I n a strange quirk of time, TNR lived for 57 years. Today, it is 57 years since he passed away, his music and his memory ever so fresh, the loss still felt.

T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai — or do I mean Ragarathinam? Do I mean the man who played such divine melody, and was the absolute master of the nagaswaram? Or do I mean his music which never ever failed to thrill or move one to tears for its sheer purity of tone? Do I mean the vibrant personality that was Rajarathinam — colourful in language, in repartee, in the quickest of wit, in his sheer human weaknesses? Or do I mean the dark, squat man who acquired a halo with the very first blow of his seevali (the reed for the nagaswaram) when he took the stage?

As you can see, we have a composite picture of a man who was larger than life, and whose music was meant to delight the gods.

In the first part of a series of articles, I shall quote excerpts from various sources, gathered over the years, in the hope of making a documentary on TNR.

In this part, I quote from my recording with S. RAJAM on TNR, done in early 2007.


“Carnatic music grew because of the nagaswaram. Our art originated in the temples -- especially, dance and nagaswaram. During the daily three-time worship at temples, the nagaswaram would be played all the times.

I’ve seen Mylapore Gowriamma, a devadasi, at the Kapali Temple, dance during all the three worships.

The nagaswaram is a mighty instrument, a weighty one at that, with the othu and the thavil. It is a must for ‘purappadu’ (procession). We can hear the lovely Mallari all day. Kedaram, Nattai, Gambiranattai --- pachaksharam — the five swaras were sacred to Siva, so such these ragas were favoured on those occasions. The short timiri with a high pitch (5 kattai) could be heard 4 to 5 miles away, the waves of the music carried afar by the breeze, in quiet times. This sound served as a timekeeper too, as the music would be played at specific times at temples. All the vidwans played only the timiri.

Along came a man called Rajarathinam. He had been learning music under the violinist Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer. The guru even poked TNR with his bow once to correct him, a lesson TNR never forgot.


Rajarathinam was a ‘ gnanasthan ’ (a deeply knowledgeable person), but also known to be a ‘ garvi ’ (arrogant - probably TNR was a person of impatience, unable to suffer fools gladly). Intelligent, but he was prone to excessive drinking.

But more important, he changed the nagaswaram, revolutionised it for all time. He made it very long, and reduced the high pitch to a melodious 1.5. This came to be called ‘bari’ or ‘bari nayanam’, played by all vidwans to this day. I heard him play, he was simply outstanding, with unimaginable imagination, but possessed of a quixotic mind.

The Music Academy used to function near the old Midland Theatre, near the Satyamurthy Bhavan, in Chennai. A few of us went for TNR’s concert, which was to begin at 9.30. TNR arrived drunk and got up on the stage. He got ready to play, but could not get started. The huge audience tittered. This was enough to set off the already volatile genius.

Gnanashoonyangala ,” said TNR to the audience, calling them ignoramuses. The audience got wild and were ready to beat him up.

To escape from the irate crowd, I had to run, all the way from Mount Road to Mylapore. That was the first time I saw TNR.

There used to be a tile making company in Mylapore, Chennai, owned by A.K. Ranganathan. At his daughter Lakshmi’s marriage, TNR played in the long wedding procession, on North Mada Street. He insisted on a platform, and a small one was erected for him to sit and play. He played from 9 p.m. till 2.30 a.m. It was simply wonderful, ragas one after the other. ‘ Varaada ragam ellam varum’ . His health was deteriorating by then, for he could not walk nor play. I think he lived for about three years after that.

While at AIR, I would supervise rehearsals for artists. Once, Sankaran, Veena Dhanammal’s grandson, told me that TNR was coming, he could be a little difficult and that I had to look after him carefully. I said I would. It was to be inside Studio No.4. TNR’s arrival was more like a wedding procession — such paraphernalia. A person for the betel box, the othu, the tavil, two disciples, one jalra, one to give him water from the silver ‘ kooja ’— he could afford all this, as he was highly paid, and could demand his price.

“Ayya”, he said to me as he entered. “ Vaango. What are you going to play today?” I asked him. “Only this,” he said, and broke into swaras, quite comically. I said gently, “Ok, but I’ve to announce the raga, tala, the composer’s name etc’.”

“You do all that. I’m going to play this only,” he said, singing “Ga ma p m g ri sa” on and on, and ending it with a humming flourish. Of course, he went on air brilliantly, all the mischief forgotten in his melody.

He made many minute adjustments to his instrument to make it sound good even in closed halls. The ‘anasu,’ the open end of the nagaswaram, received special attention from him. He used a small piece of cloth to cover some of it to better the sound --he was such a great musician. He has played with the tambura, the mridangam, the violin - unique attempts. At one radio recording, he suddenly insisted on a tambura. I said I would play the tambura for him, after which he gave up the demand.

He has given us the TNR bani -- there would not be even a single abaswaram in his playing, even after four or five hours of playing. With his first blowing of the seevali, the nagaswaram would be in tune straightway. It was just divine.

He was and will always be Thodi Rajarathinam — the raga never sounded the same every time he played it. He had such infinite insights into this raga. It is good he did so many records. The six-minute recording of Thodi compresses two hours of knowledge — he was just so great.”

(To be concluded)

TNR changed the nagaswaram, revolutionised it for all time.