Musicians continue to add the names of their ancestral villages as a prefix to connect to a glorious past

In no other field does the name of a village or town assume as much significance as it does in Carnatic Music. Ariyakudi, Thiruvavaduthurai, Semmangudi, Mudikondan, Maharajapuram… These names conjure up images of the musicians rather than places. When someone says that he has listened to Ariyakudi, he means Ramanuja Iyengar.

The names of innumerable villages, especially from the unified Thanjavur district, echoed in the music halls in Chennai for the first few decades of the music season which began in 1929. Then arrived a band of young musicians from Metropolitan Chennai who had nothing to do with these villages. Although their parents had lost links with the ancestral towns, these youngsters continued to add the names of their ancestral places as prefixes. While trying to reconnect with their own past, they were also seeking to evoke the associations these villages had with the earlier generation of musical stalwarts

“On one hand it gives identity, and on the other it poses a challenge. While it gives a sense of fulfilment, it also creates expectation among the audience. It's a burden, but a comfortable burden,” says vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, who was born and brought up in Chennai and who has visited his ancestral village Sikkil only a couple of times.

Sikkil, a small town near Nagapattinam, is the native place of flautists Kunjumani and Neela. Gurucharan is the grandson of Kunjumani, who died recently.

He explains that when he launched his career, he was known only as Gurucharan, since his grandmother objected to the idea of adding Sikkil before his name. “She was of the opinion that I have to achieve a certain level before using the name of the village as prefix. In 2000, she herself asked me to go ahead,” he further says.

Young violinist Nagai Sriram, who is also from Chennai, feels that the name, Nagai, a shortened form of Nagapattinam, proves to be a source of strength.

“People will invariably ask whether I am a relative of Nagai Muralidharan, a well-known violinist. When I reveal that he is my uncle their expectation about my music goes up. It is a responsibility I have to uphold,” says Mr. Sriram.

Vocalist Kunnakudi Balamurali Krishna has a very simple reason for why he bears the name of his ancestral village. “I could not remain master Balamuralaikrishna after I crossed 20. Since there is already one senior Balamuralaikrishna, I was under compulsion to add something to my name. Senior vidwans like Umayalpuram Sivaraman asked me to opt for my ancestral village and I happily followed their advice,” he says. Noted music historian V. Sriram points out that the trend is not something new. Veena Dhanammal and her granddaughter and dancer Balasaraswathi were known as Thanjavur Dhanammal and Thanjavur Balaswarswathi, though their ancestors moved to Chennai a century ago.

While acknowledging that some villages in unified Thanjavur district had got attached to a great tradition of music and thereby infused a sense of pride in the musicians, he stresses that it was the musicians who gave an identity to many nondescript villages.

“There are exceptions,” he says. G.N. Balasubramaniam never bothered to use his ancestral village Gudalur. “Only G is left of the village,” he would say.