T.Viswa – A Tribute

T.Viswa – Tribute

A tribute to Shri.T.Viswanathan – Hari Arthanari

On Sept. 10, 2002, the entire music community around the world mourned the loss of one of the beacons of South Indian Classical music (Karnatik music).Tanjore Viswanathan, fondly known as ‘Viswa’ died early Tuesday, Sep 10,last year. Viswa was a faculty of the Music Department at the University. It is almost a year now but we still miss the greatness of the man and the music. There is a vacuum that can never be filled.

About Viswa:

Viswa was an institution. He was born in an illustrious music family on Aug. 13 1926. His grandmother was the legendary Veenai Dhannamal. His mother Jayammal, sister Balasaraswati, brother Ranganathan and cousins Brinda and Mukta were stalwarts in their own respect. After initial training from his mother he studied flute with Tiruppambaram Swaminatha Pillai. Viswa took the best of both worlds. He learned the flute techniques and compositions from Swaminatha Pillai and rendered them in the inimitable Dhannamal style. He used to accompany his guru Swaminatha Pillai in concerts at age 11. He gave his first solo concert at age 14. He later went to Annamalai University to continue his studies with Swaminatha Pillai. He learned some of the rare compositions of Muthuthandavar during his stay there. He also graduated with an M.A in Economics from the prestigious Madras University.

In the late 1950s Viswa went to teach music at the University of California Berkeley, where he learned other forms of music. He returned to Madras (India) and was the Head of the Music Department at Madras. Viswa joined the University in 1966 and taught here since then. He was also the Director of the Navaratri program, an age-old tradition at the University since 1976.

The music:

Viswa’s music is a unique concept in itself. To quote a critic ?Viswa has evolved a technique of flute playing that brings out the depth and grandeur of the Dhannamal style, at the same time preserving the vAdya dharmA, i.e., without sacrificing the essentials of the instrumental technique. Tonally rich and deep, technically correct, musically evocative and sublime ? these are the essential characteristics of Viswa?s music. Coupled with an immense repertoire of the choicest masterpieces of the Trinity and other great composers, and padams and javalis, the property of their family, we have here a master-musician who is as much creative as he remains rooted to tradition.?

Viswa’s innovative genius is often seen in his handling of ragas and the mind-boggling calculations in his swara kalpana.In rendering of the compositions and viruttams he varies the tone and the gamakas to suit the meaning. This is a hallmark of his music. Yet another unique aspect of his music is his ability to alternate between flute and singing. A switch so natural, this gives listeners the chance to get the words of the composition.

Viswa is the recipient of numerous awards including the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1988 and the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment of Arts in the United States in 1992. His performances, which epitomize technical perfection, rich imagination, signature of gamakas, slow tempo and rendition of rare masterpieces, have set new standards among the connoisseurs of Karnatik music. He was a musician?s musician. Some his favorite pieces include Vidiillarku (Kharaharapriya), Dakshinamoorthe (Shankarabaranam), Paiyada(Nadanamakriya), Ambaparadevate (Rudhrapriya), Kamalamba (Ghanta), Mayamma (Ahiri), Naninadyana (Kanada) etc. Of course Krishna Nee beganee is synonymous with his name.

The teacher:

Viswa was teacher par excellence. Unheard of in the industry, Viswa invented his own style of notating Karnatik Music. This is extremely difficult and complicated because of the gamakas in Karnatik music. Viswa?s in-depth knowledge of theory allowed him to notate every detail of the gamakas. This in turn made it easy for Westerners to learn South Indian music. It also helped to conserve the richness of the Dhannamal tradition.

Here is an example of a section. Trust me this is a simple one..

Viswa is one of the few performing musicians who is an expert in theory. He received his PhD in ethnomusicology. Further, his thesis on raga alapana is considered a totem pole in the field. Patience, imagination, sincerity, humor and energy were some of the hallmarks of his teaching career. He has created one of the largest archives of Karnatik music at the University comprising of concerts, classes, rare masterpieces etc. This would prove to be the hub of knowledge and data for generations to come. The person:
On a personal note, when I came to Wesleyan I had no formal training in Karnatak music and I was always hungry, as I had no clue how to cook. Someone told me that I can get some Indian food at the Navaratri festival. I went to Viswa sir?s concert and was floored by the music. After the concert I went to the him and said ?Can I learn music from you”. Just those words? no introduction.. nothing). He looked me, put his hands on my shoulder and said ?Saptiya? (did you eat). I looked at him (confused) and he continued ?poi sapidu and come for class Monday at 11am?. He doesn?t know my name yet. That is the simplicity of this great man. He has cooked food for me on several occasions and driven me home after a class. We can listen to his music to get back to those masterpieces of imagination and perfection , we can look at his notations to get back to his thoughts on the compositions, but we cannot get back Viswa the person. Always with a smile and enthusiasm, meeting him in the hallway for a minute can brighten your worst winter day. Not the mightiest of king?s men can bring back Viswa the person, and he will be deeply missed.

