T.K. MURTHY - A CENTENARIAN
How do I describe Murthy Sir? A great mridangam exponent, an expert teacher, or a historian among musicians? With unparalleled magnetism and clarity of thought, he is an amalgamation of all these. I was introduced to Murthy Sir by my first guru K.P. Parameswaran who was one of T.K. Murthy’s senior disciples. In 1994, Murthy Sir came to our hometown Palghat, for a temple festival and accompanied vidwans T.N. Seshagopalan and T.V. Sankaranarayanan.
My lessons with Murthy Sir started in 1994 when I was twelve. His classroom sessions were full of enthusiasm and camaraderie. He would narrate stories from the past, his life experiences with his guru, Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, and how he learned special korvais and would then immediately ask one of us to play the same. His one-bedroom house in Nattuveerachi Street in Mylapore was always filled with sishyas, rasikas and friends. Every session was so lively and would go on for long hours.
Sollukattu sampradaya (konnakkol) is the hallmark of the T.K. Murthy school. When he recites a rhythm, we can hear the music in it. His rhythms conveyed the composition’s character, feel and expression. He urged all sishyas to practice the sollukattus regularly.
His voice notation and drumming style were unique. For instance, taka dikku taka is what he would recite, but while playing on the drums, it becomes taka dikku tari, an identity of his style. A seed idea of the korvai will be taught, and the sishyas will have to play sequential patterns in all jatis, nadais and multiple talas. These brainstorming sessions helped us develop new patterns, and ultimately every student went home with their contribution to the parent idea.
Laya, according to Murthy Sir, is the perfection within the kalapramana. His colloquial reference for kalapramana is that it should be like a nail hammered into a wall. When it came to accompanying a song, he insisted that we listen to the song first, understand the kalapramana and then begin to play. He would advise us to pay attention to the poorvangam (first half) and uttarangam (second half) of the sahitya and gradually attempt to enhance the song. He would say, amathi vasippu. Aruthis (small finishing grooves) are important for amathi vasippu.
Precision in playing mohra and muktayis are what fascinated me in his bani. Intricate mohras are played with fineness and ease, coined with an effective muktayi. His research in the 72 melakarta mohra and muktayis are proof of this. No mohras are repeated.
Adapting to different circumstances during a kutcheri is another area he would draw attention to. A sabha atmosphere differs from a studio recording, and gallery concerts for festivals bring a different mood. He would iterate that as percussionists, we should be ready to adapt to these situations.
What makes Murthy Sir a historian among musicians? Recently I read an article which recalled Sir’s younger days. As a 12-year-old, he was applauded by a critic for playing a ragam-tanam-pallavi in the Simhanandana tala in a concert. The singer was the great Kanchipuram Naina Pillai. Murthy Sir brilliantly accomplished the task and was praised by everyone there. I have always wondered how that was possible at that age. Who was his inspiration? What was his methodology in attempting that tala? Unlike today, where most students rely on social media and recordings for references, in his time, his guru was the only mode for exploring ideas and expanding the repertoire in music.
The life story of Murthy Sir is nothing but the history of mridangam. When Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer was experimenting and exploring various ideas to create a system and methodology for formulating the Tanjavur bani, young Murthy worked on these experiments and performed them with authenticity. Murthy Sir ultimately became the torchbearer of the bani. As his sishyas, we are responsible for upholding the legacy of this rich style of laya and our guru T.K. Murthy Sir.
(The author is a mridangist and a disciple of T.K. Murthy)
The Global Carnatic Music Association (GCMA) celebrated the 100th birthday of vidwan T.K. Murthy and commemorated his nine decades of playing the mridangam on 20 August 2023 at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai. T.K. Murthy-100 was a unique event where several eminent Carnatic musicians performed a Kanakabhishekam on the centenarian maestro.