A bow dipped in honey...
(The Life and Times of T. N. Krishnan… biographical piece for SRUTI magazine, July 2010)
The quality of MUSIC is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
Apologies to Will Shakespeare for taking liberties with Portia’s homily on the quality of mercy in The Merchant of Venice, but those words are the perfect encapsulation of an otherwise indescribable feeling one gets when listening to T. N. Krishnan’s fluid bowing. One of the world’s greatest exponents of the art of violin, Maestro Krishnan is now in his eighty first year. It is that phase in most men’s lives when they tend to curl up on the park bench of nostalgia, benevolently overseeing the pranks of their grand- and great-grandchildren and gazing wistfully at the approaching golden sunset. Not this evergreen hero, who travels worldwide even today with all the energy of men half his age, enthralling audiences with his sheer virtuosity and wowing the discerning critics with the exquisite nuances of his masterpieces like Yadukulakambhoji and Surutti.
The Early Days
Tripunittura Narayanan Krishnan’s is a journey that started on October 6, 1928 with his birth into “Bhagavatar Matham”, an illustrious family of musicians acclaimed in both Carnatic and Hindustani traditions. Parents A. Narayana Iyer and Ammini Ammal hailed from families whose musical lineage could be traced back five generations. Grandfather Appadurai Bhagavatar was a renowned musician too. Music was thus an integral part of Krishnan’s childhood in Tripunittura, the seat of theCochinroyal family. Father Narayana Iyer, an eminent music educator was his first guru. Narayana Iyer was an extraordinary teacher and strict disciplinarian who spared no effort in developing his son’s innate talent.
Little Krishnan was a quick learner, absorbing masterpieces like Vina Kuppayyar’s Ata Tala varnam in Narayanagaula and major kritis like Shri Subrahmanyaya Namaste (Kambhoji, Muttuswami Dikshitar). He was greatly encouraged by violin vidwan G. Krishna Iyer (Kittam Bhagavatar) and maternal uncle G. Narayana Iyer, an advocate in nearby Perumbavur. Krishnan also fondly remembers accompanying his father to hear the evening broadcasts of Corporation Radio at the municipal park, featuring great masters such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Tiger Varadachari and the Karaikudi Brothers. Krishnan’s arangetram at the age of seven was at Tripunittura’s famous Purnatrayeesa Temple. By his eighth birthday Master Krishnan was already being hailed as a child prodigy in Kerala, performing in temple festivals, accompanying visiting vidwans from neighboring Tamil Nadu, and catching the attention of the music literati. His first performance for All India Radio was at the age of ten at Trichy. Around the same time, he had his first glimpse of the two men who would later be the greatest influences in his music career: Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, the reigning monarch of Carnatic Music, at a concert in Alleppey and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, during a performance at the Tripunittura palace.
Alleppey Parthasarathy Iyengar, or ‘Papasami’ as he was popularly known, was a lawyer and renowned arts patron of the times. He was also a musician trained in the Ariyakudi style. Narayana Iyer had accompanied him on the violin many times. Papasami took a liking for Narayana Iyer’s young son, recognizing his prodigious talent. He affectionately guided Krishnan and introduced him to all the eminent musicians of the day including Ramanuja Iyengar, who used to stay with Papasami during their visits to Alleppey. Iyengar liked the youngster’s style and invited Krishnan to accompany him at a marriage concert at Puduvayal (Karaikudi) in 1941, the first of several hundred concerts together.
During World War II, the threat toCochinharbour led to an evacuation, forcing Narayana Iyer to move his family to Thiruvananthapuram, where he landed a Storekeeper position at theArtsSchool. Krishnan joined the Shri Moola Vilasam (SMV) School in fourth form. He found patronage for his talent in Thiruvananthapuram too, from local notables like Prof. R. Srinivasan and G. Rama Iyer. Prof. Srinivasan was instrumental in arranging Krishnan’s first solo concert at Ananda Lodge in Thiruvananthapuram’s Chalai Bazaar.
Invited by the Travancore royal family and lined up for the 1942 festival at Thiruvananthapuram’s celebrated Navaratri Mandapam was a galaxy of contemporary stars including Semmangudi, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastri and Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer. Narayana Iyer took his son along to meet the vidwans staying at theBhajanapuraPalace and asked him to play before them. An impressed Vaidyanatha Iyer presented the boy a shawl in appreciation of his playing.