Photo Credit (Center for Arts, Wesleyan University) Acknowledgements:

Vedanta Bhagavatar

  1. Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar:

Vedanta Bhagavatar

Vedanta Bhagavatar was born in 1878 in Kallidaikurichi. He came of a family of Sanskrit scholars who were attached as teachers of Sanskrit and shastras to the Tiruvadudurai math.His father was Muthu Shastrigal who was holding this respected position in the math.Observing the talent of the young Vedantam the head of the Tiruvadudurai adinam consulted Muthu Shastrigal and placed vedantam and the celebrated nagaswaram artiste Tirumarugal Natesa pillai under Vidwan Melattur Ramaswami Iyer for being brought up as a musician.  Vedantam qualified himself not only as a vocalist but also as an early performer of Harikatha.This, he learnt from Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar and Tiruppayanam Pancapakesa shastrigal.He gave his first performance at the age of 17 in the Melatheru bhajanai matam in Kallidaikurichi.His family were also traditional shrividya upasakas.

He learnt Dikshitar kritis from Subbarama Dikshitar and also Ambi Dikshitar.With Ambi Dikshitar he had come and stayed for some years in Madras to propagate Dikshitar’s kritis by both teaching and publication.He published an edition of the Kamalamba navavarana kritis in the year 1936 with texts,translation and notation. He did the kathakalakshepam the Lalitopakhayna in Tiruvarur.He also came into contact with other famous figures of that time in the musical field, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Sarabha Sastrigal with the latter accompanying him on the flute in several Harikatha performances.

He specialised in Ragam,Tanam and Pallavi and it is worth noting that at that he prepared and published a book entitled ‘Sangeetha Tatva Pradarshini’ otherwise called ‘Pallavi Parijatam’.His brother Kallidaikurichi Ramalinga Bhagavatar accompanied him in the concerts.


He was also a composer and has composed one hundred compositions including a varna in poorvikalyani. It is interesting to see the title ‘sangIta sahitya vidvan’ as printed in his letter head.The media of the songs are sanskrit,telugu and Tamil and the deities are mostly Devi,Subrahamanya and Shiva.

Vedanta Bhagavatar (1940)

Vedanta Bhagavatar (1940)

He was given the Sangita kalanidhi by the Music Academy in the year 1940.When he presided over the Academy’s conference in 1940, the lakshanas of ragas like saurashtra,arabhi,sama and varali and ahiri were discussed and defined.In his presidential address he emphasised the importance of sahitya and the need for singing the texts of the songs correctly and with the knowledge of the meaning.  He took sanyasa in the same year and passed away.

Part II – Kallidaikurichi Ramalinga Bhagavatar

Kallidaikurichi Ramalinga Bhagavatar was the brother of Vedanta Bhagavatar. A few recordings of his can be found below:

Kambhoji Ragam


Part III – Students of Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagvatar –

Ramalinga Bhagavatar

Ramalinga Bhagavatar was a student of Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar. He taught music but did not perform.

Navagraha kRtis rendered by Ramalinga Bhagavatar, Student of Vedanta Bhagavatar.

Angarakam Asrayami- Surati

Budham Asrayami – Nattakuranji

Mahadeva Bhagavatar:

Mahadeva Bhagavatar was a student of Vedanta Bhagavatar. Please click on the link above to read an interview with him.


Commemorative Booklet on Vedanta Bhagavatar released by Kallidaikurichi Mahadeva Bhagavatar

Pictures courtesy of Suresh Ramasubramanian and family, Chennai.



Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai

Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai – Ravi & Sridhar

The Isai Vellala community has been responsible for nurturing music and dance in the Tamil country for many centuries. Every male member of that community was required to learn the Nagaswaram and every female member, chinna mELam or sadir — Bharatanatyam as it is called now. They were attached to the temples and received grants from kings for furthering their art. Music and dance were part of the daily services in temples and the Isai Vellala community fulfilled their obligations towards the Lord admirably. In the process there sprang many artistes who were not just satisfied with doing their duty by the Lord but who pursued aesthetic beauty in art and raised not only themselves above the mundane but rasikas and the art itself

Broadmindedness and catholicity are at a premium even in these times when the world has become really small. In the art world, jealousy and secretiveness were quite common in those days. The caste system forbade the purists from sharing their art with the so-called lesser born. In such a milieu Muthuswami Dikshitar’s liberality was a fresh approach that played no small role in the renaissance of music. The great composer’s all-embracing nature was matched only by his own great stature as a composer. His catholicity was such that most of his disciples belonged to the Isai Vellala community and some even from the Parasaiva community. Shuddha Maddhalam Tambiyappan, the artist attached to the Tiruvarur Thyagaraja temple was a senior disciple of Muthuswami Dikshitar. Devadasis like Kamalam, Natyacharyas like the Tanjore Quartette and Nagaswara vidwans attached to various temples in Tanjavur district were all beneficiaries of Dikshitar’s munificence. Amidst these then great artists, there were a couple of disciples who belonged to the brahmin community too. One of them was Sathanur Panchanada Iyer. He was the junior most disciple of Muthuswami Dikshitar and started learning from the great composer during his last years. After Dikshitar’s vidEha mukti, Panchanada Iyer continued his music education under Shuddha Maddhalam Tambiyappan. Many junior disciples kept the Dikshitar flame alive by honing their skills and perfecting their Dikshitar repertoire through tutelage under senior disciples like Tambiyappan.

