It was nearing dusk. The gentle breeze wafted notes of the majestic Sankarabharanam as I neared the maestro's house. As the delineation progressed and covered the three octaves, the raga was revealed in all its majesty and splendour.
This soulful bhava rich way of exploring the raga is the hallmark of this violin exponent . The man I am speaking about is none other than the eminent violinist Nellai K Viswanathan.
Viswanathan, who retired from AIR Kozhikode as an 'A' grade artiste, is the son of the eminent vocalist Late Nellai Krishnamurthy , who retired as the principal of Swathi Thirunal Music College.
Viswanathan learned the the rudiments of violin from Seetharama Iyer, a violinist with deep knowledge. After the varnam stage, his father himself sang the krithis and Viswanathan practised them on his violin to perfection. Nellai Krishnamurthy, himself is a student and nephew of the great composer and singer, Muthiah Bhagavathar.
Viswanathan credits his Swarajnana to the rigorous training under his father.
It is said that a carnatic musician's calibre can be tested through three areas; Raga Alapana, Neraval , and Swara Prasthara.
Viswanathan’s deep knowledge of the ragas can be gauged from his raga delineation. He takes the listener to the essence of the raga within minutes. Not for him the unnecessary frills and gimmicks. "Music is that which is pleasing to the ear," says he.
The list of legendary vidwans he has accompanied reads like a Who’s Who in the world of Carnatic music.
He has accompanied Manakkal Rangarajan, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, S Kalyanaraman, Puthokode Krishnamurthy, Trichur V Ramachandran and OS Thyagarajan to name a few.
It was not for nothing that Viswanathan got the first rank in the Ganapraveena course at the Swathi Thirunal music college in Thiruvananthapuram. It was the first and only time in the history of all the music colleges in the state that a ganapraveena first rank was given to a student of the violin section.
Most of the present generation of artists are unaware of the rules to be followed for a concert
"It is not swara that is the sound, but it is the sound that is the swara," is one of his golden advice that should be treasured by any serious student who wants to become an accompanist.
Viswanathan says that the exceptionally talented violinist GS Raghuveeran taught him the real nature of swaras. In his younger days, Viswanathan had approached Raghuveeran in order to fine tune his skills. In their first meeting, Raghuveeran asked him whether Sadharana Gandhara is present in the Arohana of Abhogi. Viswanathan replied in the affirmative. Raghuveeran then asked him to play the Sadharana Gandhara in the Arohana. This set his mind thinking and he realised that there is only the sound of Sadharana Gandhara. (produced by the mixing of Chatushruthi Rishabha and Shudha Madhyama) in the Arohana and not the real Sadharana Gandhara.
Viswanathan remembers a concert while he was studying for Ganabhooshanam course at Swathi Thirunal College of Music. He had to accompany the eminent vocalist Andhra Balasubramaniam. During the concert, Balasubramaniam sang a rare raga, which Viswanathan was hearing for the first time. However, he played the raga using his Swara Jnana. After the concert, Viswanathan asked Balasubramaniam about the raga. The vidwan was astonished and asked him how he could play the raga well without even knowing it. Viswanathan replied that as he knew the swaras of the raga which Balasubramaniam sang, he could play an outline of the raga.
"This incident shows the importance of having Swara Jnana, especially for a violinist," says Viswanathan.
Recalling another memorable incident from his youth, the maestro said “ Once the great vidwan Vechoor Harihara Subramania Iyer called me and told me to go to the Vaikom Mahadeva temple and meet a certain person. As I wondered what might be the reason, the legendary mridangam maestro Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair was coming from the opposite direction. Fear crept in me when he revealed to me that I was to accompany the legendary Tanjore S Kalyanaraman for the concert at Vaikom temple. The violinist scheduled to accompany him had informed that he was not able to come due to some reason.
It is not swara that is the sound, but it is the sound that is the swara
This allayed my fear to some extent and I accompanied the maestro. I could reproduce whatever he sang and the concert was a grand success. I also got tremendous applause. After the concert, Kalyaraman called me and said “ You played marvellously. There is nothing more for you to learn. You should come to Madras.” "The incident remains etched in my memory," says Viswanathan.
Rather than awards and accolades, Viswanathan values these words from the legend more. Though Viswanathan did not move to Madras, once he performed at the 3 pm slot of the Madras Music Academy’s annual music season and won the prize for the best accompanist of the slot.
Viswanathan , whose music is steeped in classicism , says that most of the present generation of artists are unaware of the rules to be followed for a concert.
As an example, he says that the vocalist should inform the violinist and the mridangist if he is going to sing a rare raga, or Ragam, Thanam, Pallavi in the concert. However, for the past several years, many eminent musicians themselves do not do this. Even if the violinist asks them, they dismiss the question with an air of superiority.
Many modern day vocalists do not pay much attention to tala and shruthi
"The success of a concert is team work. However, many vocalists think that his calibre will be judged only if he taunts or ridicules the violinist. Thus many people leave the concert with opinions such as the vocalist was good but the violinist didn’t match up, or the mridangist was good. The real success of the concert depends on the good chemistry between all the artists," says Viswanathan.
"This lack of teamwork is also the cause of the deteriorating standards of Carnatic music programmes today," he said.
"Another bad trend seen now is the practice of keeping the shruthi box on the front of the vocalist. Nothing is more disturbing to the accompanists than this habit of the vocalist to keep on increasing the volume of the shruthi box as he is not able to hear the shruthi properly. A jarring sound is produced subsequently and the vocalist and the accompanists keep on doubting whether the shruthi is right. This affects their confidence and the whole concert is ruined.
“The Shruthi is necessary at the start of the concert. After that, it should be in the mind of the performers. The volume also should be kept low or medium level. The vidwans of olden times sang using the tambura in which there is no provision for increasing the volume. The shruthi box should always be kept on the side of the vocalist. This will enable the vocalist as well the accompanists to hear the shruthi properly," says Viswanathan while reminiscing the good old days of tambura.
Viswanathan says that there is no such problem in Hindustani music as they use the tambura now also.
He is all praise for Hindustani vocalists who sings in perfect shruthi and is fully involved with their singing whereas the Carnatic vocalist looks for appreciation from the audience now and then.
"Rather than losing themselves in the ecstacy of music, the Carnatic vocalist is enamoured by the “bale” and “besh” from the audience," he said.
Vishwanathan also laments that many modern day vocalists do not pay much attention to tala and shruthi.
"It would be good if the present day vocalists focus a little more attention to adhering to shruthi and tala. They do all the acrobatics using swaras throwing the kala pramaana to the wind. This is highly deplorable,” he says.
He is all praise for Hindustani vocalists who sings in perfect shruthi and is fully involved with their singing
"If they hear it, then they would rectify the mistakes and will not repeat it in the next concert", he said.
Coming from a man who has accompanied Tanjore S Kalyanaraman and Manakkal Rangarajan, who had preserved the pristine purity of Carnatic music in their renderings, these words should make many present generation vidwans to realise their mistakes.
Tradition, as the great Austrian composer Gustav Mahler said, is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.
Nothing is more apt than this quote to describe Nellai K Viswanathan, a stickler to the pristine purity of Carnatic music.