Maternal uncle G. Narayana Iyer, acting upon Musiri Subramania Iyer’s suggestion, took the initiative to get Krishnan acquainted with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Krishnan was formally introduced to Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar and Semmangudi at the residence of Sir C. P. Ramaswami Iyer, the Dewan and de facto ruler of Travancore. Thus started the apprenticeship under Semmangudi, which was to shape Krishnan’s performance style. When father Narayana Iyer had to move to Nagercoil to keep his job, Semmangudi offered to let Krishnan stay in his own home. The musical tutelage as well as education – atSMVSchool and later theModelSchool – thus continued unbroken, embellished by the care and warmth of the doyen’s wife Thaayu Ammal.
The definitive turning point in Krishnan’s career was in late 1942, when he happened to accompany flute wizard T. R. Mahalingam and Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer atTrivandrum’s VJT Hall under the auspices of the Swati Tirunal Sangita Sabha. An impressedMaliwent back toMadrasand later sent word, inviting Krishnan toMadrasfor a concert. Thus was Krishnan’s first and momentous trip in 1943 to Chennai, the bustling epicenter of South Indian classical music. He accompaniedMalialong with Ramanathapuram C. S. Murugabhoopathy at R. R. Sabha, Mylapore, opening a proverbial floodgate of concert offers. When Krishnan did not return toTrivandrumon the expected date, a worried Narayana Iyer rushed toMadras. Delighted to find his son gaining a toehold in the coveted music circuits of Chennai, Narayana Iyer made the decision to bring over the entire family and settled them in a modest house atThandavaraya Mudali Streetin Triplicane, marking the beginning of Krishnan’s lifelong association with the city.
He first performed at theMusicAcademyalongside K. R. Kumaraswamy Iyer in the 3.30 pm slot. In a matter of weeks the fifteen-year old from Kerala had become a faithful accompanist to legendary musicians such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G. N. Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers andMali. ‘Master’ Krishnan endeared himself to the audiences with his virtuosity and youthful charm. Being an accompanist to the doyens meant constant exposure to high classicism which naturally rubbed off on his playing skills and general approach to music. The rookie who was fostered by Ariyakudi and mentored by Semmangudi soon graduated into a respected senior accompanist’s role when playing for then upcoming stars like K. V. Narayanaswamy, M. D. Ramanathan and Maharajapuram Santhanam. He also started performing solo concerts, accompanied quite often by percussion maestros like Palghat Mani Iyer.
On the personal front, his marriage to Kamala brought in stability and rock solid domestic support that has endured the test of time. Younger men like Alepey Venkatesan and Trichur Ramachandran too enjoyed Krishnan’s stellar accompaniment in no small measure. Venkatesan, one of Ramanuja Iyengar’s direct disciples, is one who idolizes and remains in perpetual awe of Krishnan’s classical approach. He recalls a conversation in which Krishnan said, “It is only now that I am starting to really understand what our music is all about…” Venkatesan chuckles that Krishnan lobbed this ‘bombshell’ after he had completed some seven decades as a performer and holds it up as an example of a true artiste’s humility.
In the midst of his concert commitments Krishnan has also carried on his father’s tradition of teaching music to a number of students, both in the traditional parampara setting and more formal academic environments. In 1965, at the invitation of Musiri Subramania Iyer, he joined theStateMusicCollege in Chennai as Professor of Music and subsequently served as its Principal. He also went on to serve as Dean of theSchool ofMusic and Fine Arts at theUniversity ofDelhi. An itinerant world traveler, he has performed and taught in several exotic venues worldwide. Krishnan has been closely associated with several national and international institutions engaged in the preservation and development of the arts. He has served as the Vice-Chairman of theSangeetNatakAcademy and chaired various committees for All India Radio and several Universities.
Awards and honours have been plentiful, but he finds true happiness in having fostered the art and bringing up worthy disciples, including his own children Viji and Sriram. One little known facet of the maestro is that he is also an accomplished flautist, including a fundraiser concert for the Kargil conflict. He has also performed to the unlikely accompaniment of T. V. Gopalakrishnan on the Violin and Mangalampally Balamuralikrishna on the Mridangam!
