. Geetha was an A-graded Veena-Vidwan artist in All India Radio and Doordarshan in India and performed for Indian Radio/TV, Singapore Broadcasting system and Malaysian Television.
In 2017, IFAA San Diego organized a grand centenary felicitation celebrating the life of her father the legendary Dr. S Ramanathan, as the inaugural event of their annual festival, alongside the 250th birth centenary of Saint Tyagaraja. Geetha was felicitated as the legend’s distinguished disciple and torch bearer. The special homage paid to Dr. S. Ramanathan and the felicitation to Geetha can be seen at these links:
Geetha was a fighter and a karma-yogi who lived cheerfully, despite facing daunting medical challenges, until she was forced to rest. Even when conventional and experimental medical treatments were failing, and even though traveling and squatting on stage became an ordeal, she accepted IFAA’s invitation for a music appreciation talk in San Diego for their 11th annual festival in March 2018; she also attended a few music concerts until a month before her hospitalization. She reiterated in her lectures on music and in her classes to her students the famous maxim from her father – “a good musician is one who has the heart to spend valuable time attending the concerts of others and who is willing to learn from those stage appearances like a good student.”
Geetha’s only regret was that she could not complete her self-imposed deadline of posting 100 songs of Dr. S. Ramanathan on YouTube in her own voice and veena. However, she managed to post a dozen of these compositions.
My last conversation with her was after my closing remarks following her lecture demonstration at IFAA in March 2018. In the course of that personal conversation, I witnessed her welling up, which shook me up; her question to me was rhetoric in nature and rather long-winded; “Krishnan sir, I have had a nice innings; I have no complaints and am ready to go; I wonder now – why did I agree to go through these medical procedures which seem experimental and futile; all of this continues to put Frank through greater agony, as he silently helps me go through these painful steps!’ Aside from a futile philosophic reply that seemed to offer little, I had no meaningful answer or consolation to offer. But, as always, she concluded with a compliment that conversing with me was like chatting with her father, as I too held uncompromising views on good music and musicians. In her view, I also always had several anecdotes about her appa which she loved to hear over and over again. She summed up her conversation with the profound statement – “I must have done a lot of punyam (good deeds) to have Frank as my companion; I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Geetha’s passing has left a void in the hearts of her many friends and admirers who knew her as a musician and as a writer. We are now also witness to the silent pain suffered by her beloved companion Frank and their doting son Anand on losing Geetha. We pray for their speedy reconciliation with the harsh truth and for their tranquility from this grief.
[For the Soul there is never birth nor any death. Nor, having once been, does it ever cease to be. ‘IT’ is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. It is not slain, when the body is slain].
I can only think of this profound Gita-Vaakyam to refer to Geetha’s passing away. Her music will live forever in the hearts of her family and friends around the globe.
Sangeeta AchArya ‘Thiruvaiyaru Krishnan’, also known as Srinivasaraghava Krishnan, is a vAggeyakara, Vedic scholar, poet, lyricist, composer, journalist, a story writer in Tamizh and English and an operatic playwright. Disciple and son of Ganabhooshanam Kumaramangalam Srinivasa Raghavan (KSR), he also learned music from Sangita Kalanidhis Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, G N Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer. He is an exponent of Nama-Sankirtanam and Hari Katha traditions having trained under Brahmasri Nathamuni Narayana Iyengar (Nanaji), Brahmasri Pudukkottai Narayana Sastry and Swami Haridoss Giri (known as ‘Guruji’). For a more detailed account of his background, please click on this link: http://sankeertanam.com/Thiruvai-Bio.htm