T.K. Murthy looks back at a rhythm-filled life

Nothing, not even age, can come between T.K. Murthy and his passion for the mridangam. From stalwarts to youngsters, he has accompanied generations of musicians. The vidwan turns 95 on August 13, 2019

Published - August 08, 2019 03:52 pm IST

Mridangam vidwan T.K. Murthy at his residence in Madipakkam, Chennai

Mridangam vidwan T.K. Murthy at his residence in Madipakkam, Chennai

“Age is a case of mind over matter, if you don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter,” said Mark Twain. T.K. Murthy (Thanu Krishna Murthy), would happily agree. At 95, Murthy, performs on stage, practises for long hours, teaches students spread across the globe and even composes moras and korvais.

Murthy started his training under Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, the founder of Thanjavur style of mridangam, who made a perfect teaching format for mridangam, when he was just nine years old. Murthy continued to stay with Iyer as his adopted son till his death. Even before he started learning, young Murthy used to play for concerts.

“When I was six years old, I pestered my mother to buy me a mridangam. She finally bought one for Rs 3, which was a big deal then. I started playing on my own and soon my father, a vocalist, started taking me to his concerts,” reminisces Murthy.

Vaidyanatha Iyer happened to hear him at one such concert and decided to impart lessons to the boy. “My guru affectionately called me Chittu, as he felt my fingers moved swiftly like a ‘Chittu Kuruvi’ (sparrow),” chuckles Murthy. Vocalists such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and many others in the music circuit would also call him Chittu then. Along with Murthy, mridangam legend Palghat Mani and Thambuswami (brother of vocalist T.M. Thiagarajan) also learned under Iyer. “My guru was affectionate but strict,” recalls Murthy. “When I was 13, he sent me to Kancheepuram to accompany a concert of Madurai Mani Iyer. He had sent a letter to the organiser saying that I should be asked to play Simhanandanam tala (the longest tala with 128 beats) and if I made any errors, I should not be sent back to him!”

For E-book : T.K. Murthy, Mridangam
Attn : Venkatesan

For E-book : T.K. Murthy, Mridangam Attn : Venkatesan

Murthy was born into a family of court musicians. Composer Neelakanta Sivan is his mother’s uncle. “When I was 10 years old, I went to the Mysore palace with my guru for Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer’s performing. Chowdiah was on the violin and my guru was on the mridangam. I also joined him. The Maharaja was so pleased with my performance that he gave me Rs. 1,000 along with an angavastram. Later, when I was studying in a school at Thiruvananthapuram, I had a friend, Chellamani (singer Hariharan’s father) who used to sing. Once, Chithira Tirunal Maharaja came to our school and our headmaster asked us to present a concert. Clueless, Chellamani sang and I played the mridangam. The Maharaja was so impressed that he presented a gold medal to both of us,” recalls Murthy.

It was Palghat Mani Iyer who shortened Krishnamurthy’s name. This happened during a concert at Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Mylapore, in 1937. Musiri Subramania Iyer was the vocalist, accompanied by Papa Venkatarama Iyer on the violin, Mani Iyer on the ganjira and Murthy on the mridangam. “The sabha came up with a poster in the shape of a clock. In the place of the numbers 12, 3, 6 and 9, they wrote each artiste’s name. Krishnamurthy did not fit in the space and Mani Iyer instantly made it T.K. Murthy. And the name stuck,” says the maestro.

Once in the late 1930s, Murthy visited Shimla during the winter for a concert with Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. “We were at the residence of the organiser. It was freezing . But Chembai was game for an oil bath. He even had curd rice after that, which bothered the organiser as he was worried that might affect Chembai’s voice. “When the concert was about to start, Chembai asked the organiser to sit near the entrance of the hall and listen to his concert from there. He wanted to prove the power of his voice that could be heard sharply from any distance. The organiser was so mesmerised that we were asked to perform the next day as well,” Murthy recalls.

Murthy accompanied M.S. Subbulakshmi for 60 years. In her famous UN General Assembly concert in October 1966, Murthy played the mridangam along with Vikku Vinayakaram on the ghatam. The team wanted to do something different to invoke the interest in the audience who are not exposed to Carnatic music. “During tani avarthanam, I suggested to throw the ghatam up and catch it while playing. We got a standing ovation,” Murthy laughs. “Once during a concert tour in Rome, ghatam player Alangudi Ramachandran, violinist R.S. Gopalakrishnan and I went for sightseeing and we lost our way. As none of us knew Italian, we couldn’t ask for the route to the railway station. At last, holding on to each other and whistling and chugging like a train, we conveyed our requirement. And it worked!” laughs Murthy again.

Murthy has played for almost all the musicians in the past 80 years and he continues to play for the younger musicians. “Accompanying Alathur Brothers was challenging as they sang pallavis with lot of kanakkus; for instance, panchanada pallavis.” He loved playing for Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and liked his kalapramanam. Murthy also accompanied M. Balamuralikrishna, T.M. Krishna and Sanjay Subrahmanyan in their maiden performance.

“Children should listen to a lot of kutcheris before they start learning. This will help help them learn the art fast,” says Murthy who has taught seven generations of students. “Each vocalist will have a different kalapramanam. For instance, GNB’s pace was different from Semmangudi. We have to learn to play for everyone,” he says.

Murthy is an excellent teacher. “His teaching style is very different. He teaches each student according to his/her calibre,” says Palakkad Harinarayanan, his student for the past 15 years and who has made a documentary featuring Murthy. “There is no age hierarchy in his classes. He teaches an eight-year old and a senior student with the same enthusiasm and attention,” adds S.R. Sreekanth, Murthy’s student for the past 19 years.

Murthy feels raga selection and packaging of concerts have changed over the years. “Many ragas such as Asaveri, Salakabhairavi and Prathapavarali are not heard much these days,” he says singing the pallavi of the Tyagaraja kriti ‘Vinana asa koni yunnaanura’ in Prathapavarali. “Those days concerts would go on for about four hours and rasikas won’t get up during the tani avarthanam.”

Teaching and practising are never time-bound for Murthy. “On concert tours, he would wake us up in the middle of the night and give lessons,” says B. Sivaraman, his student for the past 35 years. “He makes us feel comfortable on stage and gives us new ideas during concerts,” says vocalist Sajeev Chandramana, whom Murthy has accompanied several times.

Murthy’s son T.K. Jayaraman was a music director at All India Radio, Chennai, and his grandson Karthikeya Murthy is a music director and singer.

For Murthy, even at this age, there is no stopping to learning and innovating. His day starts at 5 a.m. and soon he sits in front of the mridangam. Sometimes he wakes up in the wee hours thinking about new permutations and combinations in talas. “In fact, I have composed moras for all the 108 talas in the middle of the night,” he smiles.

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