The playing fingers play on

Prof TNK reminisces to SVK about his long career as a musician. This article appeared in The Hindu International Edition on 8th March 1994.

It was not an era when any gifted child in music was tom-tomed as a child prodigy and presented to the public with media blitz. If the publicity system as at present had been in vogue in those days, T. N. Krishnan, the reputed violinist, should have been acclaimed as a violin wizard even as a boy of nine. But perhaps because he had been gradually nurtured and made climb to the ladder of eminence in short steps, today he stands head and shoulders above many violin accompanists. On the day he received the prestigious Sangeethasaagara award conferred on him by the Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA) recently, his mind would have retraced his life to his sixth year when his father T. Narayana Iyer put a violin in his hand and started lessons.

‘What a taskmaster is my father … you know he is 99 and stays with me,’ Krishnan said with pride.

‘What was your practice schedule during those days?’

‘It started at 4 am. My father would wake me up. Practice started immediately from 4 am to 7 am. Then I had coffee and a break for half an hour. Again the lessons were continued till 9.30 till I started for school. During the lunch interval between 2 and 3 I had another short practice for half an hour. In the evening again from 4 to 7. I told you my father is a taskmaster and today I am what I am because of him’ said Krishnan with great gesticulation.

‘That is the sort of foundation you had?’

‘Not only that. My father, himself a talented violinist, used to accompany great vidwan-s of those days and many of them would visit our house. In fact my father’s guru, T. G. Krishna Iyer taught me Koniyadina (Kambhoji), Endu Dakinado (Thodi) and Sri Subramanyaya Namaste (Kambhoji) when I was about nine years old.’

‘When did you give your first performance?’

‘I was about nine when I accompanied my father’s guru at performance at the Santanagopala temple at Tiruppanithurai.’

‘So you learnt many kirtanas from the vidwan-s who visited your house?’

‘Exactly. There was Appadorai Bhagavathar, a court musician, Chembai Vaidyanathar Bhagavathar, Desamangalam Subramania Sastri, veena vidwan, Ennaipadam Venkataraman Bhagavathar and so on. My father used to present me before them and they taught me kirtana-s.’

Krishnan clasped his fingers in deep thought for sometime and exclaimed ‘You see I was not even ten. I had absolutely no fear of accompanying big vidwan-s,’ he said and tried to retrieve from memory important performances during those days.

‘Ah, yes. There was a upanayanam function at Trichur when Chemai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar accompanied by Mysore Chowdiah was to sing. Chowdiah did not turn up. I was present at the function. "Here is Krishnan. Let him replace Chowdiah" called Chembai and so I sat with my violin. It was a thrilling experience, you see, suddenly compelled to take on the role of a very experienced and senior vidwan.

‘I forgot to tell you. At that time there was the Ernakulam Corporation radio. Programmes of great vidwan-s used to broadcast. Everyday my father took me to the park to hear kutcheries on the radio. I had heard Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer and others and hearing these great musicians had really benefited me much.’

‘Now that you mention Ariyakudi, there is an impression that your violin play full of gamaka-s is greatly influenced by accompanying him quite often.’

‘Yes, to some extent. But even before I started accompanying him I had become familiar with the Ariyakudi baani, and in fact had learnt many songs. Alleppey K. Parthasarathy Iyengar, Papa as he was called, was an admirer of Ariyakudi and the vidwan used to stay in his house. He had learnt many songs directly under Ariyakudi. From him I learnt kirtana-s like "Endaro Mahanubhavulu", "Neranammithi" Kaanada varnam and so on. So much so when I accompanied Ariyakudi later, I had absolutely no difficulty in following him. This endeared me to Ramanuja Iyengar so much that he took almost paternal interest in me. My father too is a great admirer of Ariyakudi.’

He recalled his association with Ariyakudi Ramanuja as a young violinist.

‘But then how did you become Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s disciple?’

