Song of Surrender

Friday, 1 November 2013

The TRS we knew

By vidwans, vidushis and friends

KS Kalidas

Death has removed from the music scene the colourful figure that was T.R. Subramanyam, the musician known to all as TRS. His 84 years did not dim his zest for life, cheerfulness and spontaneity. Crippled physically by age and a stroke, and having undergone hip replacement surgery, he could still be seen almost every day in a concert hall in the city. The performer in the concert might be a novice but at the end of the programme he or she would receive warm appreciation from him. Most youngsters he listened to were not known to him personally, but this did not matter to him in the least. A few select rasikas and I have shared the first row in sabhas with him on many occasions and his standard joke was “Inda row mahanubhavulu” (this row is for greats).

It is difficult to find another person with his warmth and generosity. Many are the Carnatic musicians he introduced in the north during his long innings in Delhi University.

His style of music was intellectual rather than aesthetic, a departure from the established tradition in Carnatic music. His batchmates of the Central College of Carnatic Music like the late T.K. Govinda Rao, Bombay Ramachandran and S.R. Janakiraman have said that, ever a maverick and a rebel, he was the first to ask questions and indulge in discussions with renowned professors of the time like Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai and T. Brinda. Those days a disciple was expected to be meek and silent – to keep his ears open and mouth shut. TRS was a free spirit then as he was later in life.

From his student days, TRS was adept in creating pallavis in different talas and nadais. The korvais that he sang during the kalpanaswaras also were very complex arithmetically. No mridanga vidwan could take his concerts with TRS lightly.

The first time I heard him was in mid 1971 when I was posted in Madras. He was a very popular vocalist then and even a very conservative sabha like Nadopasana, relaxed its rules to feature his concerts frequently. The first concert I attended swept me off my feet, especially his rendering of what is now called ‘poruttam’ – singing a cluster of swaraprastaras to match that of the ‘eduppu’. Intellectually, this exercise was stimulating. Unfortunately almost all young vidwans started copying this indiscriminately and it has since become stale and artificial. And the irony is that many mridangists have taken to this, at times even goading the main artist to join in the fun.

My acquaintance with him in 1971 soon turned into friendship. In 1978, I was posted to Lucknow and TRS was a professor of music in Delhi University. In Delhi, he was closely associated with local sabhas and was primarily responsible for arranging programmes of artists from elsewhere. As we had a healthy population of south Indian families and a music sabha in Lucknow, we made use of TRS’s services to get artists coming to Delhi to also present concerts in Lucknow. This arrangement considerably reduced our overheads. In the five years I was in Lucknow and three years in Delhi thereafter, we were able to arrange concerts of leading artists like Dr. S. Ramanathan, D.K. Jayaraman, S. Kalyanaraman, V.R. Krishnan, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Nookala Chinna Sathyanarayana and others. TRS himself became our ‘asthana vidwan’ and gave many concerts in Lucknow. He never hankered after money and gracefully accepted whatever remuneration we could arrange for him. This policy he followed with other sabhas too – a rare quality.

TRS sang for the mridangam arangetram of my son Ashok in 1982 and during the past five years, he attended the arangetram of all my disciples in Chennai; he was a chief guest on one occasion.

Wherever TRS was stationed – Andhra, Delhi or Chennai – he launched music sabhas and provided opportunities to not-so-well-known musicians. The Music Education Trust that he started in Chennai featured artists not only from Chennai but elsewhere too including those based abroad. He was much sought after and invited often to music workshops and social functions. At various times, he was a member of Prasar Bharati’s audition board, and a judge in music competitions held by major institutions like the Music Academy, and served as examiner in many universities.

