Friday Review

Sparrow’s monstrous talent

T.K. Murthy

T.K. Murthy  

T.K. Murthy, the legendary mridanga vidwan, has a faultless memory at 92. His enthusiasm and passion for his instrument is a rare to come by

It’s eight decades and more since he started playing, but T.K. Murthy’s passion for the mridangam is as young as young can be. At 92, you don’t expect an impeccable memory, enthusiasm to talk, a happy demeanour and providing accompaniment to a musician who is probably one fifth his age – all this is true, and TKM even posed for photographs cheerfully. T.K. Murthy began to talk to the camera in Kannada “Enri? Coffee sigatta?” – bringing a smile to the photographer’s face and at once charming the crowd that was standing around him respectfully, watching him being photographed.

“I don’t know when and how I started to play the mridangam…,” says the maestro, who was in Bangalore to release the unreleased recordings of M.S. Subbulakshmi from the NCPA archives. “In fact, my parents had asked me the same question when I was nine years old,” he explains, embarking on a story. There was a wedding in the family. The thavil vidwan who was accompanying the nadaswaram party had stepped out. It was time for auspicious music to be played, and the little TKM stole the opportunity, picked up the thavil and played it with such élan that everyone gathered were stunned. His mother pulled him to a side, and asked: “How did you play this?!” “I don’t know,” the little boy casually replied, shrugging his shoulders.



T.K. Murthy’s achievements and contribution to the world of music is legendary and unparalleled. At every opportunity, he has lamented the fact that the great maestros like Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Palani Subramanya Pillai have not been given their due. The same is true of TKM too. The 92-year-old maestro, who continues to deeply engage with music, has not been conferred a single award by the Government of India.


TKM’s family were court musicians in Tanjavur and he was the fifth generation. He was training to be a vocalist, but soon realised that his heart was in percussion. His brother Gopalakrishnan was a percussionist and it became an abiding fascination for the young Murthy. “In those days there was no notebook. I used to play on my slate all the time, and every other day my slate would be ruined, it would break into pieces!” At all school functions, Murthy and his friend Chellamani (ghazal singer Hariharan’s father) used to sing. One day, head master, who had by then heard Murthy’s tryst with mridangam, said: “Today Chellamani will sing and you play the mridangam. I played. Both of us knew nothing about music or mridangam, but we just did it. Swati Chitra Tirunal king who came to my school was very impressed. ‘From whom did you learn this?’ he had asked me.” ‘Nobody’ was the reply; the stunned Maharaja presented TKM with a gold medal. After this, TKM’s father realised that there was something more to this than being merely accidental. He bought him a small mridangam for Rs. 3. Once he had the opportunity to play before the great Tanjavur Vaidyanath Iyer. The stalwart guru was overjoyed listening to the little boy; he went up to his parents and asked if he could adopt Murthy.

They consented, but Murthy’s mother requested for two months time. “In two months, my mother was no more…. It is strange how I had always this inner desire to learn from Vaidyanath Iyer. I would make sure I was present at every concert of his, but was scared to ask. And look at the turn of events! After my mother’s demise my father left me at my guru’s house.”

Guru Vaidyanath Iyer was very fond of Murthy. Though there was no formal adoption ceremony, the couple looked after the little boy like their own son. “I never missed my home -- that was the kind of affection my guru and his wife showered on me. They adorned me with diamond ear rings, a gold chain and a silver plate to eat. I used to sleep beside my guru. He used to lovingly call me suttu¸ a sparrow. My life and art is a tribute to them…,” he says, his eyes turning moist.

When TKM reached Vaidyanath Iyer’s house, Palghat Mani Iyer was already taking lessons. “Mani Iyer was exceptionally talented and how well he used to play!” The two spent several hours with each other – practicing, challenging and honing their artistry. When TKM was 11 years old, he accompanied his guru to Central Studios in Coimbatore where Musiri Subramania Iyer was singing for the film “Tukaram”. Vaidyanath Iyer who was accompanying Musiri generously asked the young TKM to join. That was his first concert and was showered with appreciation. “I went to the Mysore palace with my guru for Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer’s concert. Chowdiah was on the violin. Again, my guru asked me to join him. The Maharaja was so pleased with my performance that he gave me Rs. 1000 and organised my kutcheri the following day with the desire of listening to me as a full-fledged accompanist. Even that day he gave me Rs. 1000! My guru was so pleased…,” recalls TKM.

Those were the days of great musicians and single-minded learning. By the age of 15, TKM had earned a very good name for himself as Master Murthy. He remembers musicians of Karnataka like B. Devendrappa, B.S. Raja Iyengar with whom he played. “I have played for Madurai Mani, Chembai Vaidyanath Bhagavathar, and of course with MS at the Shankaraiah Hall in Bangalore,” he recalls the days before Gayana Samaja became central to Carnatic music.

One morning MS had come to his Guru’s house. “Do you know who this is?” my guru asked MS. “My son. He is excellent on the mridangam. This evening let’s have a kutcheri at home and he will play for you.” That evening a lasting bond between him and MS was established – for the next 55 years, TKM was her accompanist on the mridangam. “I am perhaps the only mridangam player who played for all the female musicians of that time. Pattamal, Vasanta Kumari, Sundarambal, Brinda and Mukta, everyone of them. They were remarkable. They had given so much thought to their music and achieved such complicated things in laya that it was challenging for the mridangam vidwan. In fact, I often feel that if mridangam vidwans refused to play for women it was because they were scared that they wouldn’t be able to measure up. It’s too much for their ego to have a woman as superior musician.”

(to be continued)

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 9:48:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/sparrows-monstrous-talent/article6834536.ece

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