Palghat K.V. Narayanaswamy:
Quiet Flows A River Of Music
(article courtesy of SRUTI magazine, Issue 27/28, December 1986)
Kollengode Viswanatha Narayanaswamy, Carnatic musician par excellence, will be awarded the title of Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy at the end of its 60th annual conference starting this month. This, in a sense, will be a mere formality since KVN, as the vidwan is popularly known, has long been recognized as such by discerning rasikas. In fact, by twisting a mere vowel, our own Anami recently referred to him as a 'sangita kalanadhi'. Perhaps this description is just as apt, considering that KVN's art is like a life-giving river that flows quietly and considering, too, that music has been coursing through his family like perennial stream.
KVN was born on 15 November 1923, in Palghat, in a family of continuing music tradition. His father Fiddle Viswanatha Bhagavatar was a violinist of repute; his grandfather Narayana Bhagavatar and his great-grandfather Viswam Bhagavatar were also musicians. It was but natural therefore that, right from his childhood, the family was keen that he should be a musician. The only caveat was that he should only be a vocalist occupying the center of the stage, rather that a sideman like his father.
Because a career in music was predetermined, Narayanaswamy's school education was stopped at Standard VII and instead his musician training was in right earnest. Even though he was to be trained to become a vocalist, his first guru was mridangam vidwan Palghat Mani Iyer. But, although Mani Iyer was not teaching vocal music to anyone until then, he was in his own way a singer too. "He could teach beautifully," recalls KVN. "In a thin voice, he would put across the sangati-s of kriti very clearly and perfectly and make you understand what he had in mind."
Viswanatha Bhagavatar was very keen that KVN should be placed under the tutelage of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. He expressed that wish to Mani Iyer right at the beginning. But Mani Iyer said: "Don't be in a hurry. I'll tell you when the time comes." Mani Iyer judged KVN to be ready for Iyengarval only after he had further training, first under C.S. Krishna Iyer, a highly competent vocalist who was in Palghat, and then under violinist Papa Venkataramiah. He arranged for KVN to enter gurukulavasam in Ariyakudi's care only in 1942. From then on, KVN remained an ardent disciple of Ramanuja Iyengar under the latter's passing away [in 1967], although he did absent himself briefly once when, diffident of becoming a musician worthy of his guru's calibre, he ran away to Wardha hoping to join Gandhiji's ashram there.
When Narayanaswamy was 15 or 16 years old, a friend of his father's suggested that opportunity could be found for the lad to act in films. In 'those' the primary requirements for anyone to 'act' in films were a pleasant personality, a good voice and some musical talent. KVN met these requirements and he did get a chance to act in a film-as young Kannappan in Kannappa Nayanar. KVN recalls: "We had the shooting in a forest on the road between Sathyamangalam and Mysore. There was no dubbing and other technical refinements then. We had to do all the singing and deliver the dialogue right there. It was my first and last film-acting experience. I think that the movie ran for about four days in my town."
KVN was married to Palghat Mani Iyer's uncle's daughter Annapoornam in 1948 and had four children by her: Muktha, Lalitha,Viswanathan, and Rama. His wife died in 1963, and, two years later, he married Padma, his ardent disciple and devotee. They have a daughter Anuradha who has been trained as a vocalist. Rama (Raghunath) has been trained as a violinist.
KVN's concert career has spanned over 40 years. He has delighted listeners all over India and abroad with his immense classicism and sweet voice (see SRUTI's critique in Issue 3). He has a wide repertoire and is capable of extensive variations both of his concert fare and the technical make-up of the concert. He has cut four long-play records. One released by the Gramophone Company of India in 1980 has been highly acclaimed. Three LP records he cut for the Nonesuch and World Pacific labels in the U.S. are not available in India.
Narayanaswamy has performed in the Edinburgh and Commonwealth Music festivals and in the Berlin Festival. His other visits abroad have invariably been for teaching-cum-performing assignments. In 1965 he went to the Wesleyan University in the U.S. for a two year stint. Besides teaching there, he went on a coast-to-coast concert tour during which he gave lecture-demonstrations as well. In the first part of this tour, he had only mridangam and tambura accompaniment but no violin. He was one of the four main artists in a large festival of music held at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in the summer of 1967 which attracted an audience of 12,000 people. The others were Bismillah Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and Ravi Shankar. He also participated in the East-West Encounter in Delhi in 1964.
In 1974, KVN went to Berkeley in California in the U.S. for a year, in the company of such other renowned artists as dancer Balasaraswati and sitarist Nikhil Banerjee. This was organized by the American Society for Eastern Arts. In 1983, he was called to the U.S. again for concert tour of three months by a Cleveland based, Indian run organization called Bhairavi.
KVN joined the Music College in Madras as a lecturer in 1962 when Musiri Subrahmania Iyer was its principal. He retired as Professor of Music in 1982. During this period he taught many students, but always kept private tuition to a minimum. His students have included Padma (Narayanaswamy).
In 1984, Narayanaswamy went to the San Diego State University in California as an artist-in-residence under the Fulbright scholarship. He was the first Indian to be awarded a Fulbright grant in the music field and only Indian among four Asians to be given the award that year. For nine months he taught at the university and also gave performances all over North America.
[Sri KVN gave concerts in Dubai and Muscat in 1987 and toured Australia in 1988 as a participant in the Adelaide Arts Festival. He also gave concerts in Singapore and Malaysia as part of the same tour.]
Narayanaswamy has received many awards and titles for his musical excellence. Among them : the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1970); the President of India's 'Padma Sri' award (1976); the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1977); the title of 'Sangita Kala Nipuna' from the Mylapore Fine Arts Society of Madras (1982); and the title 'Gayaka Choodamani' from the Tulasivanam Sangita Parishat of Trivandrum (1983).
In 1975, the Bharati Society of America conferred on him the title of 'Geeta Bhushanam,' while Bhairavi bestowed on him the title 'Sangita Ratnakara.'
Narayanaswamy has been a member of the Experts' Committee of the Madras Music Academy for many years.
In spite of all his accomplishments, Narayanaswamy has remained a simple and modest person. His modesty is such he told SRUTI that, if his Kerala compatriot M.D. Ramanathan were still alive, he would have told the Music Academy that it should award the Sangita Kalanidhi title to him first.