An unsavoury incident happened in his life some twenty years ago. Sruti magazine came across the manuscript of a thesis on music by a disciple of TRS, and excerpts from it were quoted selectively and extensively in its November 1991 issue. On the basis of these extracts, the thesis appeared to be poor in content, research, language and execution; the sole source of information was TRS himself. It had a number of unsubstantiated observations on music personalities. It had concluded that TRS was an epoch maker of the century! Unfortunately, a majority of  Ph.D, theses I have come across are of very poor quality with the guide’s aim being the number of ‘scholars’ they have mentored in their time. If it was the objective of Sruti to expose the poor quality of theses, it was certainly justified in doing so; but this ‘expose’ was presented in a very elaborate manner. In any case, the thesis was yet to be published. The language used was extremely harsh and the comments on various points in the thesis, overly sarcastic. A hysteria built up after the Sruti issue came out and vidwans and readers, went hammer and tongs at TRS in a ‘holier than thou’ spirit. Sabhas boycotted TRS and his concerts in Chennai were cancelled. Under the circumstances, Sruti could have adopted an objective role to cool tempers; on the other hand, it added fuel to fire. Some of us connected with Sruti tried to calm things down but to no avail.

TRS was among the first to subscribe to Sruti when it was launched thirty years ago. He asked many of his friends to subscribe to the magazine and I, as one of them, did so almost immediately. He took all the criticism by Sruti and others with amazing equanimity. He was deeply hurt but did not comment on it in public. He did not cut off his subscription to Sruti in anger but continued to read it till the very end. That was TRS.

TK Venkatasubramanian

The relationship I shared with TRS was a special one – deep respect for a scholarly musician, a sincere appreciation for an all giving guru and an honest liking for a wonderful human being. In short, TRS the man and TRS the musician were complementary and a rare blend.

Bangalore K. Venkataram once called TRS an ‘ashtavadhani’ in music – because TRS was a gayaka with a bani of his own, a bodhaka for several students, a lekhaka, an upanyasaka, a sastragnya, a nirvahaka, a nirdesaka and a vaggeyakara of good pedigree. The novelty of his bani drew rasikas as well as gave food for thought to a serious student of music. One had to delve deep into the intricacies of music to understand his approach.

The musical style of TRS was innovative. His performance was always based on robust fundamentals. Rhythmic dominance did condition his rendition. TRS treaded a path laid and determined by himself. It was at once conventional and unconventional. As a master of many musical forms he indulged in endless experimentation striving to strike a judicious balance between swara and laya. Subbudu referred to TRS as an embodiment of Tala, Raga and Swara (TRS). TRS was indeed a maestro with a difference, because the impressions of his preceptors pale into insignificance when contrasted with his individualism.

Over the years TRS evolved a style combining various ideas in vogue in the yester generation. His familiarity with the language of a particular composition enabled him to bring out the bhava without any ‘pada chhedam’. His ability to weave considerable intricacies in his concert qualified him to be described as a ‘musician’s musician’. His forte was, of course, pallavi singing. He relieved pallavi singing from cumbersome formalities inherited from previous generations to make it a pleasant experience. His nadai pallavis were very complex and musically rich. TRS had the ability to construct a pallavi on the spot and execute with aplomb. TRS had the expertise to improvise and explore new vistas. He was an original thinker and represented the new generation of the ‘GNB style’.

Some musicians and critics hold the view that Prof. T.R. Subrahmanyam’s music was cerebral and not soulful. TRS himself never made any pretensions of reaching spiritual levels. His music contained all the ingredients that could make a concert successful, namely a strident voice, comfortable both in lower and higher octaves, total control over laya, impressive alapanas and swarams. His concerts were object lessons for budding musicians. I wish to record that TRS has been encouraging a lot of young artists. He was always on wheels to promote the art and spotted new talent. The helping had of TRS has been beneficially felt by every organization connected with music, in India and abroad.

