Nagaswara vidwan Karukurichi P. Arunachalam passed away in 1964 at the age of 43. Even during his short lifespan he had achieved great fame as a musical heir to his guru T.N. Rajarathnam (TNR). In his series Karnataka Isai Vendargal in the Tamil weekly Kungumam, the late music critic Subbudu, placed nagaswara vidwan Karukurichi Arunachalam high in his list of leading Carnatic musicians, very close to his mentor T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai. Asserting that Karukurichi would have made history had he lived longer, he placed him in the genius class, along with TNR, MLV, S.G. Kittappa and M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar. T.N. Seshagopalan has said that he never missed a Karukurichi concert in and around Madurai during his early days. Violinist M. Chandrasekharan has spoken of Karukurichi’s impact on his raga alapana. Clarionet vidwan A.K.C. Natarajan – a Sangita Kalanidhi like Seshagopalan and Chandrasekharan refers to the special viraladi or fingering technique of Karukurichi. According to him, Karukurichi never had to strain himself to bring about the special melodic effects he created. He attributes it to Tamraparani tanneer, the water of the river that flows through Karuckurichi’s adopted district Arunachalam did not hail from a traditional nagaswaram family. His father Balavesam attempted to become a performing artist, but failing to do so, encouraged his son’s talent for the instrument. Arunachalam learnt nagaswaram from Kattumalli Subbiah Kambar and vocal music from Kalakkad Subbiah Bhagavatar. Karukurichi constantly dreamt of training under nagaswaram wizard Rajarathnam and accompanying him. His dream came true when he was able to accompany his idol on stage as a last-minute replacement for his indisposed partner Kakkayi Natarajasundaram Pillai at a local concert. Arunachalam did gurukulavasam with Rajarathnam, assimilating the best of his music. Like his guru, Arunachalam too became known for the beauty of the ragas and compositions he essayed.
Music lovers recognise the special tonal quality of Karukurichi’s nagaswaram – its sruti suddham, melodic pleasantness, astounding continuity and breath control, and total absence of the kind of apaswaram that can sometimes mar nagaswaram music. Yet another feature of his music was the absence of the characteristic pippip sound that usually accompanies the checking of the seevali or reed of the nagaswaram.
I have live recordings of his Kharaharapriya and Shanmukhapriya I obtained from writer Raji Narayanan. At some stages in the raga progression you wonder if it is really a human voice or the nagaswaram.
Karukurichi’s regular tavil accompanists were Nachiarkoil Raghava Pillai and Needamangalam Shanmukhavadivel. In the absence of these tavil vidwans, it would be Perumpallam Venkatesan (later Principal, Palani Nagaswaram School), Valangaiman Shanmukhasundaram or Yazhpanam Dakshinamurthy.
Ottu vidwan Sankaran also acted as the maestro’s personal driver. According to him, the maestro constantly sang while travelling, keeping the car engine hum as the basic sruti. Sankaran, my motherin-law (Karukurichi’s second wife) and some other friends have told me that Karukurichi could sing in a voice reminiscent of Madurai Mani Iyer’s. He is said to have once given an informal vocal recital at Sivaji Ganesan’s house at the request of his friends and the great actor.
I have heard that he paid his regular co-artists monthly salaries, a practice other musicians could rarely afford. While it is well known that Karukurichi had gurukulam training under the inimitable TNR, it is not so well known that he learnt vocal music initially from Kalakkad Subbiah Bhagavatar and his son Ramanarayana Bhagavatar. Later, after he attained name and fame, he studied with Harmonium Tirunelveli Muthu Natesa Iyer and Vilathikulam Nallappa Swamigal who was a vocalist and excelled in raga singing. Nallappa Swamigal could elaborate ragas for days on end with infinite manodharma. Legend has it that he sang Kharaharapriya for three days at a stretch at the Mysore court and earned accolades and awards.
Karukurichi’s music was heavily influenced by Swamigal’s
teaching. He lived in Karukurichi’s Kovilpatti bungalow, especially during the
later years of his life. My mother-in-law and my wife vividly recall that the
Swamigal used to sit with Karukurichi during his nagaswaram practice; he was a
task master and perfectionist. Karukurichi organised grand functions in honour
of both his gurus TNR and VilathIkulam Swamigal. I do remember that the Music
Academy included a deliberation on Swamigal’s contribution to Carnatic music in
its annual music festival. Those who have listened extensively to Karukurichi’s
music can clearly recognise Swamigal’s impact on it.
President of India Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Union finance minister and Carnatic music connoisseur T.T. Krishnamachari and Madras chief minister Kamaraj were among his rasikas. One of Karukurichi’s close friends told me that TTK, who was very fond of Karukurichi’s rendering of raga Vasanta Bhairavi, sent a request to the vidwan through this friend for this raga during a certain concert.
Karukurichi’s rasikas were crazy about his music. I recall an emotional episode narrated by Ambalavanan, a former HRD chief at Chennai Petroleum Corporation, in his book on Tirunelveli district. During a temple concert at Kovilpatti, a beggar from the crowd rushed to the stage. While members of the audience tried to stop him, the vidwan counselled them not to do so. The beggar approached Karukurichi and presented him a four-anna coin. Karukurichi bowed his head reverentially, accepted the coin, touched it to his eyes and put it into his pocket. Amidst the absolute silence that followed, Karukurichi’s eyes went moist.
Another incident was narrated to me by tavil maestro Haridwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel. When Palanivel enter the part of the palatial house where the womenfolk resided. The other was ‘Kalaivanar’ N.S. Krishnan.
For four or five consecutive years in the late 1950s, Karukurichi’s recital was the first major evening concert of the Music Academy’s December music festival. Seshan, former President of the Indian Cultural Academy, New Delhi, organised a Karukurichi concert in New Delhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was the chief guest. Nehru sat through the entire three-hour concert; he even enjoyed the popular film song Singaravelane deva. It was a scintillating performance.
