TN Krishnan: With mic or without it, his violin strings sang to the listener

Known for his melodic clarity and dexterity to capture the essence of vocal experience through his music, Krishnan has passed on his legacy to a number of younger musicians; the violin exponent died on November 3 at the age of 92

A musician who was not affected by criticism, Krishnan had a prodigious solo career, until the very end

“Twenty years after a music critic wrote that I should stop performing in live concerts, I am still performing,” legendary violinist Tripunithura Narayanan Krishnan, popularly known as TN Krishnan, said 10 years ago. Such was the verve, tenacity and masterly approach of TN Krishnan, who died on November 3 at the age of 92. Krishnan was engaged in performing, composing, teaching, and promoting Indian classical music all over the world for over seven decades.

Early days

He was born on October 6, 1928, into Bhagavatar Matham, an illustrious family of musicians, renowned in both the Carnatic and Hindustani traditions. His parents A Narayana Iyer and Ammini Ammal came from families whose musical lineage went back at least five generations. Grandfather Appadurai Bhagavatar was a well-known musician himself. Thus, from a young age, Krishnan grew up with music at Tripunithura, the seat of the Cochin royal family. His father Narayana Iyer, a music teacher, was his first guru. Iyer, however, was strict and made sure that his son was disciplined too, even while sharpening his skills.

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Even at a young age, the boy grasped masterpieces like Veena Kuppier’s Ata tala varnam in Narayanagaula and major kritis like Sri subrahmanyaya namaste (Kambhoji, Muthuswami Dikshitar). He was greatly encouraged by violin percussionist G Krishna Iyer (Kittam Bhagavatar) and maternal uncle G Narayana Iyer, a lawyer in nearby Perumbavur.

Krishnan accompanied his father to hear the evening broadcasts of Corporation Radio at the municipal park, opening a window to such greats as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Tiger Varadachariar and the Karaikudi Brothers. Krishnan’s arangetram (debut stage performance), at the age of seven, was at Tripunithura’s famous Poornatrayeesa temple.

Birth of a prodigy

By his eighth birthday, Krishnan was viewed as a child prodigy in Kerala, performing in temple festivals, accompanying visiting vidwans from Tamil Nadu, while his first performance for All India Radio was at the age of 1o at Trichy. Around this time, he looked with awe at Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, at a concert in Alleppey and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, during a performance at the Tripunittura palace – these were the two men who would have a profound influence on his life.

Alleppey Parthasarathy Iyengar, or ‘Papasami’ as he was popularly known, introduced Krishnan to all the musicians including Ramanuja Iyengar, who used to stay with Papasami during their visits to Alleppey. Iyengar liked Krishnan’s approach and gave an opportunity to accompany him at a marriage concert at Puduvayal (Karaikudi) in 1941. That was the beginning of several hundred concerts together.

Narayana Iyer had to move his family to Thiruvananthapuram during World War II in view of the threat to Kochi harbour, leading to an evacuation. Krishnan was enrolled in the Shri Moola Vilasam (SMV) School in the fourth form, and he also found well-wishers for his musical talent in Thiruvananthapuram.

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With the help of his maternal uncle G Narayana Iyer, Krishnan was formally introduced to Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar and Semmangudi at the residence of Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, the dewan and de facto ruler of Travancore. Thus began a long association with Semmangudi. While father Narayana Iyer shifted to Nagercoil to maintain his job, Semmangudi had Krishnan stay in his own house. He was also under the care and warmth of Semmangudi’s wife, Thaayu Ammal.

Musical breakthrough and shift to Madras

A major happening in 1942 was when he accompanied flute maestro TR Mahalingam at Thiruvananthapuram’s VJT Hall under the auspices of the Swati Tirunal Sangita Sabha. Mali found Krishnan an exciting prospect and invited him to a concert at the RR Sabha, Mylapore. Soon after, Krishnan got a number of offers so much so that his father Narayana Iyer rushed to Chennai to find out why he had not returned. Overwhelmed to find that his son had received a number of offers for concerts, Iyer decided to move over to Chennai, making their new home at Thandavaraya Mudali Street in Thiruvallikeni.