In a one-on-one discussion, I raised the question whether music was for the mind or for the heart. TRS assumed the role of samsodaka and drew my attention to Sarangadeva’s statement that music is the self-motivated manifestation of latent thought – “Aatma vivakohamano………. Aavirbhaavayate dhwanim”. He went on to explain that both thought and emotions condition the musical output and that is also the definition of manodharma. For him, manodharma was a symbol of freedom of thought and expression, which permits adequate scope for creative and innovative expressions of an artist. In this experimentation there should not be any fetters from the past (tradition!!). According to TRS, such freedom was unlimited but required regulation only. A delicate balance between lakshana (theory) and lakshya (practice) was to be struck. Unfortunately, there are no guidelines to achieve that balance and there is a lot of disagreement when it comes to optimising aesthetic satisfaction and excellence.

TRS was convinced that manodharma sangeetam was an edifice built on kalpita sangeetam. He was the undisputed master of that manodharma. Raga alapana, swara kalpana, tanam, niraval and pallavi are all dimensions of that

Umayalapuram K Sivaraman

Maha Mahopadhyaya Sangeeta Vidwan T.R. Subramanyam was known to me very closely for more than 50 years. I had the great pleasure of accompanying him on several occasions and most of those concerts were really fantastic and awe-inspiring.

His scholarship in the art and science of Carnatic music and allied subjects was something unique, which quality made him a class apart. As a guru he was excellent in imparting the best of Carnatic music to his innumerable disciples in India and abroad. TRS earned a unique place and status in the realm of Carnatic music.

Name any subject in Carnatic music, he was equal to it. TRS was one of the most well-versed musicians in this divine field. His encouragement and fullest cooperation in bringing out the finest qualities of his accompanists during his music recitals was praiseworthy.

Even at an advanced age his passion to attend music concerts, blessing youngsters was one of the finest qualities of TRS. He regularly organised concerts and gave opportunities to the younger generation of artists.

V Kamalakar Rao

My association with TRS lasted for over fifty years. He was knowledgeable, and his passion for spreading Carnatic music was unbelievable. He wanted to think music, and sing. He first heard me at around midnight when I was 18 or 19 years old. He encouraged me a great deal. His home at Vijayawada was a magnet for persons connected with music in any way – artists and others in AIR. It was called a chappulu illu, a noisy house. When he was in town, people interested in music regularly gathered to perform or discuss music at his home. I too unfailingly visited him whenever I went to Vijayawada. He not only encouraged vocalists, but also accompanists and helped in getting them performance opportunities. He took musicians from Andhra to Tamil Nadu and other regions. I toured extensively with him. Even after he left for Delhi, he handled the affairs of the sabha at Vijayawada for some time. I owe a lot to him for what I am in the field of music. He was a wonderful man, any tribute to him cannot match his contribution to our music.

M Chandrasekaran

The concerts by TRS were unique. They had intellectual depth, yet were appealing.

The swaraprastara stood out and was a challenge to the accompanists. He is also a composer of merit, having to his credit varnams and pallavis.

T Rukmini

Even before I accompanied him on the violin, I had heard him a lot and admired him for his vidwat. His pallavi singing was extraordinary with mazing variety and incredible layam.

Though I initially had certain trepidation, he put me at ease. His swaraprastaras were novel, unpredictable. When I could reproduce the phrases he sang, he would spontaneously appreciate me on the stage. He gave ample space for the accompanists to display their skills and readily applauded them when they deserved.

He was able to come up with pallavis in different nadais and talams. I never heard him repeat a pallavi and it appeared that he composed them on stage. It was an educative experience to accompany him in concerts or travel with him when he would discuss various aspects of music. Off the stage, he gently pointed out corrections.

Our combination was hugely popular amongst the audience.

He was also quite humble. He knew that I had tuned a few Devarrnamas of Purandaradasa and was keen to learn from me.

I accompanied him in several lecdems which, by the way, helped me enhance my knowledge.

NV Subramaniam

TRS went about with a new approach, which in particular appealed to the youngsters.