Films and film friends
Iconic comedian and social activist N.S. Krishnan was a father figure to Karukurichi. He often organised chamber concerts of the vidwan at his home for invited audiences that would include leading lights of the film world and politics like C.N. Annadurai and M.G. Ramachandran. Karukurichi was at NSK’s house, when he received a telephone call from Kovilpatti informing him that his wife had delivered a baby girl. NSK, who took the call, instantly named the girl Madhuravani, combining his “Kalaivanar” title and his wife’s name, Madhuram. Karukurichi readily accepted the name. That baby girl is none other than my wife!
Actors Sivaji Ganesan, MGR, M.R. Radha, the Gemini Ganesan-Savitri couple, T.S. Baliah, Sarangapani, T.K. Shanmugham, T.S. Durairaj and film director A.P. Nagarajan were among his friends. Regular guests NSK and Sivaji liked my mother-in-law’s cooking and hospitality. In the days before he built his house on Boag Road, now Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan Road, Sivaji liked to invite Karukurichi to his humble “kudisai” or hut – in a mischievous reference to Karukurichi’s palatial house at Kovilpatti. Karukurichi enjoyed a good relationship with MGR too. He was close enough to him to take the liberty of asking him to persuade a well known dancer to perform at a family wedding. When the Lions Club of Kovilpatti installed a memorial statue of Karukurichi with the support of Gemini Ganesan and Savitri, the couple unveiled it in a formal ceremony.
Karukurichi’s nagaswaram played in the film Konjum Salangai is well known. When
the song Singara velane deva became a huge success, Karukurichi rued the
apparent lack of popular appeal of other musically noteworthy nagaswaram pieces
in the film. Unusually for those times, the famous song was recorded without
Karukurichi meeting vocalist S. Janaki. The voice and the nagaswaram music were
technically mixed. It was only a few years later that Janaki was introduced to
Karukurichi while he was performing at Shanmukhananda.
It is well known that the film Tillana Mohanambal, based on the eponymous Kothamangalam Subbu novel, and made by A.P. Nagarajan, was dedicated to Karukurichi’s memory. What is not known is the fact that Karukurichi was to produce the film himself with Vyjayanthimala in the lead role. Alas, he did not live to do the project. After his death, APN made the film in memory of his friend, with Padmini as Mohanambal. Sivaji and the rest of the cast were familiar with Karukurichi and his team and this familiarity must have helped them in their realistic portrayal of the peria melam artists in the movie.
Karukurichi placed the art above the artist. He was known for his guru bhakti and humility. Narrating an incident in the weekly Dinamalar, Sukhi Sivam recently said, “It was a tradition in those days that when vidwans of TNR’s stature visited a place for a concert, the local vidwans would ceremoniously welcome the visiting vidwan and escort him to the concert venue playing the nagaswaram along the way. Once TNR’s concert was arranged in a certain town. Karukurichi, who had established a name for himself by then, was to accompany him. Somehow, the local vidwans, perhaps unaware of the tradition, failed to offer the ceremonial welcome and escort. Karukurichi sensed this, quickly got together a team of tavil vidwans and escorted his guru with his own music to the concert venue. TNR was very pleased and remarked to his sishya: “Arunachalam, you played your welcome music so well and set a standard for me to follow in the main concert.” Though famous, Karukurichi did not mind a lowering of his status in the course of according due respect to his guru. Maintaining an established tradition was important to him.
Karukurichi was known for his etiquette, warmth, gentleness and hospitality. He never sat cross-legged, for instance, and he expected others to avoid the posture. He displayed great empathy towards his fellows and had a keen understanding of situations. He once took a close friend of his to Madras on a wedding concert trip. It was the marriage of the daughter of a rich diamond merchant. Karukurichi and his friend checked into a hotel in the morning, with the concert scheduled for the evening. The friend, the headmaster of a government high school, a sensitive man, was wondering how he could attend a wedding to which he had not been invited. In the afternoon, there was a knock on his door. The visitor introduced himself as the brother of the bride and formally invited him for his sister’s wedding. When the headmaster informed Karukurichi over evening tea about what had happened, Karukurichi just said, “Oh, is that so?” and acted as if it had all happened naturally and he had nothing to do with it.
Once Karukurichi’s Hindustan Ambassador car had to be left for service at the TVS service centre at Palayamkottai. T.S. Krishna of the TVS group graciously arranged for his Plymouth car to drop Karukurichi at his Kovilpatti residence. While alighting, he overheard someone say that he got down from the car as if it were his own. Karukurichi immediately called Krishna on the phone and asked him to arrange delivery of a New Plymouth car for himself. Sure enough the car was delivered and Karukurichi used it for the rest of his life.
Karukurichi believed in astrology. An astrologer from Kadayanallur predicted a certain date as critical and Karukurichi advised people to wait till that time whenever a new proposal came up, towards the last several months of his life. Sadly, his premonition came true.
While Tanjavur has been accepted as the home of nagaswaram music and the Isai Velalar community and the source of great nagaswara vidwans, Karukurichi was an exception in terms of place of birth and community of origin. As a result he had to overcome certain established biases. His guru TNR in fact had to step in to silence the opposition from his Tanjavur disciples. Unfortunately, such discrimination prevails to this day and even present day accounts of nagaswaram artists of Tamil Nadu tend to omit a mention of Karukurichi Arunachalam.
Karukurichi Arunachalam passed away at the Palayamkottai Government Headquarters Hospital on 6 April 1964, ending the TNR era of music. Had he lived longer, he would surely have reached great heights in music, perhaps earned the Sangita Kalanidhi title at the Music Academy.