By Anjana Anand
T.K. Padmanabhan has had the rare opportunity of accompanying five generations of dancers and their disciples. He continues to accompany senior artists like C.V. Chandrasekhar as well as up-and-coming dancers with the same enthusiasm. With sound training in Carnatic music at his alma mater, Kalakshetra, T.K. Padmanabhan is at ease in both—the Carnatic concert and Bharatanatyam fields.
An ‘A’ grade artist of All India Radio with a host of awards like the Kalaimamani, Gnana Kala Bharati, Gandharva Nipuna and Sangeetagna to his credit, Padmanabhan has never considered his visual impairment as an obstacle to excelling in his field. As he says with a mischievous chuckle, “Can you believe that I have seen and experienced places more beautiful (thanks to my art) than even a person with vision?” He has trained many disciples in violin and vocal music.
Why did you come to Kalakshetra to learn music?
I was a student of vocal music and spent my early years in my hometown Tiruvaiyaru in Tanjavur. My parents wanted to ensure that I had a secure future and sent me to Kalakshetra to pursue music full time. Those days, there were not many avenues in the academics for the visually impaired, so the arts was my only future.
A minimum eighth standard certificate was required for a candidate to join as a full time student in Kalakshetra. Rukmini Devi waived the rules for me and I joined Kalakshetra at the age of ten and spent the next twelve years in that wonderful institution. I was the youngest such full time student and I was surrounded by akkas and annas!
When did you switch to violin as your main subject?
I initially started as a vocal student with violin as my subsidiary subject. After some time, Athai (Rukmini Devi) suggested that I take up violin as the main subject as there were only a few violinists at that time. Probably, her instincts told her that this would be my bread and butter in the future.
Any special memories of Kalakshetra?
All my teachers were musical giants. My violin teacher was T. Venkatarama Iyer who taught me in all the years that I studied there. My vocal teachers were Ramaswamy Iyengar, Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma, Mysore Vasudevachar, M.D. Ramanathan, S. Rajaram and Adyar Lakshman.
Rajaram sir used to take part-time classes for us in his house. Once he joined All India Radio as director, Vasudevachar Thatha started taking our classes. I have fond memories of his sessions. Even though he was in his nineties he taught us—sometimes lying down. I was blessed to learn from him for two years.
Did you want to become a concert musician after completing your course?
I completed my post graduate diploma in violin and vocal with distinction in 1968. I spent another three years studying in Kalakshetra with a Government of India scholarship.
While I was in Kalakshetra, I was given permission to attend any class I wanted. A student from Bali, Indonesia came to Kalakshetra to learn Bharatanatyam. I used to sit in his classes and listen to the compositions, often helping him with the tala in the alarippu or other musical doubts that he had. I was thus exposed to Bharatanatyam at a young age and I never differentiated between concert music and music for Bharatanatyam. I had no fixed ideas about becoming only a concert artist.
You know, I have even done nattuvangam for a couple of programmes! When you spend time in a place like Kalakshetra, you get over the rigidity and compartmentalisation of art forms.
When did you first play for Bharatanatyam?
In 1962 V.P. Dhananjayan organised a fundraiser. All the students participated in the programme in Kalakshetra, which belonged to the variety show genre. I played the violin.
What did you do after you left Kalakshetra?
I was chosen under a scheme of the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram, to give four concerts for three years consecutively. I started accompanying musicians like Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Maharajapuram Santhanam, M.L. Vasanthakumari, Managalampalli Balamuralikrishna, Mani Krishnaswami and the Bombay Sisters. I also started playing for Bharatanatyam for Kalakshetra artists like Adyar Lakshman, Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, the Dhananjayans and Leela Samson. After some years, I also started playing for C.V. Chandrasekhar, and other artists like Kalanidhi Narayanan, Padma Subrahmanyan, Chitra Visweswaran, Malavika Sarukkai and Alarmel Valli, to name a few.
At that time, I also played in the afternoon concerts at the Music Academy. But as I was very busy in the Bharatanatyam field, I requested them to give me opportunities for violin accompaniment only in the afternoon sessions (without promoting me to the evening slot) so that I could play for Bharatanatyam also!
In your five decades of experience, what are the changes you have noticed in the field?
I remember the grand music of the giants who sang for Bharatanatyam in the early years. I recall the beauty of the music of Adyar Lakshman, Rama Rao, S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai, Kameswaran, Seetarama Sarma and S. Rajeswari. Sometimes, I used to attend Bharatanatyam concerts just to listen to their music.
The other differences are in the amount of time spent with the main artist and in the changing methodology of learning compositions. Earlier, we used to notate all the songs for the performance and spend a lot of time with the artist. Now young musicians take photos of notations on their smart phones to save time! Today, the number of dancers seems to have dramatically increased, musicians do not have the luxury of time as we move from one concert to the other. Naturally, somewhere quality is compromised.
Any special experiences that you wish to share?
I fondly recall the recording sessions in those days. All the musicians would meet and record at the same time. Even if one person made a mistake anywhere along the way, we would restart from the beginning! You can imagine the amount of focus and concentration we all had during recording hours.
What I found quite amusing was when people asked me how I knew the correct cues in a performance. I was never offended by the question. V.P. Dhananjayan would tell them that is was the rapport and understanding between artists which went beyond mere vision. My association with artists like him have taught me so much in life. Not just about art, but about bringing that aesthetic to my lifestyle. They were so particular about cleanliness and making the environment conducive to teaching and performing.
Were you nervous during your first years of travel?
Not at all. My friends are my greatest asset. All those who have been associated with me have been very good to me. My first trip was in 1977 to Malaysia. I have gone to more countries than I can even count. At one point in my career, I was travelling 25 days out of the 30!
I enjoy everything. During our visits abroad, I never stayed alone in the hotel. I have been to amusement parks, roamed around with my fellow musicians, taking in all that each country offered and have performed in prestigious venues. What more can an artist want!
What other posts have you held?
I was a Staff Artist (violin) at All India Radio, Chennai and retired in 2006.
When did you start composing music for classical dance?
I have composed music for almost 70 dance-dramas. I started composing in the 1970s. Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma was composing the music for Sanghamitra, for the Dhananjayans, but was unable to continue because of ill health. I started working on that production, and there was no looking back.
When Natyarangam (dance wing of the Narada Gana Sabha) started their thematic series, I was involved in several productions. I have composed music for many items of the repertoire as well. I enjoyed composing music for modern themes too like ‘pudhu kavidai’. I was honoured to compose Nammazhvar kovil patthu for Jeer Swamigal.
What do you value most in life?
My friends and colleagues who are responsible for my well being. From my days in Kalakshetra till now, I have been surrounded by my loving peers and seniors who have enriched my life.
[Sruti has a policy of editing out salutations like Sri, Smt, Sir, Ji, Anna, Aunty, Mama, Pandit, Ustad, Saheb and honorifics from all our articles]