by V. Ramnarayan
In one of his last concerts, Kollenkode Viswanatha Iyer Narayanaswamy moved listeners to tears with the depth of feeling of his rendering of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s, Varugalamo Ayya, the devotee Nandan’s desperate plea before the Deity.
It was hardly surprising, for KVN was known for the emotional impact his music had on listeners, but he was himself always in control of the sruti- and laya-perfect music he purveyed.
Sangita Kalanidhi KV Narayanaswamy’s music continues to have a huge impact on many of the present generation of singers, the youngest of whom probably never heard him live. I asked some of them why they liked KVN’s singing so much. None came up with an answer that really answered the question. It is as if the young musicians, both men and women, have turned to the quietude and bhava of his singing almost intuitively in their quest for beauty in their art. One of them said she admired KVN’s vocal technique, which he had devised to suit his voice; it put no strain on his voice or physique. She described his style as a blend of melody and vishayam, with in-built rhythm and without undue emphasis on kanakku. All the young musicians I spoke to agreed that his niraval singing went beyond stitching words and melody together to seamlessly integrate the rhythmic dimension as well. Was his voice ever a powerful rather than a mellifluous one? Few recordings prove the existence of such a reality. His career is generally believed to have been divided by a heart condition into two distinct phases. Some of the early recordings hint at a more full-bodied, slightly more akaram-oriented style of singing than the later KVN voice. But the KVN way has been a continuum uninterrupted by stylistic changes. It is already becoming evident that a number of young vocalists, of his and other sishya paramparas, are proving to be exemplars of his melody-rich school of music. I’m sure Ishall soon be regularly speaking of the KVN bani.
His was effortless music of a kind Irarely come across. It has been said that he became “immersed in his music, thoroughly forgetting himself and thereby providing a divine experience for the listener.” This effortlessness could be very misleading. I generally avoid cricketing metaphors, but I cannot resist the temptation today. Sir Garfield Sobers, arguably the greatest cricketer of all time, did look effortless while batting, bowling or fielding in a Test match. He indeed rarely practised in the nets in his mature years. Hidden, however, were years of strenuous practice, or rather sheer enjoyment of playing the game endlessly on the beaches and grounds of his native Barbados. Likewise, KVN was known not to labour too much over pre-concert sadhakam in his mature years but to go on stage and sing spontaneously. The effortlessness was therefore more than mere appearance. What were not visible were the years of effort behind it. His sishyas and associates knew that though he was blessed with natural fidelity to sruti, he was never satisfied during practice until he was certain he had got the notes absolutely right. In fact, sruti perfection was an article of faith with KVN, and lack of it in a sishya was the only thing that ever made him angry. The best tribute an aspiring vocalist can pay to KVN’s memory would be tireless practice to guarantee sruti suddham, not imitation of his style of singing.
Gowri Ramnarayan once said, “Some musicians appeal to the mind, to the intellect. Other musicians appeal to the heart. But only a very few in the history of music appeal to the soul. They charge the spirit within.” She was obviously referring to the rare musician that KVN was.
Could such soulful music rooted in all the vital aspects of music come together in a single musician by serendipity? Perhaps, they can, in one so naturally musical as KVN. But his teachers and mentors other than his Gurunathar Ariyakudi–whom he worshipped—included his father Kollenkode Viswanatha Bhagavatar and Papa Venkataramiah, both violinists, and mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer. (A rare photograph of KVN playing the tavil indicates the extent of his laya proficiency). His love of the Dhanammal school of music and his experience of learning songs from the family were also a significant influence on his music.
All these varied influences must be the background behind his mastery of raga and tala as well as his superb team ethos that invariably energized his accompanists to give of their best in his concerts. It was my good fortune that I had several interactions with KVN and his family and a whole brood of sishyas—towards the end of the 20th century, right up to a few months before he passed away. Assigned the task of editing and publishing his biography in Tamil by journalist Neelam of Swadesamitran fame, and an English translation by Justice VR Krishna Iyer, as well as several tributes by his admirers, I ended up also interviewing his family and his disciples including Prashanth Hemmige, Balaji Shankar, Pattabhiram Pandit, Karthik and Sudhir—to add weight to the slim volume. Through many informal sessions at his home, I got to see at close quarters evidence of his endearing qualities of heart, his natural musicality (including his tendency to even speak in his singing sruti), his lovely habit of whistling some raga or kriti, and his affectionate hospitality. His students, a constant presence at the Narayanaswamy residence at Mandaveli, termed it “sishyakulavasam”. It was KVN and Padma who looked after them with love and concern, not the other way around. KVN’s son Viswanathan confirms that KVN forgot the world in his pursuit of music. “He did not even know which branch of engineering I was studying,” he told me. He praised the Sruti commemorative volume on KVN soon after his death as the best tribute he read, Pattabhi Raman’s interview with Padma Narayanaswamy in particular.
He drew my attention to a reference in it to a conversation between KVN and Jon Higgins. Higgins wanted to know why audiences sat entranced when KVN was rendering Tyagaraja yoga vaibhavam, but tried to slip away when Higgins sang it. KVN explained to Higgins how to go about investing the song with appeal, but startled him by saying he learnt the song from a Higgins record. Viswanathan also spoke of KVN’s mastery of concert music. He never asked anyone what he or she thought of his music. Once on stage, he was absolutely confident. He lifted the audience to a different plane when he sang songs like Varugalamo, Krishna nee begane, Enneramum, Aliveni, Mayamma and other favourites like Kana vendamo or Tiruvadi saranam, songs of total surrender. The listener was invariably moist-eyed, but KVN was in full control. According to Viswanathan, a famous mridanga vidwan said he never had to worry about an exodus during tani, because everyone stayed to listen to KVN’s soul-stirring post-main pieces.
Another devoted sishya has been a close friend of mine. The self-effacing Tulsi Ram (he was then known as Toufiq Tuzeme) was a French-Algerian disciple completely devoted to KVN, who in turn showered his affection on him. Tulsi fondly recalls how KVN once introduced him to the sage of Kanchi, proudly declaring that the young man was a vegetarian who shunned leather. He also recalled how KVN enjoyed watching films like Maya Bazaar and Nandanar Charitram at Kapali or Eros cinemas, or during his Berkeley California days watching a kung fu tv serial up to the point sometimes of almost being late for the weekly concerts at the Center for World Music, fortunately only a few yards from the flat. He also remembers with gratitude how KVN and Padma looked after him spending their own money when he was seriously ill, and again when he met with an accident.
After the book I edited was done, I made an anxious phone call to KVN inquiring about it, as he had not called to comment on the just published book. Reassuring me, he said, “Bookkai aaraakkum undaakkiyathu? Ramanarayanan allavo?!” (Who produced the book? Was it not Ramanarayanan?) It was typically kind of him; I had myself not been satisfied with the outcome of the project. He was perhaps making allowances for something the two of us shared: Ramanarayanan had been his given name at birth! In conclusion, I’d like to say that KVN has left a unique legacy of music rooted in bhava, technically perfect but never designed to show off technical prowess, a model for present and future practitioners to adopt for its total adherence to sruti suddham. Equally important is to remember that KVN’s pure music came from his pure heart and good nature, as Sruti Pattabhi Raman said.