Sunday, 17 June 2012

Who's who in Indian classical music

By V Ramnarayan

TN Rajarathnam Pillai (1898-1956)

His Todi is still incomparable. His astonishing breath control and the sheer beauty of his nuanced raga explorations have rarely been equalled by voice or instrument.  He probably has more fans among musicians than any other musician.

Few will disagree that Tiruvavaduthurai N Rajarathnam was the “emperor of nagaswaram”, the title he most enjoyed amidst the many that came his way during his short, epoch-making life. He redefined not only the way the wind instrument was played but its very status, and by corollary that of its player, in the world of Carnatic music. Even today, more than 50 years of his death, he is almost universally acknowledged as a genius who inspired generations of instrumentalists and vocalists. He lived a grand life, totally aware of his phenomenal talent, and the mesmerizing influence of his music on commoner and connoisseur alike.

He was born Balasubramaniam to nagaswara vidwan Kuppuswami Pillai and Govindammal on 27 August 1898 in the village of Tirumarugal, in Tanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. When his father died, the boy and his sister came under the care of his maternal uncle Tirumarugal Natesa Pillai, an accomplished nagaswara vidwan. He soon moved to Tiruvavadithurai as a temple nayana vidwan, and in 1902, legally adopted the boy whom he renamed Rajarathnam.

Rajarathnam was a wild spirit tamed only by music, for which he showed great aptitude very early. Both he and elder sister Dayalu learnt vocal music from paternal uncle Kadiresan Pillai, but the arrangement did not last very long. Natesa Pillai died of a heart attack at the age of 29, leaving his sister and children to be cared for by a new guardian, Ponnu Pillai, his brother-in-law.

Perhaps urged by the head of the Tiruvavaduthurai math, Ponnu Pillai enrolled Rajarathnam as a pupil of violin maestro Tirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer, uncle of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Krishna Iyer was a strict and conscientious teacher and Rajarathnam’s music learning flourished under his benign care. Later, Rajaswaram took nagaswaram lessons for a couple of years from the tavil expert Ammachatram Kannuswami Pillai. Though he was keen on a career as a vocalist, Rajarathnam impressed everyone with his nagaswaram playing in concerts and soon gave his first performance at the temple, playing a long alapana in Bhoopalam and the kriti Sangita gyanamu in Dhanyasi. Rajarathnam’s nayanam then became a fixture at all the temple pujas, paving the way for his appointment as adheena vidwan.. He was barely 16.

Performing for the first time at Madras in 1919, Rajarathnam  made rapid strides as a concert artist in the city. Before long he became the highest paid artiste in Carnatic music. The list of tavil vidwans who accompanied him was long and impressive, but Rajarathnam was at his best while playing elaborate raga alapana. Eschewing complex laya displays, he became a role model for the leading vocalists of the day. GNB, for instance, was a great admirer who tried to achieve his nagaswara brigas in his voice, with considerable success.
Rajarathnam made changes of great import to the nagaswaram, replacing the timiri with the bari nayanam for instance, which he improved substantially as well. He introduced the tambura as a drone in nagaswaram concerts and was the first vidwan to play the instrument sitting down, besides being the first one to wear a shirt. He demanded and received respect for the instrument and the musician, refusing to compromise on this issue.

Rajarathnam amassed wealth  and lived in grand style, in a mansion at Tiruvavaduthurai, drove fancy cars, and wore expensive clothes, jewellery  and perfumes. According to T Sankaran, “Like all geniuses of his calibre, Rajarathnam was temperamental to the core,” often breaching contractual obligations.

Unfortunately, his fondness for the bottle eventually turned into alcoholism and he died penniless at Madras, with close friend NS Krishnan, the actor, bearing the cost of his funeral expenses, when he died of a heart attack on 12 December 1956. Thousands of admirers thronged the funeral procession, giving him an emperor’s funeral.


  1. Great Article.The last stanza was very moving.But I cannot thank you enough for your efforts in writing about great people.Many think that stalwarts like MS amma and MLV had no competition and hence they could win over the rest.But your articles will clear away those assumptions.I understand that these wonderful artistes were puritans of their art and are and will be the standards for future generations to reckon.Thank you So much.Can you please write something about Sri Dwaram VenkataSwamy Naidu?

    1. Thank you so much. I'll try to cover every major name in Carnatic music and a sizable number in Hindustani music--including Dwaram, of course. I also recommend you read the comprehensive SRUTI profiles of these artists.You can track the relevant issues through the SEARCH option at Many thanks once again for your comments.