The Narasimman family’s long association with the veena

The top of a shelf in K. Lakshmi Narasimman’s house is occupied by a line of framed black and white pictures: pious-looking men stare into the lens while their hands stroke the frets of a veena. These pictures stand testimony to the family’s association with the veena, spanning five generations and 150 years.

Tracing the roots

Though the list of veena artistes and teachers in his family tree begins with his great-grandfather, ‘Suri’ Krishnamachariyar, Narasimman thinks there were others before him. Suri Krishnamachariyar seems to have been a popular artiste during his time, delivering several public performances. “The title ‘Suri’ was bestowed on him by the then Mysore raja after he performed in front of the royal court,” recounts Narasimman.

Also known as ‘sath vichithra kavi’, Suri Krishnamachariyar could write lines of poetry and set them to tune almost instantly, creating rare pieces of music. However, Krishnamachariyar’s son T.K. Ragavachariyar seems to have been content with teaching the veena, though he too could compose his own music, according to Narasimman.

The family of veena artistes are also adept at constructing their own veenas and tweaking them. Narasimman and his two daughters learned to play, in fact, on a veena designed by Ragavachariyar especially for children. Presently occupying the central space on the display shelf in the house, the veena seems to be waiting for the next generation of nimble hands.

Genetic predisposition

Getting the family tree back on to the track of public performances was T.R. Krishnamachari, who worked with the All India Radio as its staff artiste for over 40 years. “My father had performed nearly 1000 concerts and even did a brief stint with a film music orchestra before he passed away in 2004,” says Lakshmi Narasimman. “Even when he was nearing his 90s, my father continued to conduct veena classes and perform occasionally at the AIR,” says Narasimman.

As for himself, the fourth-generation musician the family, Narasimman thinks he must have begun playing the veena even before he was five. “A lot of people may wonder how a five-year-old could play the instrument, but I think it is a case of genetic predisposition,” he says.

His two brothers, however, couldn’t learn to play the veena even though they enjoyed classical music. “I didn’t want that to happen to my children, so I introduced them to the veena and classical music at a very tender age.”

Lakshmi Narasimman, who began accompanying his father on stage from the age of 12, has worked with the AIR too and has performed over 700 solo veena concerts in India and Sri Lanka. “I had to temporarily give up concerts at Sri Lanka (where they continue to refer to it as yaazh isai) because of the LTTE issue, but I will be going back soon.” Having decided to perform only solo veena concerts, Lakshmi Narasimman says he recently began playing light music songs as well on his veena.

The fifth generation

Today, he runs Krishna Sangeetha Vidyalaya, a school of music, at his house in Woraiyur, where he and his elder daughter, Vaishnavi, taught nearly 100 students. “Vaishnavi used to teach the veena and the keyboard here till she moved to Coimbatore after her marriage,” he says, adding that his younger daughter, Priya, was now qualified to begin teaching the veena. Understanding their musical lineage, both sisters are keen on continuing the family’s tradition of teaching the veena, according to Priya.

“Most people get scared by the size of the veena and assume it is a difficult instrument to learn, but what it actually requires is lots of patience,” says Lakshmi Narasimman. At least four years of professional training are required before a performance on stage, he says.

Another marker of the family’s long musical roots is the Thirupanazhwar festival held at the Nachiyar Kovil in Woraiyur: “The veenai ekantham,” he says, “the only occasion where the veena is slung over the shoulder and played standing, has been exclusively performed by my family for the past 100 years or more.”

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