A master vocalist

Print edition : April 13, 2002

Kollengode Viswanatha Narayanaswamy, 1923-2002.

AT one time or the other, every contemporary serious listener of Carnatic music would have wondered, or discussed among his or her close fraternity of aficionados, what the future of Carnatic music would be after 'KVN'. On April 1, this master vocalist, Kollengode Viswanatha Narayanaswamy, passed away at the age of 78. He enriched the Indian music scene for over 60 years.


After the nonagenarian Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer decided to call it a day, it was KVN who upheld the purity of this musical tradition, with his no-nonsense, no-frills approach to concert performances, which remained unchanged even in these days of dwindling audiences. His death brings with it a big musical void. There is just not around a vocalist of that calibre, or promise of that calibre, who can be expected to fill that vacuum. And with him go the last vestige of links to the glorious musical heritage, in his case the Ariyakudi school or vazhi.

In a tribute to him, All India Radio's National Programme of Music on April 6 featured a recorded radio concert of his. Although the one-hour programme could hardly do justice to KVN's musical canvas, it did include some of his oft-heard renditions: Gowrimanohari (Tyagaraja's Guruleka), Begada (Dikshitar's Tyagarajaya Namaste) - his favourite Kadaikkan Kadaikkan would have been more appropriate - Atana (Swati Tirunal's Sri Kumara) and Varali (Syama Sastry's Kamakshi) - one would have liked Etti Janma in which his characteristic measured tempo brought out the quintessence of Varali.

If a display of virtuosity was needed, KVN would produce a scintillating rapid tempo Kalyani (Viranavara) or Garudadwani (Tatva Meruga) or if the situation demanded scholastic display, he would come up with an authoritative rendering of Sri Subramanyaya Namaste in the weighty Kambhoji (echoes of his guru Ariyakudi) or the complex four-raga ragam-tanam-pallavi Sankarabharananai Azhaitthodi Vadi Kalyani Durbarukku, all with amazing ease and felicity. The tukkadas, for him, were not a mere obligation to be got over with. If it was not the expansive Varugalamo, he would sign off with an equally expansive treatment of the mundane Krishna Nee Begane Baro in Yamuna Kalyani or render a refreshingly original Eppo Varuvaro in Jonpuri (when one had imagined that this would be impossible after Madurai Mani Iyer).

The well-known music critic V.K. Narayana Menon, borrowing a phrase from Chaucer, had called him "the gentle perfect knight" of Carnatic music.

KVN was born into a family of musicians in Palakkad in Kerala on November 15, 1923. His father, 'Fiddle' Viswanatha Bhagavatar, was a violinist of repute. His grandfather, Narayana Bhagavatar, and great-grandfather, Viswam Bhagavatar, were also known musicians. It was therefore inevitable that KVN would become a musician. However, his family wanted him to become a vocalist rather than an instrumentalist. KVN gave his first performance at the age of 10.

After his early training from his father and grandfather, KVN was placed under the tutelage and care of the mridangam wizard Palakkad Mani Iyer. "He could teach beautifully," KVN once recalled, and Mani Iyer remained an enduring influence. The precision in KVN's sense of tala comes from his days under Mani Iyer. Mani Iyer got him trained by Vidwan C. S. Krishna Iyer of Palakkad and later by the violinist Papa Venkataramiah. Only when KVN had matured into a concert-level musician did Mani Iyer feel he was ready to learn from the great Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. KVN was entrusted to Ariyakudi in 1942. Though he was in gurukulavasam in the strict sense of the term only for five years, KVN remained his ardent disciple until Ariyakudi's death in 1967.

In an interview he gave to Sruti, a magazine on music, KVN said that his yearning to sing like his guru Ariyakudi slowly became an obsession. If one looks for Ariyakudi in KVN's singing, one would be disappointed. As KVN himself said, gurukulavasam for him meant imbibing his guru's musical ideas and approach to music. They provided him with the framework with which he then built his own musical abilities. Apart from the choice of ragas and compositions, the emphasis on correct uccharana (pronunciation) of the sahitya (words) and the art of structuring a concert - the kutcheri paddhati (pattern) apparently originated with Ariyakudi - there is not much that is noticeably Ariyakudi-like in KVN's style.

KVN's sruti suddham (even Ariyakudi was short on this), his measured exposition of a raga, his sense of tala and laya and kalapramana (tempos) were probably the results of his early training under Mani Iyer and others. KVN would seem to have consolidated all that, imbued what he absorbed with his own interpretations, and then evolved his own unique style.

Indeed, KVN's style was remarkable for its bhava (emotion), sowkhyam (serenity) and brevity. According to Mani Iyer, one could sense Ariyakudi in KVN's style in the higher octaves. In the neraval, he was next only to Musiri Subramania Iyer.

KVN was conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi title of the Madras Music Academy in 1986. Among the many other awards he received were the Kerala State Sangit Natak Akademi Award in 1970, the Padma Shri in 1976 and the Central Sangit Natak Akademi Award in 1976.

When KVN was asked to speak about his achievements at the peak of his career, he said: "An artist must die dissatisfied with what he has done. No musician can say with a clear conscience that he has reached the end. The hunger for learning something more, doing something more and better, must remain unappeased throughout his life. The degree of this unfulfilment may vary, but to a real artist there can never be total contentment."

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