By MV Swaroop
Tirunageswaram Krishnaswamy, whom everyone called “Kuttipayya”, was not from Tirunageswaram. His name wasn’t Krishnaswamy either. He was only eleven when the real Tirunageswaram Krishnaswamy, a little-known mridanga vidwan, passed away. Kuttipayya’s uncle, vocalist Tanjavur G.M. Ekamresan, was to tour Kerala with the real Krishnaswamy, but when Krishnaswamy’s sudden demise came in the way, Ekamresan passed off Kuttipayya as the deceased Krishnaswamy. The boy played to rave reviews, and the name stuck.
Some people say Kuttipayya was lazy and did not develop his early talents. Others say that his talents were always limited, and that as he grew older, people judged him more objectively. Whatever the reasons, he remained a middling mridangam player, playing small concerts in the Tanjavur-Trichy-Kumbakonam belt.
Outside of music, though, Kuttipayya was a rage. Tall, lean, bright and impeccably well turned out, he seemed to be perennially bathed in a warm halo. He didn’t speak much, but always had a quiet insight or two to offer. The doors of his house, conveniently located on the same street as the iconic Mahalakshmi temple in his town, were never closed for anyone. His wife, an eternally harried-looking woman, spent most of her time cooking for another set of unexpected guests. Musicians, dancers, dramatists, rasikas, priests, lawyers, and even petty politicians used his house as a resthouse. There were discussions on local issues, debates on the state of the nation, music concert reviews, impromptu jam sessions, drama rehearsals and even dance performances. It was said that no one ever passed his door without entering it. Every piece of gossip in the village started and ended in his courtyard. It was a precursor to the modern day coffee shop. Only, no one paid anything for the service.
One day, my father took me to that hallowed courtyard.
The topic of conversation that afternoon was the impending declaration of independence. Kuttipayya sat in a corner, punctuating conversations with his mridangam. The Quit India Movement had intensified, and the courtyard was convinced that independence was only a few weeks away. No one was sure how our lives would be affected when independence came (someone even said, “Nothing will change. We’ll still spend our lives in Kutti’s house drinking this coffee!” to widespread agreement), but everyone agreed that in principle, it was a good thing.
“Barrister Aaravamudan will disagree,” someone said. Tarikita-tom, came Kutti’s mridangam. Everyone laughed.
Someone else said, “Aaravamudan will smoke his pipe and declare, ‘The British civilised us savages. They brought the railways, post and telegraph. The British created the Civil Services. And our Gandhi preaches austerity and frugality. Ha! If we follow him, we will end up as beggars.’ “Takakitatarikita-tom, the mridangam rang. Someone declared, “Long Live the Queen.” Kuttipayya played a flashy mora, and laughed heartily.
As if on cue, Barrister Aaravamudan walked in, dressed in white trousers and a white shirt, a proud red vertical vermillion streak on his forehead, his keen eyes peering through his golden-rimmed spectacles, his dark hair neatly combed in a side-parting. He carried a letter in his hand, and looked worried.
“A hundred years!” my father said, as a resounding ta-tom came from Kutti. “So,” my father continued, “Will you move to London now?” The crowd chuckled.
Aaravamudan ignored him and said, “There are more immediate problems. Kanjeepuram Ramanatha Bhagavatar has agreed to sing in the temple here during Navaratri.”
“Bhale, bhale,” the chorus said to the accompaniment of Kutti’s mridangam.
Aaravamudan cut them short with, “His letter says ‘I hope you will arrange for violin and mridangam accompanists of sufficient standard.’ Now, Pillai-val agreed to play the violin, but mridangam seems to be a bigger problem than expected. Periyavar is off to Madras that day for a concert, and Rangu, Sivan, and Mani declined to play. They say the Bhagavatar’s sole intent is to humiliate accompanists, he will get up to cheap tricks like keeping taalam under an angavastram and then play a complicated pallavi with mind-boggling mathematics. They say he derives pleasure from the audience laughing at mridangam players.”
Suggestions came thick and fast, but they were also rejected at the same speed. One musician was too old, another was too sloppy and yet another was too drunk. Kuttipayya was right there, but no one mentioned his name.
I looked towards him many times during that conversation, and he simply sat expressionless, his hands on the mridangam, majestic as ever, his mouth filled with paan. I whispered in my father’s ear, “Appa, Kutti mama?” He shot me down with a wry smile.
Finally, it was decided that distress letters would be sent to the top mridangam players in Madras and Madurai to see if anyone could come on that day for a modest fee. Aaravamudan said he would write to his lawyer contacts in the High Court to see if they could prevail on some musician to come from the city.
The Quit India Movement sputtered to a stop, and it was generally understood that until the World War was over, India’s independence would take a back seat. I whiled away my days between school, the local playground and home, and had completely forgotten this conversation until my mother started taking the Navaratri dolls out of the lofts for the kolu.
