Nagaswaram legend Karukurichi Arunachalam’s trailblazing journey

N.A.S. Sivakumar’s book unravels interesting facets of his personality and music

Updated - May 06, 2022 10:04 am IST

Published - May 05, 2022 06:14 pm IST

Karukurichi Arunachalam’s 

Karukurichi Arunachalam’s  | Photo Credit: From the book ‘Nindrolirum Minnal’

Fifty-eight years have passed since he died, and there are not many today who would have listened to him in person. He was not a politician with a crowd following. Nor was he born into a community that has a legacy of music. He died when he was only 44. Yet the pure magic of nagaswaram maestro Karukurichi P. Arunachalam’s music has survived and captivated people for over half a century and made his birth centenary a memorable event in the history of Carnatic music.

The book, Nindrolirum Minnal (A lightning that continues to sparkle; Atcharam Pathippagam), by N.A.S. Sivakumar explains what made his music special and his stature in the Carnatic and film music world. The book, a compilation of articles published during his lifetime and after, offers glimpses into the musical journey of a nagaswaram player from a small town, who conquered the music world through sheer talent. In the 1950s, he charged Rs. 1,000 for a concert, and going by the letters he wrote to his friends informing them about his concert schedule, he seemed to have performed on almost all days except when he was travelling.

Writing about a concert held in Gopalapuram Sangeetha Sabha in 1954, late E. Krishna Iyer had said that “he drowned the rasikas in the flood of music for four and half hours.” Arunachalam was accompanied by M. Arunachalam on the nagaswaram and Nachiyarkoil Raghava Pillai on the thavil.

 Karukurichi Arunachalam; with Nachiyarkoil Raghavapillai (special thavil), K.M. Arunachalam (nagaswaram), Ambasamudram Kuzhandhaivel, and Perumpallam Venkatesapillai (thavil)

 Karukurichi Arunachalam; with Nachiyarkoil Raghavapillai (special thavil), K.M. Arunachalam (nagaswaram), Ambasamudram Kuzhandhaivel, and Perumpallam Venkatesapillai (thavil) | Photo Credit: From the book ‘Nindrolirum Minnal’

“They painted the beauty of ragas such as Bhairavam, Husseini, Pantuvarali, and Kalyani. Each phrase and beauty of Kalyani raga kriti, ‘Ethavunara’ deserves one lakh rupee,” wrote Krishna Iyer.

Karukurichi Arunachalam seemed to have achieved what the nagaswaram players of the composite Thanjavur district could not. He was lucky to have Thiruvavaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai as his teacher and accompanied him for many years. “Some fifty Arunachalams came to me as students. Only this Arunachalam has become my heir,” clarinet player A.K.C. Natarajan has recalled Rajarathinam Pillai as saying.

Imbibed his guru’s style

While he imbibed the style of rendering raga elaborately from his teacher, his style of playing keerthanas had the touch of every great vocalist, particularly G.N. Balasubramaniam. The keerthana, ‘Kandan karunai puriyum vadivel’, popularised by Mani Iyer assumed a new dimension when he played it on the nagaswaram. ‘Thamarai pootha thadakamadi’ is another song. Sri Lankan Tamil writer A. Muthulingam has narrated an incident, how he and his friend went from one concert to another to record the song. His friend liked the song, because the face of his girlfriend, who would always be morose, would light up when he rendered the song.

An important aspect of the book is the photographs collected by Sivakumar. The personalities seen with Karukurichi Arunachalam explain his close relationship with politicians, film actors, industrialists and other personalities. There is a photograph of Kamaraj sitting on the dais with him at the Congress conference in Chennai. He played in Delhi and received a memento from Jawaharlal Nehru. President S. Radhakrishnan attended his concert during his visit to the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. Puttaparthi Sai Baba had visited Kovilpatti on his request.

Arunachalam shared a special bond with N.S. Krishnan, Sivaji Ganesan, and Gemini Ganesan, who along with his wife, sponsored and unveiled the nagaswaram vidwan’s statue in Kovilpatti.

Gemini Ganesan and Sivaji Ganesan with Arunachalam

Gemini Ganesan and Sivaji Ganesan with Arunachalam | Photo Credit: From the book ‘Nindrolirum Minnal’

Actor T.S. Balaiah was also close to him. His daughter Ambujam recalls that her father, overwhelmed by his playing at her sister’s marriage, removed the ring, studded with 13 precious stones, from his finger and presented it to Arunachalam.

While the Gemini Ganesan-starrer Konjum Salangai, featuring the song ‘Singaravelane deva’ became a sensation, he could not play in the film Thillana Mohanambal, with Sivaji Ganesan in the lead role, because he was not alive when the film was made. There is a picture of both Sivaji and Gemini holding nagaswarams and posing for a photograph with Arunachalam. The book also carries an interview of singer S. Janaki, in which she reveals that she and Arunachalam recorded separately for ‘Singaravelane deva’. “They recorded his portion first. Later I listened to it wearing an earphone and rendered my portion in tune with the lilting and mellifluous sruthi.”

Two articles by writers Ki. Rajanarayanan, and Ku. Alagirisami, the childhood friends of Arunachalam, make the book a collector’s item.

But it was DMK founder and late Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai’s obituary that sums up Karukurichi Arunachalam’s greatness. “Today I do not feel like reading anything. I was discussing with friends his great qualities,” he wrote on the maestro’s untimely demise, leaving a feeling of what might have been if he had lived longer.

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