On September 2nd, India lost one of its most graceful musicians. TV Sankaranarayanan, a Karnatic musician who did not conquer music, took loving care of her. Unfortunately, in the national news flow, artists whose influence is limited to a particular region or genre are irrelevant, and their deaths are relegated to a few lines of obituaries with stats on their birthday, awards, and death. This applies to TV Sankaranarayanan or TVS as it was known to all of us.
As a young teenager growing up in Madras (now Chennai), it was the voice of TVS that drew me to music. He was my hero and my muse. I ran from one auditorium to another watching this man weave musical tapestries and gasped at those magical moments. At TVS, music was an unfettered waterfall. It was pouring rain with no drought in sight. Much like we cannot trace the trajectory of every falling drop, one never knew how its Raga passages or Swara streams would move. They would dodge, bend, jump, and stop almost at will. We frantically tried to keep track, walking to the edge of the seats and wondering how, when and where they would land. Suddenly everything fell into place and made everyone smile, including him. TVS smiled through his music. At no time were we advised of the level of difficulty. He danced with the ragas and talas and persuaded them to help him create beauty.
He was a romantic, an idealist who wanted his music to always reflect playfulness and joy. TVS rarely sang ragas that could touch the grumpy, and even if he did, they would reflect hilarity in his hands. One might criticize him for this perspective and ask why he has not explored a wider range of emotional tones. But that is a personality trait. After all, music is a reflection of the person. His music in tone, tempo and presentation seemed to celebrate creation. Each Swara was a manifestation of this instinctive understanding.
TVS was the nephew of music genius Madurai Mani Iyer. Someone who has broken with many preconceived notions of how Karnatik music should sound like. He gave it a swing, a sway that had never been heard before. TVS never viewed his family legacy as a liability. He adored his uncle and his music obviously had a strong influence on that legacy.
It is also true that in our cultural traditions the individual is always seen as the bearer of the past and therefore any self-assertion is seen as vulgar. TVS followed this line of thinking. But his music was not an imitation or overt continuation of his uncle’s musicianship. Unfortunately this was overlooked by many and his music was and always is related to his famous uncle who boxed him into the form of Madurai Mani Iyer. Every aspect of TVS’ music was his own. Strong influences exist in all of us, but these are descriptive traits, not our essential qualities. TVS took the style of Madurai Mani Iyer but gave it a new direction, a drive, power, strength and flow that made it all its own. But his lineage robbed him of that recognition. We all spoke of his naturalness as a musician but didn’t see the spirit behind it.
The intellectualism in Karnatic music is unfortunately trapped within the four walls of arithmetic and permutation juggling. TVS’ opinion was not fixed on this construct. But we were unable to break free from this conditioning and marvel at his mind. That might not have bothered him, but we should at least remember him now for his ideas as much as for his presentation style.
As his career progressed, TVS emerged as singing the same songs and following a repetitive creative template. A review that holds water. TVS became predictable and we all knew what to expect. But that’s a struggle that plagues every established artist. Do I continue to offer the audience what they are used to, or should I challenge them? The risk of change often makes an artist stick to the path they have chosen. I don’t know if TVS even thought about changing their musical colors. Maybe he just sang the music he loved and didn’t care if some people thought it was ridden with uniformity. But the problem of stagnation born of convenience affects all artists. Sometimes it’s not obvious with those whose music is full of somersaults and backflips! TVS was not of that nature and therefore the stasis was more evident.
Among the many musicians of his generation I interacted with, TVS was the only one who discussed life’s deeper questions. He was always curious about the education at my school which followed the teachings of J. Krishnamurti. We only spent about five minutes in this exchange, but in those fleeting moments I always had the feeling that this was a man who wanted to investigate further, but something stopped him.
Many will not remember TV Sankaranarayanan the way they do a Subbulakshmi or Bhimsen Joshi, but I will remember him as the artist who kindly invited us all to partake in the sonic euphoria of Karnatic music. His music has ended and we still have smiles on our faces.
The author is a musician and the author of A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story