I asked my father that evening, “So, who is playing mridangam for Ramanatha Bhagavathar?”
My father smiled mischievously and said, “Kuttipayya.”
I was surprised, “Kutti mama? I thought he wasn’t good enough!”
My father replied, “Oh, you’ll see how good he can be.”
Mother butted in and said, “Paavam, the whole town will laugh at him.”
My father simply said, “Don’t underestimate Kutti.”
The evening before the concert, my father and I ran into a highly worried Aaravamudan, “I hoped the chappie would practise day and night for this. He’s just been playing for the gossip sessions in his house. And he’s demanding a ridiculous fee!”
My father simply said, “Don’t underestimate Kutti.”
The next day, in school, my class teacher left early for what he described, in English, as a ‘grand lunch’ for Kutti’s impending fortieth birthday. When I trudged home from school past Kutti’s house, I saw a crowd of almost fifty people. I had never heard of any such celebration of a fortieth birthday before. What made it more curious was that the birthday itself was a month away.
Appa couldn’t attend, I gathered, because he was assigned the task of picking up the Bhagavatar from the station. The Bhagavatar was as difficult and mean as he was known to be. He would only travel by car, and only with a “man of standing”. Since the Barrister was busy making arrangements, Appa, the postmaster, was deemed to be of standing enough. The Bhagavatar insisted that hot homemade coffee be served to him at the station in a brass tumbler. But when Appa gave him Amma’s near-perfect coffee, he complained that it wasn’t hot enough. He would only stay in an Iyengar household, and had very specific cooking instructions. The poor barrister was saddled with making sure his wife complied with those requirements without threatening divorce. For his afternoon nap, he inspected four pillows before choosing a particular combination of two, laid out on the bed in a very precise pattern. The Barrister was to wake him up at seven pm by knocking on his door exactly three times -- not once more, not once less. Then, he would have a bath (the temperature of the water and the brand of soap and perfume carefully controlled by him), eat uppuma (without any vegetables, except two small pieces of a slightly overripe tomato, and with a more than generous helping of ginger pickle) with hot coffee, and proceed to the temple for the concert. He had even told the Barrister when he wanted fresh coffee during the concert, and made it clear that he would stop singing if it wasn’t brought at that precise time.
My parents and I went to the temple half an hour before the concert to find a healthy crowd already gathered. Someone found me a place right below the stage, while my parents sat in their customary place at the back. The Bhagavatar was already at the venue, we were told, and was waiting in the Barrister’s office next door. Some people did look excited about listening to this legendary musician, but many were more curious about how Kutti would handle this assignment. He hadn’t still left from home, the crowd murmured.
About ten minutes before the scheduled start, a fairly large group of men and women descended on the venue. I recognised them as the same crowd that I saw at lunch at Kutti’s house that afternoon. They seated themselves around the stage in an even sort of distribution. They looked like they had some plan, as if they were organised, a part of something big. Five minutes later, Kutti arrived to much applause and fanfare. He placed his mridangam on stage and walked straight to the Barrister’s house to meet the Bhagavatar.
The artistes finally arrived, about fifteen minutes late. The Bhagavatar, in a shimmering jibba, sporting an almost fully golden shawl, and crispest white veshti with a dignified zari border, led the way. Behind him was the frail, diminutive, ageing Pillai-val carrying his violin. And behind them, looking as regal as the Bhagavatar himself, followed Kutti, the vibhuti on his forehead reflecting the warm glow of the gas lamps.
The first half hour of the concert proceeded without incident. The Bhagavatar was in fine form reeling off a bright varnam, a booming, heavy Ganesa kriti by Dikshitar, and two small Tyagaraja kritis at lightning speed. Kutti was much better than I expected him to be, and I realised why Appa insisted that we don’t underestimate him. The Bhagavatar, until then, did not attempt any humiliation.
But that changed with his swaraprastaram for Ne pogada in Varali. It seemed the Bhagavatar had been testing the waters with his early exchanges, and once he gauged the level of his accompanists, he would take them to task. The khandachapu talam lent itself to mathematical madness, which was, in any case, the Bhagavatar’s forte. After the first two rounds, which were neatly followed by the accompanists, the Bhagavatar launched into a suspicious set of mathematics in the tisra nadai. My rudimentary knowledge of the technicalities of music meant that I had no idea what the Bhagavatar was up to, but I was worried when I saw a similar expression on Kutti’s face. Pillai-val stayed clear of the entire dispute by playing his own thing, declining the Bhagavatar’s invitation to indulge in musical algebra and fractions.