Thus, Krishnan became a Chennaivasi.

Apart from performing at the prestigious Madras Music Academy, the 15-year-old lad from Thiruvananthapuram soon accompanied stalwarts like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GN Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers and Mali. His youthful charm and artistry wowed audiences. In no time, he picked up nuances from all the stalwarts and embellished his prowess. Besides accompanying the younger vocalists who were on the rise like KV Narayanaswamy, MD Ramanathan and Maharajapuram Santhanam, Krishnan also began solo concerts, where he was even honoured by the accompaniment of mridangam stalwarts like Palghat Mani Iyer.

Krishnan always believed he was “lucky” to get early breaks like concerts with Flute Mali. He said he was fortunate to have played regularly for Mali, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Semmangudi, VV Sadagopan and Tanjore Lakshminarayana Iyer in his early years. “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 at Music Academy in the second year itself, accompanying Lakshminarayana Iyer and Palghat Rama Bhagavatar. In 1945, I accompanied Viswanatha Iyer at the Academy,” he recalled in an interview once.

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“Ariyakudi was a jovial man off stage, but he was a strict disciplinarian on stage,” said Krishnan. Ariyakudi expected accompanying artistes to look at him all the time, and not get distracted by the audience. Krishnan was always a faithful accompaniment. If Ariyakudi completed his raga alapana in 10 minutes, Krishnan would ensure that he did not take more than eight minutes! Even while he was treated well by the seniors, Krishnan was always careful not to tread on their toes or be too exuberant in their presence.

Krishnan literally had to play ‘second fiddle’.

The little master also learnt a lot from the seniors during their travel. He would pick up bits and pieces about how they went about their concerts, what went into them and a peep into great minds. These were invaluable and noteworthy exercises, without the junior violinist even being aware of the impact.

On the personal front, he suddenly got married to Kamala in 1962. “Single for long, I was under pressure to get married, from several vidwans and colleagues,” Krishnan remarked. Ayyalur Krishnan was said to have enabled the alliance. He met Kamala on the way to a Semmangudi concert.

“GNB and Chembai who were our neighbours conveyed their greetings,” recalled Krishnan. Within seven days of the alliance being approved, the marriage took place at Tirupati which was attended among others by Alathur Brothers, Guruvayur Dorai and KVN.

Teaching by example

Like his father, Krishnan too spent a lot of time teaching. In 1965, at the invitation of Musiri Subramania Iyer, he joined the State Music College in Chennai as a professor of music and subsequently served as its principal. He also went on to serve as the dean of the School of Music and Fine Arts at the University of Delhi.

He has served as the vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Academy and chaired various committees for All India Radio and several universities. He was the recipient of numerous distinguished awards, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and subsequent fellowship, Sangita Kalanidhi, Padma Shri and Padma Bushan. He also served as the vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and chaired various committees for All India Radio and other distinguished entities.

He brought up worthy disciples, including his own children Viji and Sriram.

On sister N Rajam’s shift to Hindustani music, Krishnan said that she had to visit Benares for an examination and met Omkarnath Thakur there. “Father encouraged her to learn Hindustani, probably as a way to avoid having both of us compete in the same field,” Krishnan quipped.

Sruti magazine hailed Krishnan’s contribution thus: “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.”

A man of many virtues

True to the character of legendary musicians, Krishnan made no bones about mikes or mike-less concerts. He would go on playing as if the mikes never existed or mattered.

His instrument was 200 years old, he would say, and he never believed in making changes to it like youngsters do these days.

Criticism never worried him too, though he would point out that he was not criticized that often, barring a remark by a music critic that he should have stopped public concerts more than two decades earlier. He had a prodigious solo career, until the very end. Not much was known about his ability to play the flute. He even rendered a concert as a flautist, accompanied by TV Gopalakrishnan on the violin and Mangalampally Balamuralikrishna on the mridangam!

Allepey Venkatesan referred to a conversation with Krishnan when he said, “It is only now that I am starting to really understand what our music is all about…” Remember, this statement by Krishnan had come at the end of 70 years as a top-grade performer. Such was Krishnan’s humility!


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