Clarinet maestro A.K.C. Natarajan: ‘Many before me have gone unsung’

Clarinet Maestro Dr. A.K.C. Natarajan.

Clarinet Maestro Dr. A.K.C. Natarajan. | Photo Credit: Photo: M. Moorthy/The Hindu Archives

“Pull up your chair and repeat your question, please. I am a little hard of hearing,” laughed Carnatic clarinet exponent A.K.C. Natarajan, as journalists gathered at his house in Tiruchi on Republic Day.

The question he was repeatedly being asked was, “How does it feel to receive the Padma Shri this year?” “Wonderful, of course, and so gratifying to be recognised by the government even at this age,” he said.

At 92 years, ‘clarinet Everest’ Aenjala Kuppusami Chinnikrishna (AKC) Natarajan still sparkles with showmanship born of true talent. Not a great one for political correctness, the maestro is known to speak his mind irrespective of consequence. “Don’t write that, I’ll get into trouble,” he told a journalist as he shared a tidbit from his long career.

Born into a family of Carnatic musicians in Tiruchi on May 30, 1931, Natarajan started learning music from Alathur Venkatesa Iyer at the age of 10. (His guru had earlier taught the famed Alathur Brothers and M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar.) He also enrolled for nagaswaram classes with Illupur Natesa Pillai.

“I come from the old gurukul system of learning, where students were at the mercy of their gurus,” said Natajaran. “Besides rigorous training, we had to put up with corporal punishment for any mistakes, and also run errands for the household. These hardships shaped our craft too, and gave it a depth that today’s music schools cannot really gauge or replicate.”

The news of the award had buoyed his spirits a little, and Natarajan demonstrated his vocal skills with a snatch of a song. Then, posing for photographs, he played a small tune on his clarinet, an antique ebonite instrument that he has adapted for Carnatic music.

Multiple talents

Few know that he trained both as a vocalist (he qualified as an A-Grade artiste in All India Radio) and as nagaswaram player. He chose to specialise in the clarinet, an instrument that he had grown up seeing his father, Chinni Krishna Naidu, play in a fairly well-known band. Natarajan himself is a Top Grade AIR artiste in the clarinet.

“The instrument was valued for its unique bass sound that worked equally well for sadir and film music. AIR used to have two clarinet musicians in every station,” he had said in an earlier interview. Natarajan admitted to feeling diffident about excelling as a nagaswaram player in an era when other exponents of the instrument were already enjoying a massive following.

Quite like the man himself, Natarajan’s style of Carnatic rendition is unique in its ornamentation and flourish.

But he has preferred to coach students in playing the nagaswaram rather than the clarinet. “It is a difficult field to prosper in, and I don’t know if today’s sensitive children are up to the struggle,” he said. “But no matter what you do, it should be beyond just following the notations. Emotional intelligence is important for an artiste to rise above the rest.”

He is non-committal about modern music institutions. “To ensure high standards and a continuity of tradition, it would be better to integrate veteran exponents,” he said. “Sometimes it is good to see how the gurukul system can help the schools.”

The lockdown has brought his over 70-year career to a standstill. “Performing artistes have become destitute overnight because they don’t have savings and are not qualified for other jobs. I know I am among the more fortunate ones,” he said.

Coming back to the award, Natarajan’s smile slipped a little as he said, “I may be just an ordinary man hoping for a prize. But so many musicians before me have gone unsung. Only the most die-hard followers remember their names today.”

Golden moment

Among the more unusual gifts received by Natarajan was a gold clarinet, weighing 36 sovereigns, presented by gold merchants in Tiruchi, in 1958.

“I used to play at the Kanika Parameshwari temple in Big Bazaar Street for a salary of

₹16. When I became famous, the merchants of the area honoured me with a gold clarinet,” recalled Natarajan. Though he played a few concerts with this instrument in the 1960s, he later donated it to the National Defence Fund.

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 7:15:11 am |