Tribute to Prof K.S.Narayanaswamy


                        My earliest memories related to classical music are the concerts I used to attend at the Navarathri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram when I was a child.The concerts would start at 6:00pm sharp and finish at 8:30pm sharp, after which

there would be a short Aarati, followed by a really delicious meal.My great grandmother, the formidable Amma Maharani would see to it that members of our family were served the same fare that the artists were, so that she could keep an eye on the quality of the food.She would be physically present at the Mandapam a little before 6:00pm every day, so that she would not miss a single note performed by the musicians. Other members of the family would reach the Mandapam closer and closer to 8:30pm in time for the meal, depending on their decreasing levels of interest in music.Until Amma Maharani's time, there were only male, vocal concerts at the Mandapam. She was the one who introduced (male) veena artists to the festival,
with Venkatadri Bhagavathar, M.A.Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar (who was one of the few artists to have given Two concerts during the Same festival.....one vocal and one veena), M.K.Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar and Prof. K.S. Narayanaswamy. Over the years, usually more or less the same set of musicians were invited again and again and the audience behaviour remained more or less the same too.
                        The biggest crowds came for concerts of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and for theconcerts where Palghat Mani Iyer played the mridangam......usually for Alathur Srinivasa Iyer and Palghat K.V.Narayanaswamy. The veena concerts drew the
minimum crowds. The sheer electricity and tension that was generated by the presence of Palghat Mani Iyer was just unbelievable and had to be experienced to be understood. As a striking contrast remained the tranquillity generated by the
veena concerts. I don't remember M.A.Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar much. But M.K.Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar used to play super fast phrases with minimal gamakams and shake his head vigourously too, which never ceased to make the children in the family burst out into fits of giggles. Amma Maharani had affectionately nick named him "Thalayaattu." (Head shaker).
K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir however, was a classic study in restraint, repose, poise and dignity. He initially used to give veena duets with his brother Sivaraman and later, with my first veena guru Trivandrum R.Venkataraman Sir.
Though my heart was always in violin, I started veena lessons with Venkataraman Sir who used to come to my house to teach my father. After a few months with Venkataraman Sir, I started understanding why many instrumentalists spoke of certain vocalists in a dismissive manner...that he or she "Was just a singer!' implying that the person in question did not have a deep and proper understanding of the placement of the notes and even more importantly, about the subtleities of the oscillations, ornamentations or Gamakams. (Many vocalists similarly laugh at instrumentalists who don't have a clue about the lyrics of the songs they play and say that they would play just the notes. Pa Dha Ni Paa Ma Gaa for Brova Bhaarama for example.)
                           Venkataraman Sir had absorbed a lot, from sources as varied as certain Naadaswaram giants, from Veena legend S.Balachander, from his association with Lalgudi Jayaraman and N.Ramani as part of the "Veena, Venu, Violin" trio,
(called "Violin, Venu, Veena" by Lalgudi fans and "Venu, Veena Violin" by Ramani fans.) from his times at the Swathi Thirunal College of Music at Thiruvananthapuram, where he studied music from a host of legendary gurus, like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G.N.Balasubramaniam, K.R.Kumaraswamy and others....and finally from K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir.
                          During my lessons with him, various shades and colours and insights would be on display, but at the end of the day, it was mostly the points that he imbibed from K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir that would impress me and attract me the most. Because of this, I had already developed a great amount of respect and reverence for him from afar, even though I had not interacted with him directly at the time.
                        Once K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir had attended a private veena recital of mine in the morning, at the Navarathri Mandapam. When I met him somehwere, almost one year later, he asked me, without any preamble "Can you sing the charanam of Paripalaya Maam?" (In the raga Reethigowla) I was really surprised, but I started to sing "Thaamarasaayatha Lochana". Then he smiled and said "But this was not how you played it on the veena that day, at the Navarathri Mandapam!"
I was completely Zapped! The thing is that, I have always been Obsessed with M.D.Ramanathan and his music. My beloved Guru, Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer Sir would get exasperated from time to time and say "My shishya is singing well, but from time to time, he gets MD Attacks!''
