It is a proud privilege to write a short biographical sketch of my grandfather, the illustrious Mridanga Vidwan, Thanjavur Ramdoss Rao, the true heir to the tradition envisaged by the great Narayanaswami Appa.
Ramdoss Rao was born on 2nd April 1899 to Subba Rao and Lakshmi Bai, at Thanjavur. He had four sisters and two brothers. A son of his eldest sister is R. N. Nagaraja Rao, cameraman of Cine fame. Gajapathi Rao was his elder brother, Athmaram Rao being the younger. Gajapathi Rao was an excellent vocalist with a rich repertoire of Shama Sastrigal’s krithis.
On the Vijayadasmi day in the year 1912, Ramdoss Rao was entrusted to Thanjavur Bapu Rao, father of Dholak Vithal Rao, for tuition in Mridangam. Within a period of five years he got proficiency in the art and commenced his career by playing Mridangam in Harikathas. Once, when he had been to Mannargudi for a Harikatha of Thanjavur Nagaraja Bhagavathar, the great Pallavi-master, Canjeevaram Naina Pillai, who was also there for a concert, happened to listen to the mridangam play of Ramdoss and blessed him. Konakkol Pakkiri Pillai and Jalatharangam Ramanaiya Chettiar also joined Naina Pillai in blessing Rao. Pakkiri Pillai suggested that Ramdoss could play Mridangam for Naina Pillai’s concerts to which Rao replied that he was not so proficient to sit equally with those giants. His career continued with the Harikathas of Soolamagalam Soundraraja Bhagavathar, Harikesanallur, Dr. L. Muthiah Bhagavathar and Thiruppazhanam Panchapakeska Sastrigal.
He happened to accompany Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyenga in 1921 and this was his first participation in a vocal concert. His playing was much appreciated by all and he was asked to share the platform the same night with Veena Srirangam Ramaswami Iyengar. During the flower show held at Bikshandarkoil, near Thiruchirapalli, the land lord Avudaiya Pillai and Marungapuri Gopalkrishna Iyer gave a violin duet, accompanied on the Mridangam by Ramdoss Rao. The chief guest was no less a person than violinist Govindaswamy Pillai, who on listening to the mridangam, announced informally that the next day he and Marungapuri Gopalkrishna Iyer would play and the mridangist would be none other than Ramdoss Rao. After this event Govindaswamy Pillai used to invite Rao, whenever the responsibility of arranging the mridangam was entrusted to him.
Providing accompaniment to the instrumental concert is quite different from that of a Vocal recital. Since Rao was an expert in both, the top-ranking instrumentalists of the day like Govindaswamy Pillai and Karaikudi Veena brothers sought to have Rao’s mridangam. Ramdoss Rao had to play his part in the concert of Naina Pillai, at Mannargudi, where both of them first met. That day Govindaswamy was on the violin, Pudducottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai on the Kanjira and Pakkiri Pillai on konakol. When he was asked to accompany Valadi Krishna Iyer’s concert in the Thyagaraja Aradhana festival, grandly celebrated by Violin Pillai, Tiger Varadachariar was in the front seat who on listening to the mridangam, invited Ramdoss Rao for his own vocal concert and the flute recital of Palladam Sanjeeva Rao at Dr. Seetapathi’s house at Madras.
Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar honoured Ramdoss Rao during the Dasarah festival when he accompanied the flute concert of Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai. Ramdoss has accompanied all the eminent artistes of the day. One could hear his mridangam yoked with the Kanjira of Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai, in the broadcast discs cut for Chittoor Subrahmanya Pillai and such others.
Dakshinamurthi Pillai was a great friend and more, a mentor, to Ramdoss Rao. As a true heir of the Appa tradition, he never in his lifetime played any syllable that was not meant for Mridangam. Once when he changed the track unintentionally, the lion (Dakshinamurthi Pillai) occupying the front seat roared at him, “why? Let us march in our own road.”
The speciality of Ramdoss Rao consists of certain important features. One could easily recognise what is rendered whether a Pallavi or anupallavi, Nerava or Kalpanaswara, in the instrumental performance, form the pattern of playing on the mridangam by Ramdoss Rao. His ‘never-missing’ wasteless “Araichappu” is a subject of worthy mention by all, even to this day. Further all mridangists usually would produce Gumki in a single way – either upwards or downwards, whereas Rao had been endowed by God with a rare faculty, that his Gumki would be produced both ways – called “Irattai Gumki.”
Ramdoss was a noble and pious person with a generous heart and timid nature. He was never aggressive.
He married Sithala Bai, his niece through the second sister. Being issueless through this lady, Rao married Janaki Amma and became the father of two sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Natarajan, is working as a film representative, while the other, Bhoopathi, as a teacher, Leela (my mother) and Vasantha are the daughters of Ramdoss Rao.
Madras A. Kannan, S. M. Sivaprakasam, C. K. Shyamsundar and Kumbakonam M. V. Ramamurthi are some of his disciples.
Having worked in the Annamalai University as the Professor of Mridangam from 1950, Ramdoss Rao passed away on 31st March 1961, at Chidambaram.