Vidwan Tiruvarur Krishnamurthy talks about his passion for the mridangam, his famous gurus and the Tyagaraja festival.

It is 4.30 on a cold Saturday morning when I set off on a bus trip to Puducherry. The reason for this journey is to meet the mridangam vidwan Tiruvarur Krishnamurthy. Now in his early seventies, he is one of those artists who ‘missed the bus' when it came to making it big on a professional level in Chennai.

This much respected vidwan speaks in a low tone and at times, becomes emotional during the interview. “Although I used to frequent Chennai for concerts, I did not want to settle down there. I was quite contented playing along with my sister T.R. Anandavalli (mother of mridangam vidwan Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam), herself a popular artist, in and around Tiruvarur before settling down with All India Radio, Puducherry.”

A grandson of nagaswaram vidwan Tirukannamangai Ramdas Pillai, music was just a natural corollary for Krishnamurthy. His father Rajagopal Pillai was a thavil maestro.

Training period

The septuagenarian takes pride in informing us that Ramdas Pillai was presented with a golden nagaswaram at Alagramam during the annual village festival in recognition of his prowess. Born with three brothers and a sister, all of whom took to music in some form or the other, it was always music in their house.

“The wooden pillar (thoon) in our house was my drum. I spent my leisure time playing various rhythmic patterns on it. That's when my father decided to train me in mridangam. The shifting of our family to Tiruvarur helped this. On nagaswaram vidwan Tiruvarur T.S. Vaidyanatha Pillai's suggestion, I joined Tiruvarur Kunju Iyer's classes. At times, his son Tiruvarur Nagarajan would also teach me. Around the same time, my elder brother joined Tiruvarur Tyagaraja Desigan for violin classes. Apart from school, my other destination daily was Kunju Iyer's house for practice. After about four years, he let me play for bhajans that would go on for several hours, be it Radha Kalyanam or Sita Kalyanam.”

Just the mention of his guru's name and Krishnamuthy's voice gets choked and it takes him several minutes to regain composure. His guru bhakti even at this age is definitely a lesson for youngsters. The winner of AIR's mridangam competition in the late 1950s, he had the privilege of receiving the prize from Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India. “I had won the preliminary round in Tiruchi. The finals in Madras were exciting. Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer and Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai were among the judges. The competition was tough and I was a bit jittery. During the korvai, the person who was keeping the talam missed a beat, and hence, went off rhythm. Noticing my predicament, Swaminatha Pillai came to my rescue and kept the talam, telling me to watch him till I finished playing. It was just the second year after AIR instituted this award.”

“After this recognition, I found myself playing in many concerts. I joined AIR, Pondy, in 1972.” Shifting base to Puducherry helped Krishnamurthy come face to face with doyens of Carnatic music. He takes in pride in mentioning vidwans for whom he has played -- Dr. S. Pinakapani, Veenai S. Balachandar, MLV, Neduneri Krishnamurthy, T. Brinda, M. Balamuralikrishna, T.V. Namasivayam, T. M. Thiagarajan and Flute N. Ramani.

Memorable concert

The concert he played for Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar at the Tyagaraja festival in Tiruvarur with his guru playing the konnakkol, is still etched in memory. In fact, he can still remember the kritis sung that day!

What about his days of training? “While being taught by Kunju Iyer, often I would skip school to play the mridangam. My guru would literally chase me back to school. Classes would go on for hours during holidays. This apart, we would also help in the daily household chores for him. That he was a blessed soul was proved when he merged with the Divine just after the Mahadeeparadhana at a Radha Kalyanam festival.”

Krishnamurthy once again becomes emotional… “Embracing me, my guru asked me to take care of his son who had fallen sick. His advice was not to worry too much about playing at concerts. He asked us to always pray to Tyagaraja at the Tiruvarur temple.” Krishnamurthy wanted to learn from Palani Subramaniam Pillai but by then, the maestro had fallen sick. In a happy coincidence, Krishnamurthy's wife too hails from a family of musicians. She is the grand-daughter of T.V. Muthukumaraswamy Pillai, who played with his brother T.V. Somaskanda Pillai. Her father Tirukuvalai Navaneetha Krishnan was a nagaswaram vidwan. So pursuing music after marriage was not too difficult for him.

Krishnamurthy has been conducting the annual Tyagaraja festival without a break in Puducherry for a long time. “My grandson Manikandan is now learning mridangam from me. I used to teach in Neyveli during weekends. Today, many of my students are professional players, notable among them being my nephew Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, Neyveli Skandasubramaniam and Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani.”

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