But Kutti had no choice. He had to accompany the Bhagavatar on those arduous journeys. After four rounds of the Bhagavatar singing what sounded like the same pattern over and over again, but was, actually, four subtle variations on the same theme, the Bhagavatar laughed derisively at Kutti. Kutti decided enough was enough. For the next round, Kutti overpowered the Bhagavatar with the sheer loudness of his playing. The crowd that had enjoyed Kutti’s hospitality that afternoon cheered wildly.
The Bhagavatar tried something again, but Kutti countered him with the same tactic—carpet bombing followed by thunderous applause. At the end of the Varali, Kutti played an incredible set-piece and landed with a reverberating tom. The tom didn’t land on the samam, but the audience didn’t care. The clapping was accompanied by more than enthusiastic sabhash-es and bhale-s. Two of them even stood up and clapped.
The Bhagavatar gave Kutti a bewildered look. Kutti merely smiled and opened his paan box, as if telling the Bhagavatar to not disturb him for a while. Left with no option, the Bhagavatar decided to sing an elaborate Sankarabharanam alapana. It was, by all accounts, quite spectacular. He followed this up with a haunting tanam, which Pillai-val responded to cautiously. The audience, in that half hour had forgotten the little singer-percussionist dynamic that had been playing out until then. But the Bhagavatar hadn’t.
He embarked on a pallavi, in what we presumed was a complicated talam, with his right hand firmly under his grand veshti. No one, not even Kutti, could see what talam it was. The bulge of his hand under the layers of fabric made indistinct bobs and let out occasional slapping noises, but these were hardly clues Kutti could read.
Kutti developed a safe tactic to keep beat -- he figured out that the words just before the arudi rest were “Guhane vaa”, and by the time the Bhagavatar reached “ha..ne...”, Kutti would enthusiastically thrash his mridangam until he landed on the “vaa”. What he did between the gu, the ha and the ne were dubious, but he unfailingly landed on the vaa. The fact that he didn’t get the rest of the pallavi didn’t matter because his lunch-bribed audience always shrieked, “Bhesh, bhesh!” when he tonked his mridangam emphatically at the vaa.
Slowly, Kutti realised that the pallavi was not only in an unusual talam (one that he still didn’t recognise), it was also in an unusual nadai. He couldn’t decipher whether it was the misra or the khanda nadai, but he realised he could confuse the Bhagavatar by just keeping beat at feverish pace in the regular chatusra nadai. The dissonance of the sevens (or the fives!) and the fours made the Bhagavatar screw his face tighter, close his eyes and concentrate harder on keeping rhythm. Kutti had turned the Bhagavatar’s trick on its head.
The Bhagavatar had one ace up his sleeve. He turned to Kutti and nodded, indicating that he must play a tani avartanam now. Kutti obliged. Two rounds of tremendously loud and incurably muddled mridangam smacking brought him incredible applause. The Bhagavatar announced that the talam was all wrong, but someone from the crowd screamed, “If you show us the talam, we can tell if it is wrong.” The elaborate lunch had had its full effect on the audience now.
Then Kutti slammed a mohra and monstrous korvai that he had been practising for the last ten days. He didn’t care that it would never fit the Bhagavatar’s bizarre talam; he just closed his eyes and let loose. The korvai was six Adi talam cycles long. As per tradition, he played the korvai thrice, and when the third round ended, a whole four minutes after the korvai started, he slapped his mridangam hard in anticipation of the Bhagavatar taking off the pallavi. But the Bhagavatar took his hand out from underneath his veshti and declared with a triumphant grin on his face, “You are two beats off where you should be.”
Kutti smiled and said, “Oh. I must have made a mistake. Let me start again. This time I’ll start two beats before.” Pillai sniggered, and so did the audience. The Bhagavatar said, in a resigned tone, “No, that’s okay. We’ll proceed with the next item.”
The Bhagavatar finished his concert in a hurry after that, singing a couple of standard tukkadas followed by a mangalam. At the end of the concert, an old man stood up and exclaimed, “I haven’t heard a mridangam like this in decades. What nadam, what clarity! May you live a hundred years!” There was a standing ovation for Kutti. A boy walked up to the front, and picked up Kutti’s mridangam for him, and Kutti exited victoriously.
That was the last time the Bhagavatar sang in our area. I moved to Madras with my parents two years after that, and never saw Kutti again.
Today, flipping through a Tamil magazine, I saw some photographs from the sets of the film Mridanga Chakravarti. In one photo, in the corner of the frame, an old man seemed to be helping Sivaji Ganesan with his expressions. This man, despite his frailty, had an unmistakable air of regality. The face in the photograph was too blurry for me to confirm the man’s identity, and I was not in touch with anyone from that part of my life, but I’d like to believe it was the same Kuttipayya, passing tips to the great actor on how to behave like you’re playing the mridangam.