Panchanada Iyer has been referred to by the Tamil scholar U.V. Swaminatha Iyer as being one of the important musicians of the Tanjavur area during the 19th century. Panchanada Iyer is now remembered by the music world for his unique contribution in siring two disciples who in turn, spawned a whole new world where Dikshitar kritis occupied the pride of place and were noted for their authentic versions. Veena Dhanammal and Tiruppamburam Natarajasundaram Pillai, the Nagaswaram maestro were the two prime disciples of Sattanur Ayya, as Veena Dhanammal fondly referred to him. The violin maestro Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer was another disciple of Panchanada Iyer. Dhanammal used to refer to Sattanur Panchanada Iyer’s rAga bhAvam and used to say that she had never heard such rAga bhAvam from anyone else. How could it not be so, when even at a very impressionable age, Sattanur Ayya had the opportunity of sitting at the Maha Purusha’s feet and imbibing his classics directly from him? No wonder that both Dhanammal and Natarajasundaram Pillai considered Sattanur Panju Iyer as their most important guru. Once, after many years Natarajasundaram Pillai came to visit Dhanammal and suggested that they should sing together a few Dikshitar kritis that they had learnt from their Ayya. Both sang and found, that after all those years there was not a whit of difference in their versions. Both had retained the music to the minutest sangati. The pristine purity of the strong, solid legacy that Dikshitar had left to Sattanur Ayya was maintained in letter and in spirit by these veterans and also passed on to the succeeding generations.

Natarajasundaram Pillai was born in 1869 to Swaminathan who was basically a vocalist, though his ancestors were Nagaswaram vidvans. This family originally belonged to Mayavaram but Swaminathan shifted to Tiruppamburam, also in Tanjavur district, because many of his patrons were based in that village and nearby areas. Natarajasundaram Pillai and his brother Subramania Pillai were the first Nagaswara vidwans to play as a duo. Natarajasundaram Pillai published a book of Dikshitar kritis called dikShita kIrtanai prakAshikai.

Natarajasundaram Pillai had three sons of whom Swaminatha Pillai, who was born in 1898, was the eldest. All three sons were trained by their father to be Nagaswara vidwans. Swaminatha Pillai, after a few years of training on the Nagaswaram switched over to vocal music. After his voice broke, Swaminatha Pillai switched to the flute. He taught himself the fingering and embouchure (mouthing techniques) of the flute. His aim was to make the flute play gamakAs like the voice and in this too he had none to teach him. He therefore learnt it himself and succeeded to a great extent.

Swaminatha Pillai did not strike a different path as far as the spirit of the music itself was concerned. Swaminatha Pillai inherited his love for Dikshitar kritis from his father and achieved excellence in them. In those days Palladam Sanjeeva Rao was the most popular flautist. Later Mali was the reigning monarch of the instrument. In spite of this Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai was much respected and admired. Mali himself has spoken very highly of Swaminatha Pillai and his style. Swaminatha Pillai mainly followed the Dikshitar style of viLambakAlA and gamakAs and succeeded in approximating his flute artistry to singing, thus bringing about a wholesome and refreshing approach to music itself.

waminatha Pillai played a lot of Dikshitar kritis in his concerts. The chaturdasha rAgamAlikA, srI vishvanAtham was introduced to the concert stage and popularised by him. The navarOj kriti hastivadanAya namasthubyam was also popularised by him. He also patiently studied the 108 rAga-tALAmAlikA of Ramaswami Dikshitar and taught it to deserving students. Such was his passion for rare, challenging works.

Swaminatha Pillai taught at the Central College of Music, Madras. There, during his tenure, he taught a number of Dikshitar kritis to students as well as to other teachers, thus helping in wide dissemination of the composer’s soulful works. Swaminatha Pillai also taught for sometime at the Annamalai University’s music department. He also taught a few earnest students in the gurukulA method. T. Viswanathan, a grandson of Dhanammal learnt the flute from him. T.V. Namaivayam, S. Narasimhalu and Sirgazhi Govindarajan learnt vocal music from Swaminatha Pillai.

Swaminatha Paillai passed away in February 1961. He will be remembered for having nurtured the legacy of Muthuswami Dikshitar and for bringing to light rare compositions of the great composer.