                      M.D.Ramanathan would sing the same song differently every time....the tempo, the place where he put swarams....and sometimes even the lyrics would change a bit now and then! But he mostly sang the notes Dhaa Dha Ni Dhaa Ma Ma for Thaamarasaayatha, while ideally it should be Dhaa Dha Ni, Ni Dha-Dhaa Ma Ma, with a touch of Pa between the two Dhaas in Ni Dha-Dhaa. When I play veena, the MDR imitation is less obvious, because the vocal intonation is absent. But K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir had not only caught the single MDRlike phrase that I had played, but had also Remembered it more than half a year later! He gently said "There is nothing Wrong if you play a plain Dha there, but that phrase Could be Sriranjini too, while if you play Dha Dha with a touch of Panchamam, it could Only be Reethigowla and there would be absolutely no
room for ambiguity!" I grinned sheepishly and admitted that I was just playing an MDR phrase.
                   Though his personality was extremely gentle and mild, the points he made, never failed to make the deepest possible impact. I had the privilege of learning from him for a decade. Many many times, he would be sitting on his cot and I would be sitting on the floor and the hours would fly by so quickly that his daughter inlaw would come to the room, switch on the light and ask, "Why are you sitting in the dark?"....and neither of us would have realized that night had fallen, being so engrossed in our music related conversation.
                   There is a saying in Latin, "Ars est celare artem" which means "Art lies in concealing art." I found a living example of this in K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir.The modern American policy is "If you got it, flaunt it!" These days this seems to have been stretched further, to "Even if you Haven't got it, try and make out as though you Have, and flaunt it!" During such times, K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir represented certain values that were hard even to Imagine, leave alone, to put into practice.
What came through during his concerts would be less than 1% of the vast, vast, Vast reservoirs of music that he embodied. He revealed a lot more during his truly phenomenal lecture demonstrations. We find people who express themselves forcefully, who shout and punch the air and so on.....and we find people who are so mild that they don't make much of an impact, even when they are saying something with a lot of content. K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir was one of those rare and blessed people whose talks would be unfailingly replete with content, who spoke softly and gently, always enveloped with a sheen of quite self assurance and conviction that never went anywhere near aggression. 
                   He treated the great compositions by the great masters as sacred. Ehi Annapoorne in Punnagavarali, Emani in Mukhari, Amba Neelayatakshi in Neelambari and so on, for example. On the one hand, he would lament about so many of these kind of songs getting performed less and less during concerts these days and on the other hand he was kind of possesive about sharing some of them too! But he was totally generous about sharing his insights about musical subtelities in general. When one asked him a really insightful question, he would be thrilled like a child and explain the point enthusiastically.
When so many so called gurus are either stuck in deep rooted prejudices or are totally non committal, K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir was a rare exception. If one were to ask him "Can one sing the Ga in Thodi like this?" he would not only say "Yes" or "No", but also back it up with dozens of illustrations of how Sri Thyagaraja used the note in question, from many of his compositions!
All this was long before the internet was invented and his brain seemed to be even more powerful than google!
                   Many people have the unfortunate habit of being dismissive about the greatness that others embody and I have often heard great artists being reduced to single line caricatures.
M.D.Ramanathan - Sang slowly and at a very low pitch.
G.N.Balasubramaiam - Sang fast brikas
Madurai Mani Iyer - Sang swarams a lot.
Balamuralikrishna - Broke tradition.
and so on.
But K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir filtered out the best from Any musician he listened to.....be it a great veteran from the past or a young, upcoming musician...and enriched his music further.
                   They say that love is blind. At times love can be Deaf also and like most normal people, I would sing certain phrases the way some musicians I loved sang them, without caring much about whether they were correct, grammatically speaking, or not. It was K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir with his consistent and gentle observations who helped me shift my loyalty more to the truth in the music itself than to one singer or the other......one of the many things I thank him for on a daily basis.
Though in the beginning, one might be advised to accept what one's guru says, as one progresses, a questioning mind is always encouraged and one does best by finding one's own individuality and identity rather than by being a clone of anybody else. One would be surprised by the number of musicians who sing a wrong phrase and say "I can't change a single line or a dot from what my teacher taught me!" While loyalty to one's guru is generally a good thing, it would be nice to invest some of this loyalty into the compositions of people like Sri Thyagaraja that one sings, as well as to the Ragas in which they are sung.
K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir had an incredibly rich life. He was one of the earliest South Indian Classical musicians to tour other countries. He cut a disc with Narayana Menon, Palghat Raghu and Yehudi Menuhin in England. He cut another disc with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer for UNESCO. 