Today Krishnan’s music represents the purest expression of the Carnatic tradition. His emphasis on melodic clarity, spectral fidelity, and a bold and emphatic bowing technique are unparalleled in his field. His instrumental style captures the essence of the gayaka experience which delivers the music with all the depth and emotion of a human voice. As one of the elder statesmen of the classical music community, his rich and vibrant style has been admired and adopted by a number of younger musicians.
Excerpts from a conversation with T. N. Krishnan
On the flying start to his career: I was lucky to get that first crucial break with Mali and have things click into place very early, so critical for any aspiring youngster. In those beginning 2 – 3 years, I regularly played forMali, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Semmangudi, V. V. Sadagopan, Tanjore Lakshminarayana Iyer… I was known as Master Krishnan. In fact the concerts would often be billed as Master Mahalingam accompanied by Master Krishnan. I got a senior slot atMusicAcademy in the second year itself, accompanying Lakshminarayana Iyer and Palghat Rama Bhagavatar. In 1945 I accompanied Viswanatha Iyer at the Academy.
On Ariyakudi’s influence: Iyengar had an overwhelming sense of proportion. He never overdid any one aspect at the expense of another. Playing for that style naturally meant one didn’t overdo the accompaniment. He would sing a raga for say 10 minutes, so I learnt to reply in say 8 minutes; if I went beyond that, it would look odd and unaesthetic. I also had to be respectful of his great seniority over a boy like me. So I learnt how to project the essence of a raga in short, crisp manner with the raga chhaya evident at the first stroke and enhance the punch of his music. It was also a test to prove my mettle. In Iyengar’s concerts, one had to be very alert and disciplined on stage. Though a jovial man off-stage, he was very strict about stage manners. No talking or unnecessary banter and the accompanists always had to maintain eye contact… no looking hither-thither, nothing to distract listeners from the music. He would never upbraid or demean any accompanist, even if they made mistakes. Almost every concert was memorable. He had a putra vatsalyam towards me. I could freely mingle with him and other seniors, but I never took liberties, keeping in mind their seniority. Travel with Iyengar, Mani Iyer and others was an enjoyable experience.
On the transition from mikeless concerts to the microphone era: Essentially not a big deal and no changes in technique for the microphone’s sake. For people of my generation, the mike was just an addition. We never allowed it to be an influence or a distraction. We didn’t even know who was operating the microphone and what the levels were. Even today, I feel most free without a mike and don’t allow myself to be bothered unnecessarily about it. Not that it’s a bane, but if not set properly, it becomes an irritant and a strain on the free flow of musical thought.
On his instrument: More than 200 years old, I sourced it in theUS. An instrument suited for cooler climates, it is tough to maintain in our tropical conditions. I have no special customizations done to the basic instrument. We use western violins designed to G#, to play an accompanist role at lower pitches. Nowadays youngsters experiment a lot with various kinds of strings. From MDR toMali, I have used the same gauge strings…
On criticism (Shrugs it off with an imperious wave & an impish smile): Fortunately, I have not faced too much criticism. However, I have the confidence that my hard work, dedication and guru’s blessings will sustain me through any criticism. Twenty years after a critic suggested that I retire from the concert platform, I am still actively performing.
On his wedding to Kamala: It was in 1962. Single for long, I was under pressure to get married, from several vidwans & colleagues. Finally, the alliance that cliked was one facilitated by Ayyalore Krishnan. I met Kamala on the way to a concert for Semmangudi one evening. GNB & Chembai were our neighbours and the meet happened with their blessings. It took exactly seven days from the time of the alliance to the wedding at Tirupati, which was attended amongst others by Alathur Brothers, Guruvayur Dorai and KVN…
On the T. N. Krishnan Foundation: Started with help from RV Shekar of Lancor Holdings, it is intended primarily to encourage new talent. Currently looking for a permanent location, the Foundation also organizes annual events and hosts a website with podcasts and music clips.
On sister N. Rajam’s transition to Hindustani: She had to go to Benares for an examination and happened to meet Omkarnath Thakur there. Father encouraged her to learn Hindustani, probably as a way to avoid having both of us compete in the same field! (chuckles)