Dosa, Sambar, Indian coffee, and badam kheer; Ta Di Thom Num, moras, teermanams, and korvai ; humility, warmth, caring, and love. These are all enduring memories I have of the beloved Ramnad V. Raghavan. Raghavan passed away last week in Chennai, India at the age of 82. He taught mrdangam and South Indian music at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut for many years.
Raghavan was my mentor and friend from 1970-1974 at Wesleyan. He guided me through my doctoral dissertation with utter dedication. In the home stretch of writing my thesis, Raghavan met with me daily for six months straight. We would meet at 7:00 for Indian coffee and a practice session. Raghavan patiently gave me more material than I could ever master on the mrdangam because he understood the project and was eager to help in any way he could. I would then go home and write for the rest of the day and prepare for my next visit to Raghavan’s house the following morning.
Raghavan was ever willing to fix sambar anytime I came by at dinnertime, never neglecting to tell me that the only “defect” in Indian cooking is that it makes you sleepy. The culinary level was raised considerably when Raghavan’s dear wife, Sarada, came to visit. I was then treated to sublime dosa anytime I wanted, even on picnics.
Raghavan’s influence on me was profound. However he also was a major influence on the trajectory of Western percussion. In addition to Raghavan’s work with me and his performances and influence on Nexus, Raghavan brought change to Western music through other students of his. Jamey Haddad brought Raghavan’s ideas of rhythmic training to his students at Berklee and other schools. Jamey’s playing with the likes of Paul Simon and other greats of the music world reflects Raghavan’s influence.
One of the percussionists who played with me in the Steve Reich ensemble in the early 1970s was a young student from Manhattan named Glen Velez. I spoke with Glen about my experiences at Wesleyan with non-Western music and, in particular, with Raghavan. At the time, Glen was a marimba specialist and had no training in hand drums. He decided to travel to Middletown and take some lessons from Raghavan on kanjira. Raghavan and the kanjira transformed Glen’s musical life. The kanjira was Glen’s first involvement with a frame drum, other than the traditional orchestral tambourine. Glen became fascinated with the instrument and the frame drum in general, and began to specialize in frame drum playing from around the world. Glen is now considered to be the greatest frame drum player in the world and the person who, literally single-handedly, created a revolution in percussion playing by elevating the frame drum to a high level of performance. And it all started with Raghavan.
My experience at Wesleyan was a turning point in my life. Central to that experience was my association with Ramnad Raghavan. In his ever humble way, Raghavan led me and others to a richer life filled with te re ki tas and ta ka di mis. I will be eternally grateful to the great Raghavan for his love of music and love of life.