December 2021 marked Calcutta K.S. Krishnamurthy’s birth centenary. The celebrations were somewhat muted, but that’s how he would have liked it. He was not someone who craved the kind of attention and accolades that define today’s world of Carnatic music, especially in Chennai.
KSK, as he was fondly called, combined high scholarship and deep understanding of music with a rare degree of understated manners. In short, the vocalist, composer, teacher, writer, and passionate devotee of Carnatic music, was a misfit for the rat race.
His outstanding teaching career created a legacy that is more powerful than the fame or money that eluded him when he was alive. Even in his later years, he was far from financially comfortable, moving in and out of small rented houses. He also lost his only son, Ravi, a budding violinist from the Lalgudi stable, to a bizarre road accident in Scandinavia.
I had the great fortune to be taught by KSK for a couple of years as part of my intermittent trysts with learning music. I owed that privilege to his best friend and my grandfather, the late K.S. Mahadevan. While KSK was busy training and mentoring both youngsters and accomplished artistes, some of whom are now part of a famed list of musicians or teachers, he took me on as student more perhaps for relaxation. He was too gentle to discipline my learning. Besides learning some choice kritis embellished by his bani and sangathis and with the bonus of his handwritten notations, I imbibed a lot more on music, human values, and the approach to young talents. I was perhaps too young to have appreciated these qualities in full then, but I reflected upon them later in life and they helped shape my thoughts.
KSK believed that a student must learn a lot of kritis, including some that need not be performed in concerts, to appreciate the raga lakshana imageries of the composer. An example he cited was the Swati Tirunal kriti, ‘Mamava Karunaya’, in Shanmukhapriya. Although there are many other popular kritis in the raga, there are shades that are unique to this kriti. KSK was an ardent fan of GNB and imbibed the musicality of the legend, even though he adopted his own style to suit his voice structure. Yet, he advised his students to listen to many different performers to observe and understand each one’s musical and manodharma interpretations. We once listened to an Arabhi piece by Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer with KSK’s insightful comments.
The one aspect KSK felt strongly about was that each kriti has a certain kalapramanam etched in it, and that must be followed each time it is sung. He was also a big votary of patanthara discipline and believed in notating every sangathi so that a musician does not tinker with it when it collides with manodharma. For him, ‘kalpita’ sangitham should be encased within set notes and bhava. It is now common practice to sing one’s own versions of popular kritis; KSK would not have approved.
At a personal level, KSK succeeded in decoupling his music and money. Music for him was too divine an art to be thrown into a commercial pot. He did not like to be drawn into any conversation on his finances. I never heard him criticise a student or musician even during freewheeling conversations. He had a genuine welcoming smile for all. I managed to reconnect with him when he turned 75. Despite his health problems, he was kind enough to spend a couple of hours talking to me. KSK’s wife Parvati was a capable musician too and participated in some of our conversations. The music fraternity may not hold a year-long gala or celebration of his centenary, but that wouldn’t matter to a man like KSK. People of his tribe will be rarer in future.
The writer specialises in Carnatic music.