Palakkad Gap has played a major role in facilitating culture, tradition, trade, migration. The district is well-known for its numerous cultural and musical traditions. Different Hindu philosophies — Advaita, Vishishtadvaita, Tantra — continue to thrive and co-exist across the granary of Kerala. The agrarian district has gifted the connoisseurs with innumerable classical musicians and each of them have carved out a niche for themselves in the world of Carnatic Music. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Palakkad Mani Iyer, KV Narayanaswamy, MD Ramanathan, Palakkad Rama Bhagavathar… the list goes on. The musical tradition continues to flourish unbroken even today. During my teenage years, I had the fortune of learning music under the tutelage of Vidwan Palakkad KS Narayanawamy. My guru is, perhaps, the most notable Carnatic music teacher in the district. People considered undergoing vocal training under Vidwan Narayanaswamy as good as pursuing music in Chembai Memorial Government Music College in the district. Which means he is no less than an institution!
Vidwan Narayanaswamy, born in 1936, hails from Kavassery agrahara in Palakkad district. He is the nephew of popular Veena exponent KS Narayanaswamy. He underwent the initial training from his elder brother KS Krishna Iyer. During his childhood, his elder brother put him through rigorous practice sessions, which extended for hours. After his brother died, Vidwan moved to Swathi Tirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram, to pursue Ganabhushana.
While pursuing music in Thiruvananthapuram, Vidwan stayed with his maternal uncle, the noted Vainika exponent Sangeeta Kalanidhi KS Narayanaswamy and it strengthened his musical skills. The uncle-nephew duo practised together. In Swathi Tirunal College of Music, he had the privilege of learning under the doyens, notable among them legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, CS Krishna Iyer, Nellai Krishnamoorthy and Vechoor Harihara Iyer. He began singing in All India Radio from 1960 and became an A-grade artist in 1984. In 2017, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi conferred him with the Guru Puja award.
Steeped in tradition and impeccable gamaka and voice control, Vidwan KS Narayanaswamy is renowned for presenting Swati Tirunal Krithis and the bhava and sangatis apparent in his singing flows effortlessly. Singing with ease and perfection are my guru’s hallmark and his concerts are free from facial contortions and wild gesticulations. He was the most sought after guru in Palakkad. Vidwan Narayanaswamy opted for a one-on-one training approach and did not encourage the practice of imparting music in groups and batches. Over the decades, he has taught innumerable students and some of them are working as professional musicians and playback singers. One of his oldest students, Leela, who is in her late 70s, lives in Tattamangalam. She continues to hum and fondly reminisce her musical journey under Vidwan’s mastery. Last week, Guru did a live concert on Facebook. It was amazing to see his composure, effortless singing style, divinity and tradition continue to remain the same even at this age.
A Student Of The Guru
When I was introduced to formal training in music at the age of 10, my mother used to insist that she would send me to Vidwan KS Narayanaswamy for furthering my musical pursuit after completing high school. One of the oldest students of my guru was a close friend of my mother’s. She was aware of the guru’s flawless teaching and rendition. Often enough, my mother would say that Vidwan’s classes were topnotch and precisely why she wanted me to continue advanced training under the guidance of the accomplished guru. Except for the hearsay, I had no clue about the guru’s classes. Years later, when I joined a pre-degree, my mother sent me to Vidwan’s place for the audition. Initially, I trembled and was even hesitant to speak. After a few minutes, I mustered the courage to sing two varnas (Hamsadhwani and Shankarabharam) and one keertana. Vidwan KS Narayanswamy made some pertinent observations. I thought I couldn’t make it. But to my surprise, he gave a green signal. An elated mother exclaimed, “Finally, my dream has come true! Now it is up to you to take it forward.”
My formal training began with varna in Saveri raga. My guru never endorsed the idea of teaching on consecutive days as the scope for practice was negligible. He proposed a minimum gap of two days between the classes. I continued for 5 years under his tutelage. As my contemporaries under the tutelage of other teachers learnt dozens of kritis and were busy with competitions, I was stuck with few varnas and keerthanas. Guru prioritised quality over quantity, consistency over competition and was vociferous against the idea of championship and the associated nepotism. He shunned limelight especially during music festivals and was never a part of the celebrity crowd. He rarely accepted the role of a judge in music competitions. Frank and forthright in his judgement; unsparing and uncompromising in discipline, ideals and principles! I cherish those days of rigorous training. The Ata tala varnas he taught continue to echo in my ears. On the occasion of vidyarambha (initiation of education) on Vijayadashmi day, students visit him to offer gurudakshina and seek his blessings. I wish I could turn back time to the good old days spent under Vidwan KS Narayanaswamy’s grooming.
My guru reinforced punctuality, discipline, and perfection. Even before I reached his house for the classes, he would keep the tanpura and mat ready. There was no time lag and the class always began on dot. My guru believed that even if you knew only one song and could render it with perfection, that was better than singing hundreds of kritis with imperfection. He abhorred the idea of learning music for the sake of participating in competitions. He would remind the students, “If you expect me to teach for competitions, I am not the right person.” There were days when I received an earful for singing Carnatic music like Dakshina Sampradaya Bhajan.
Guru is free from favouritism, bias and he never played to the gallery. He rarely accepted the role of a judge in competitions. Once he told an organiser, “If you expect me to award more marks to a particular contestant just because the participant comes from an influential background, bring the family members to judge. Don’t invite me to adjudicate the event.”
KS Narayanaswany’s wife, the late R Ramani, retired as Professor from Chembai Memorial Government Music College, Palakkad. During my discipleship, Ramani Mami would observe my learning with rapt attention. She would always pitch in with valuable inputs to hone my aptitude. Guru turned 84 recently. On his 80th birthday, his students had organised celebrations back home in Palakkad. When Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi bestowed him with Guru Puja Award, his disciples in Bengaluru had organised a chamber concert to felicitate and honour the guru. Though It has been 23 years since I stopped advancing in music, I continue to hum some of these compositions taught by my guru. Though I didn’t learn under the gurukula system, the values and ideals are etched in my mind and are relevant regardless of time.
Gurus like Vidwan KS Narayanaswamy is a rarity in an era of fame and glory. On the occasion of Guru Purnima, my humble pranam to my Guru Vidwan KS Narayanaswamy.