M D Ramanathan was born on May 21 1923 to Shri. Devesa Bhagavathar & Smt. Seethalakshmi Ammal at around 5.15 AM in Manjapara, Palghat District, Kerala. Shri. Devesa Bhagavathar was a musician and a violinist. MDR's grandfather Shri.Venkatesha Bhagavathar was also a musician and his paternal uncle was a vainika. Born in a musical family, MDR was naturally initiated into Carnatic Music at a very young age. When he was four years old, His Holiness Kanchi Paramacharya visited Manjapara, as Shri.Devesa Bhagavathar had arranged for a 'pAda pUja' at his house. A four year old MDR recited the 'Bhaja Govindam' and the Margabandu stotram, and was blessed by the Paramacharya. This incident was narrated by the Paramacharya himself a few decades later, when MDR visited Kanchi to receive the seer's blessings. Shri.Ramanathan's first public concert was at the age of 9, when he sang at a Devi Temple in Pudukodde, in the presence of learned pundits & music scholars. He pursued his academics along with music and subsequently graduated with Honors in Physics from Victoria College, Palghat. During his college days, he performed and participated in Tyagaraja Aradhanas & other temple festivals. Though his father was not too keen on him pursuing a career in Music, MDR was determined to engage in a career as a Carnatic Musician.
After his graduation, MDR moved to Madras to further his knowledge in Carnatic Music. He joined Kalakshetra in 1944 as the first and only student of the Sangita Shiromani course under the able guidance of Smt.Rukmini Devi Arundale and Shri. Tiger Varadachariar. MDR followed the great Tiger like a shadow for 6 years. The great master referred to him as "thirudan" (thief) for meticulously observing and absorbing all that the Master had to give. Tiger was very liberal in giving recommendation letters to all his students and when MDR approached him for a letter, he said, "Why do you need a letter? "nI sA nu pAdinAlE en kuzhanthainu terinjudumE" (If you sing the note Sa, it will be known that you are my disciple).
MDR won the first prize for singing "Endaro Mahanubhavulu" in a competition organized by Mylai Sabha in 1947. Shri. Tiger Varadachariar presided over the function and presented MDR with a silver "Rama Patabhishekam idol". After Ramanathan graduated from the Sangita Shiromani course, an Arangetram concert was arranged in Kalakshetra in 1949. This chief guest for this concert was Shri. T.R. Venkatarama Sastri. Shri. Tiger Varadachariar blessed MDR during this occasion & during his speech, he said, "Today I am transferring to this young man whatever learning I have in music, and pray that the rasikas should bring him up and keep the torch of our music tradition burning". MDR's initial performances in Academy & Mysore Rama mandiram were also attended by Shri. Tiger Varadachariar.
Shri. Ramanathan was offered a lecturer post in Kalakshetra after his graduation. Shri. Tiger Varadachariar expired in January 1950 and Ramanathan was with his master during his last moments. He was asked to sing "Entara" kriti in Harikambhodhi and that was when the great master breathed his last. Incidentally, few years later, Ramanathan was singing the same kriti in an AIR concert when he got the news that his father Shri.Devesa Bhagavathar passed away. MDR married Smt. Visalam (d/o. Mr. C.S. Swaminathan, Kodaikannal), in May 1953. From the 1950's he started performing in all leading Sabhas in India. He continued working for Kalakshetra and was offered academic positions in other presitigous institutions. He refused those offers as he felt indebted to Kalakshetra, for they took care of his Master in his last years. Moreover, he enjoyed the parental affection & regard of Smt. Rukmini Devi and the musical ambience in Kalakshetra.
In 1964, he received the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award and in 1970, Smt. Rukmini Devi presented him the diamond ring of Shri.Tiger Varadachariar. Shri. Ramanathan received blessings and patronage from Kanchi Shri. Sankaracharya, Sringeri Acharya, Shri. Jeer Swamigal and the Royal family of Travancore. Shri. Kanchi Paramacharya had a special affection towards Ramanathan and often ask him to sing "Gurulekha etuvanti" in gowrimanohari. MDR received the Padmashri, Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award, Sangita Kala Nipuna & Sangita Choodamani in the seventies. He taught many students, most of whom have pursued an active career in Music education. Some of his students include M.V.Narasimachari, Jaya Pasupathy, Sriram, Subramanium & Radha (his niece), Jayalakshmi Kesavan, P.P. Ramakrishnan and many more.
He survived a heart attack in 1972, after a memorable concert in Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Chennai, after which only 2 valves functioned properly. His doctors were concerned about his health and advised him to give up musical performances. MDR refused such a proposition and continued giving concerts till his demise in 1984.
MDR was a staunch Rama Bhaktha, like his guru Shri.Tiger Varadachariar. He had a special interest about the various aspects of Hindu mythology, spirituality, temples and great saints and their underlying relationship to all the great classical compositions. He organized a Navaham at his residence, and on the final day, Bramhashri Balakrishna Sastrigal performed a Katha Kalakshepam on Ramayanam. During the last few months of his life, he couldn't bear the fact that he was unable to sing even a couple of kritis on auspicious occasions like Bahula Panchami or a Rama Navami, at the altar.
He was well versed in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Sanskrit and English. Apart from composing more than 300 kritis in carnatic music, he also composed operas like "Varada Bhaktha Vijayam", 'Sundara Ramayanam", and music for a Kalakshetra feature presentation "Buddha Avataram".
He was principled in life and was dedicated to his "Tiger Mission", to propogate/share the teachings of his great guru all through his life. He had a good sense of humour and was known for his honesty, sincerity and good character. He passed away on April 27, 1984 at 7.30 AM on a dwadeshi thithi. Incidentally, a violin vidwan from Kerala and an Mrudangam vidwan from Tanjavur died on the same day.