On the morning of December 25 last year, legendary violinist TN Krishnan took the stage along with son Sriram and daughter Viji for his annual performance at The Music Academy in Chennai. Like every year, at the 93rd annual conference of the Academy, he concluded the performance with one of the world’s best known Christmas songs – One horse open sleigh – James Lord Pierpoint’s greatest gift to the world. And as 91-year-old Krishnan plunged himself into Jingle bells, jingle all the way, oh what fun it is… adding the gamakas along with a ghatam and mridangam from the otherwise uncompromising world of Carnatic classical music, the audience sighed, chuckled and looked on in admiration. He followed it up with We wish you a merry Christmas, and as he swooped in the final stroke, those present broke into a loud applause. Krishnan smiled ear to ear and said, “Merry Christmas to all of you. See you again next year”. Those present stood up, giving him a standing ovation along an applause that did not break for a while.
This year, after decades, one won’t hear the carols on Christmas day by Krishnan during the Marghazi season in Chennai. On Monday night, the legendary violinist, the last from the holy trinity of Carnatic classical violinists in the country that included Lalgudy Jayaraman and MS Gopalakrishnan, passed away at his home in Chennai. He was 92.
“One looks at a few people and says that if you live a life, you should live it like this person. Such a complete musical life. The most significant bit about this artist, apart from the fact that he was one of the greatest Carnatic classical violinists ever and a complete artist in every sense, was the clarity of his tone and sound. The violin just sang. His music is a lesson for all of us in how to approach music and even life,” says violinist Kumaresh of the violin duo Ganesh-Kumaresh.
What remained significant always was Krishnan’s clear thought process, which led to the sound that the rasikas heard. It was simple, and thus, inventive. As for the intensity, it prevailed somewhere in between. “I was listening to his Bhairavi today and I remember one conversation with him where he said, I am not really done with Bhairavi, something new keeps coming out of it whenever I play. This is surrender to an art form. At 89, he wanted to draw more from a raga,” says Kumaresh.
Born as Tripunithura Narayana Krishnan in Tripunithura, Kerala, Krishnan began by learning from his father Vidwan A. Narayana Iyer, a well-known exponent of the violin, who taught violin to all his children including daughter N Rajam, who went on to become one of the greatest Hindustani violinists in the country. Krishnan was presented on stage for the first time in Thiruvananthapuram in 1939, when he was only 11. “The moment people heard his violin, they were stunned by the sound because no one at that time could produce that crystal clear sound, such clean gamakas in that sweet tone the way he could. This clarity wasn’t there earlier. He became a darling of the crowd and that continued till yesterday,” adds Kumaresh. He adds that it was the strength in the bowing technique and the unique finger-work that helped him achieve the sound that others were lacking. At the time, there were many hardships for him, and Krishnan had to earn a living very early on to support a big family.
Soon enough, the Cochin royal family came forward to give him patronage. He also began accompanying many leading Carnatic vocalists of the time, including Madurai Mani Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, and Musiri Subramania Iyer, and Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, among others. A few years later, in 1942, Krishnan moved to Chennai and was taught by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the legendary vocalist who also taught current favourite on the Carnatic circuit – TM Krishna. He lived in industrialist and philanthropist R Aiyadurai home after that for a while.
His sister and famed violinist N Rajam, who spoke to The Indian Express over the phone, said that she spoke to him the day before and he was in very good spirits. “It will be difficult to come to terms with Anna going away. Such a soft-spoken, gentle, loving and endearing soul. I learned so much from him,” said Rajam.
In the last few years, the jugalbandi performance between the brother-sister duo was appreciated around the world. The two similar yet different worlds of classical music on an instrument that has western classical origins, from the same family, made for an invigorating performance. “Whenever we were on the stage together, he’d say, ‘Rajam, you play’, completely letting me take it,” says Rajam.
“We recently celebrated his 92nd birthday and sent video messages for him. He was so excited to hear from all of us.,” said violinist Ragini Shankar, Krishnan’s grandniece and N Rajam’s granddaughter. She adds that the happiness that Krishnan felt about N Rajam and her family practising Hindustani classical on the violin was “pretty amazing”. “Music was music for him and as particular as he was about Carnatic classical, he really enjoyed the music of my grandmother, our mother and even us in the last few years. Once he came to Nandini and I after a family concert after listening to us in the front row and said ‘achha bajaaya’ in Tamil. Coming from him, it was special,” says Ragini.
Apart from a long career as a solo violinist, Krishnan also had a long teaching career. He was a professor at the Chennai Music College and later, became the principal there. He was also the Dean of the School of Music and Fine Arts at the Delhi University. Krishnan also served as the vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in the 90s. “When he was teaching, he was very strict with his students. But then it was difficult to overlook the fact that he was so jovial and this happy-go-lucky person you could really speak to,” adds Ragini.
Krishnan was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1974 and Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 2006. He also received the title of Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 1980 from the Madras Music Academy. PM Modi also condoled the musician’s death on Twitter: “The demise of noted violinist Shri TN Krishnan leaves a big void in the world of music”. Violinist and his niece Kala Ramnath also took to Twitter calling Krishnan’s demise an irreplaceable loss for the music world and the family.
In a famed jugalbandi performance between Rajam and Krishnan, the conclusion happens with the bhajan Raghupati raghav raja ram and improvisations in it. After a few moments, Krishnan eggs on Rajam, letting her take over and take the piece home. And it’s the legendary techniques of Rajam on display, so one can see that she presents intricate webs wonderfully. But these are systems of classical music, where seniority matters. Rajam halts soon enough and Krishnan takes over and dives back into the bhajan. He concludes it sweetly and quietly, not with the usual flourish and crescendos that concerts end with. He made that final exit the same way.
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