                  During the many years that he spent in Bombay, he got to mix and move with the cream of cream
in Hindustani music and even got to listen to many recitals of popular musicians like the Great Kundan Lal Saigal. Being a hard core Saigal Devotee myself, talking about Saigal with K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir was sheer Paradise! We would take his songs, note by note, phrase by phrase....including the background music and discussions about what instruments were used.....and analyze them for hours together like two children going through a box of chocolates, delirious with joy! Even after he shifted to South India, he would listen to the Hindustani Music related programme on All India Radio called Sangeet Sarita every single day and had an abiding interest and deep knowledge of this wonderful system of music; a love that I continue to nurture even today.
                 I heard about so many unique and beautiful Hindustani ragas like Sree, Bhatiyar, Chayanat and so on for the first time, from him. Among all the musicians that he spoke about, when Surshri Kesarbai Kerkar's name popped up, his eyes would
twinkle like stars and he would smile and giggle like a teenager! I never got to ask him what his equation with her was.
He spent his share of time with great Carnatic legends too. My M.D.Ramanathan love was treated affectionately and indulgently by him because he himself was very close to M.D.Ramanathan and his guru, Tiger Varadachariar. There was hardly ever a conversation with him that didn't feature the names Tiger or Sabhesha Iyer, with whom he worked at Annamalai University. Many who were associated with him just saw the little that he revealed during his concerts and had absolutely no idea about the sheer range and depth of his artistic vision. 
                  I remember an amusing incident that happened once. A lady who was very close to him, had given a concert the previous day, which I had attended. Among the many songs that she had played, she had played Ananda Natam Aaduvar in Purvi Kalyani by Neelakanta Sivan. But when Narayanaswamy Sir asked her what she played, she just said "Purvi Kalyani." Then he asked her "What song?" and she answered "Parama Pavana Rama!" I was really surprised and when I looked at her, she glared at me, indicating that I should shut up. Then he asked me "Have you heard a song called Ananda Natam Aaduvaar
in Purvi Kalyani?" I nearly burst out laughing and answered "Yes! In fact I heard it very recently too!" Then he revealed the fact that he had set the music to this really beautiful and extremely popular song, during his project at Annamalai
University, when he tuned several songs of Neelakanta Sivan and others. I hadn't known this until then and obviously the lady hadn't either and she apparently equated "Popular" to "Cheap"....and now it was too late to tell him
that she had indeed, played Ananda Natam Aaduvaar!
                   Though he stuck to his sedate and low key style of music all his life, he was never critical of others who resorted to virtuoso techniques that were calculated to impress. He used to tell me "If you only sing or play the way I do, you will have an audience of a small group of really old people who would come and tell you after the concert that your music was very Sampradayam or Traditional .....but you would never be invited again to that place to sing or play!' He would add "When a great musician does certain things for popularity, we can allow a margin for that"......then he would pause and add gravely "It is not that we Can allow....we Must allow a margin for that!" The same went for fingering techniques too. He was happy if one could produce the correct notes using whatever way of fingering that suited one, unlike some gurus who insist that a particular phrase Had to be played only this way and not any other way.
                  The duration of his alapana, his thaanam playing, his swaram sessions.....the extent of oscillation of the gamakams he used.....everything was measured and in perfect proportion. One would never find an excess of any one thing in his music.
His life follwed the strange but familiar pattern that many other greats before him had gone through. One where he was showered with the highest honours to start with and one where in the end, very few people even knew that he was still alive.
His wikipedia entry gives details about his birth and demise as follows.(27 September 1914 - 1999)
This is because not many people knew when he passed away...and when the news slowly started to appear in the media, many people were surprised to know that he had still been around all these years. But it was a choice that he himself had consciously taken and he was completely at peace with the results too.
                  Rather like what K.S.Narayanaswamy Sir delivered during his concerts, this article on him too, reveals hardly 1% of what all I learned from him. If there is a life after our life here, then I am sure he must be up there with his beloved Tiger, Sabhesha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Kesarbai and others, making music that is fit for the Gods. I feel eternally grateful and blessed to have shared what I have shared, with this great, great, great, Great man!
Endaro Mahanubhavulu! Andariki vandanamulu!

Rama Varma
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