‘In the war years during evacuation, we shifted from Ernakulam, our native place, to Trivandrum where I was greatly encouraged by Prof. R. Srinivasan. During the Navarathri festival in the Trivandrum palace all musicains would gather. Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tanjore Vaidyanatha Iyer, Boodalur Krishnamoorthy Sastrigal, Palghat Mani Iyer , Papa Venkataramaiah and others. Then Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was the Principal of the Swati Tirunal Music Academy. My father asked me once on such an occasion to play before the vidwan group. Tanjore Vaidyanatha Iyer presented a ponnadai (shawl) to me and blessed me. They decided that I should be guided by a vocalist. After discussion among themselves they decided on Semmangudi, who was also based in Trivandrum.’

‘It was then that suddenly my father was transferred to Nagercoil. I was studying both at school and under Semmangudi. My father was in a dilemma as to what to do with me. Semmangudi suggested I could stay in his house, attend school and also get music training. As the sishya-s used to practice Semmangudi would start singing himself and high musical values were learnt by me on such occasions. He would sing sometimes for two or three hours.’

‘So, thus began your tutelage under Semmangudi.’ He tapped his forehead. ‘I forgot to tell you one thing. I was also accompanying big vidwan-s, I told you. Prof R. Srinivasan arranged a performance by Flute Mali and asked me to accompany him. That was a major event because Mali liked my violin very much and wherever he played he used to have me as his accompanist. He was a great benefactor to me.’

‘That should have given you a shot in the arm.’

‘Certainly. In the 1941-42 Navarathri festival, in the Trivandrum Palace I accompanied many vidwan-s. In 1942, I got the Music Academy chance to team with K. R. Kumaraswamy in the afternoon session.’

‘That was your first debut in Madras?’

‘Yes. But that also turned to be a turning point. Mali had a performance in the RR Sabha hall. He telegraphed to Semmangudi to send me from Trivandrum to accompany him. I was sent to Madras and was asked to stay in Ayyadorai’s house. You may know Thangam Ayyadorai. I came there and in a day or two Semmangudi too came to Madras for a performance. Mali’s kutcheri was over. For Semmangudi, Mysore Chowdiah and Subramania Pillai were scheduled but Chowdiah failed to turn up. So I sat with Semmangudi. The very next week Mali and Nagaiah met me to ask me to accompany Mali again under the Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha which was having the performances in the Hindi Prachar Sabha, Mambalam. One kutcheri after the other came my way and so my father decided in my interest he should move to Madras. First we lived as a co-tenant in a house in Tandavarayan Street in Triplicane on a rent of Rs. 14 per month,’ he started laughing.

‘Any remarkable event you remember in your boyhood days?’

Yes, in Karaikudi, Ariyakudi gave a performance in which I accompanied him. The listeners were greatly pleased with my playing and collected on the spot Rs. 90 and asked Ariyakudi to hand it over to me on the dais. As accompanist’s fee I got Rs. 100 in addition.’

‘How much were you getting in those days?’

‘Mali, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and almost all senior vidwan-s gave Rs. 125.’

‘Why is that no one has perpetuated your style?’

‘Bowing and fingering will not do. The insight into music is necessary. Each raga has a particular gamaka characteristic. This has to be well understood. I had the good fortune to hear vocalist stalwarts and gained intimacy with them who explained the salient features of the Carnatic music System.’ He kept silent for some time and suddenly spoke again. ‘So, I came to Madras and remained stay put. The recent events of my career are fairly well-known. I joined the Central College of Carnatic Music in 1964 as Professor and in 1978 became Principal. From 1985-93 I was the Head of Department of Carnatic Music at the University of Delhi.’ He got the Padma Shri award in 1973 and Padma Bhushan award in 1991.

He was about to close his narration when he suddenly remembered. ‘In 1941 I was asked to play solo at the C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer’s garden party and later in his house when he was the Diwan, in the presence of Muthiah Bhagavathar, Semmangudi and others. On both the occasions I got from Sir C. P. Rs. 100 as remuneration. I also went abroad and thus my career goes on. I have completed 57 years of kutcheri experience. I was conferred the title of Sangeetha Kalanidhi by the Academy and Sangeetha Kala Sikhamani by the Indian Fine Arts Society in their annual conferences and recently the Sangeethsaagara award by CMANA. That takes me to the present day. Okay,’ he said and stood up.


Go back to Mohan’s Carnatic Music Reference Library