He cared for depth of music, which was reflected in his performances. There are very few who have such mastery over the pallavi. He brought in many music ideas into pallavi singing. He was not a traditionalist but did not break from tradition. He introduced niraval during ragamalika renditions in pallavis. He practised the proper way of singing tanam. His singing appeared simple, but was quite intricate, very much like Lalgudi’s scheme. He took great pleasure in teaching. He sang in very remote areas, under any banner.

His Pallavi with a smile, a video-recording, was well received. An excellent teacher, he would assess the strengths and the weaknesses of the students and would tweak his instruction to highlight their strengths. Advice on correcting errors was given quietly, in private.

Open-minded yet independent, he always looked out for something special even in the singing of children. He often extended a helping hand to fellow musicians. With so many accomplishments, he was still accessible to all.

He championed Carnatic music wherever he went.

Nisha Rajagopalan

I first met vidwan T.R. Subramanyam (TRS Mama to me) in 1991, when my family, then based in Toronto, Canada, made a trip to Pittsburgh, U.S.A., to visit the Balaji temple there. To my mother Vasundhra Rajagopal’s surprise, she saw TRS Mama, her old mentor and guru from Delhi, at the temple. He asked me to sing for him and I sang the kriti Siddhi Vinayakam in Mohanakalyani.

TRS then informed us that he had come to teach at the temple for the next three months, and said I should learn from him. During our first class, the very first thing he did was ask me to sing Siddhi Vinayakam a few times. He didn’t know the song and wanted to learn it! He then sang it back to me to see “if he was singing it correctly”. He also proceeded to tell everyone we met, that I had taught him the song!

Over the summer, my parents drove me back and forth every weekend (six hours each way) so that I could learn from him. At the end of the summer, at his urging, we moved to Delhi in 1992, and later to Chennai in 1995, for the sole purpose of pursuing music seriously. If it had not been for him I would not have been a professional musician today.

Music was TRS Mama’s entire life and he could forget everything while immersed in it. One day during class at Pittsburgh, he got so carried away that the class continued on for hours, and we ended up skipping lunch. I was extremely hungry. However, too shy to say anything, I started crying. When he realised what had happened, he took me to the temple canteen and bought me uppuma. Many a time, he composed pallavis while travelling on the bus. He would inevitably miss his stop, get down at the terminus and land up taking a bus back to his destination. However, he would still say, “See what a beautiful pallavi this is! It was worth missing my stop for this!” Music was
everything to him.

Over the 20-odd years that I knew TRS Mama, I came to think of him as something of a grandfather-figure. When I look back on his classes, I always remember them as being thoroughly enjoyable; packed with music, interesting anecdotes and lots of jokes. In fact, I learnt so much about the theory of music without even realising it. He was always patient, willing to sing a sangati or explain a nuance an endless number of times and encouraged us to think that the sky was the limit. He would tell us to ‘stretch the boundaries’ and ‘sing with abandon’.

He always kept an open mind and urged us to learn good music whenever and wherever we could find it. If he heard artists sing kritis he didn’t know, he would ask us to go and learn it from them, going so far as to call them and request them to teach us. He taught us to look for and appreciate music in every aspect of life, be it the powerful, pitch-perfect call of a street vendor or a beggar singing in the train.

More than anything, TRS Mama was one of the most genuine people I have met. He always saw the good in people and lived, breathed, ate and slept music. He was a true guru and role model for me, and inculcated many values in me. He will truly be missed by everyone who knew him.


  1. Dear Editor,
    At the first stage, I thank and complement Sruthy magazine for covering and publishing the tributes to late TRS. Even though the first tribute by Kalidass has linked with the past issue, still you have published that also. Time and situations and vested interests, jealous artists should have been responsible for such controversies. Politics plays in music also sometime!!

  2. A befitting Tribute to TRS's originality and Persona by all Vidwans..Vidwans Kalidas & Venkatasubramanian's notes were very moving. Sri Rao's write up brought TRS's greatness alive.Rukmini Ji and Youngster Nisha's and so that of Vidwan Umayalapuram
    were true to each word.

    Krishnan P G Iyer