T. Viswanathan

February 16, 2014

T. Viswanathan

Sruti commissioned MATTHEW H. ALLEN, who is studying for his doctoral degree in the Wesleyan University, to

interview T. Viswanathan.

Allen was given the assignment because he has been studying Carnatic music under Viswanathan since 1984. The subject of his present doctoral-level study is 'Tamil pada-s in Chinna Melam sampradaya'. He has visited India twice in connection with his research work.

Viswa, can you first tell us about your earliest musical recollections?

Let me see. I think that by the age of five or six I was already singing. Before that, I don't remember. At first I learned from my mother, by hearing. In my family it was only learning by listening. I was singing a lot of kriti-s, mostly Dikshitar kriti-s, at that time. In fact, from my earliest days onwards, I have always had a particular love for vilamba kala [slow tempo] in music. My training proper didn't begin until I went to my guru, T.N. Swaminatha Pillai.

What are your recollections of your grandmother, Veena Dhanammal?

I was always in awe and frightened of Jejammal—meaning goddess—and I never went near her. But my mother forced me to play flute for her once. I played a Saveri varnam and she listened quietly and said : "Practice, practice ; it'll come." That's all she ever said to me directly. She passed away soon after. I do know that she approved of my teacher Swaminatha Pillai. His father,Natarajasundaram Pillai, and Dhanammal had in fact learned Dikshitar kriti-s together (along with Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer) from Sattanur Panchanada Iyer; so my grandmother and my teacher's father were co-students.

You've anticipated my next question—I was just going to ask from which sources Dhanammal herself learned music, how she put together her unique style….

Well, besides learning from her grandmother [Tanjavur Kamakshi Ammal], she also learned from two other sources; that might have triggered the whole style. That's my feeling. She learned pada-s from a vainika by die name of Baldas. And, as I said earlier, she learned Dikshitar kriti-s from Sattanur Panchanada Iyer. So those two men must have shaped her, or influenced her very heavily. And from her grandmother's side there was the influence of Subbaraya Sastri and Anai & Ayya Brothers also. So all this culminated there; and she formed her own style. Her mother Sundarammal was a disciple of Annasami Sastri.

How was Swaminatha Pilla- regarded at that time ? What was he particularly known for as a musician?

He was highly respected, but he was not a popular musician ; he was more of a musician's musician. There were a few great flautists at that time—Sanjeeva Rao who was his senior, and then later Mali came up—so the competition was quite stiff. Swaminatha Pillai never attained the same degree of popularity, but he was a very respected flautist. He was a great laya vidwan, for one, and an expert in swarakalpana and pallavi. And he also liked to introduce rare raga-s and play extensive alapana. And, he had a large repertoire of Dikshitar kriti-s. These were all his strong points.

Swaminatha Pillai also composed songs for abhinaya ; Bala used to go and learn rare songs from him. Of course, Brinda herself gave Swaminatha Pillai a large number of Tyagaraja kriti-s, which she had learned from Kanchipuram Naina Pillai; she was really the distributor of Tyagaraja kriti-s to a lot of vidwans. To Ramnad Krishnan, to my teacher, to a lot of other musicians.

I see, so there was quite a close relationship between your teacher and your family.

Yes, and I also remember my cousin T. Sankaran telling me that once he had heard Swaminatha Pillai's father Natarajasundaram Pillai and Dhanammal sing together, in their later years. Natarajasundaram Pillai came to visit her, and said : "Amma, do you remember those songs we learned from our Ayya ?" They sang together, and Natarajasundaram Pillai said to her that; even after all that time, there wasn't the ghost of a difference in their renditions, except that his style had been limited by the nagaswaram, and hers by the veena.

How did you come to study with Swaminatha Pillai? Did you already have an interest in the flute?

No. It was just my guru's music ; he totally impressed me in the way in which he played. When I was about eight years old, I first heard Swaminatha Pillai at Chittor Subramania Pillai's brother's wedding. I remember that my mother Jayammal, my sister Bala, my brother Ranga and myself, we all went to the wedding ; and that my teacher was playing, sitting very straight, looking so serious ! He played Naninne dhyana, and I fell in love with that And I said: "Amma, I'd like to learn with him." She said: "Well, he lives in Tanjavur. Are you prepared to go, and do you want to live there ?" Without hesitation, I said : "Yes !" I didn't think about it! There was no feeling of separation. I was glad I was going to live with my teacher, to learn from him. It was my only concern at that time. So she asked him whether he would take me as his student He said : "Fine." He had great respect for our family.

How did he treat you? Was be a very traditional, strict guru?

Swaminatha Pillai treated me like his own son. Of course, the gurukula system was still very common then ; I'm talking about the late thirties. I was prepared to do anything for him. My regular chores in his household were to draw water from the well, and go to the market and get fresh vegetables. I should also mention that he was very particular that I attend school, which I did. And he trained me in practical matters as well as in music, something which I am grateful to him for till this day ; I have been trained and disciplined much more by my teacher than by my family

Tell us how your teacher taught you, and about your growth as a musician under him.

Yes. For the first six months he taught me basic flute fingering. After that he only taught me vocally ; and I had to figure out the fingerings on the flute on my own. He never said : "You play like this." He left me alone, to develop my own technique. On flute he only gave the basics ; sarali-s, alankara-s. That's it All the raga interpretation, gamaka-s, and everything else, I learned by myself.

Was that common? Do you know how the other Mute teachers were teaching?

I don't know. I guess all the flute players developed their own way. There was no standard technique. I cannot say about others, but I think I very closely stuck to the vocal style. And, as I said before, I particularly love vilamba kala, partly because of its greater possibilities for ornamentation. All the techniques to play the gamaka-s on flute, I developed on my own.

When was the first time you appeared on the stage?

Well, it's hard to tell. I never had an arangetram [a formal debut] or anything like that, but I would go with my teacher to his concerts and, if I knew the kriti-s, he would have me play along. Would you call it a debut ? I don't think so. I started playing as second flute for my teacher after about three years of study, when I was about 11 years old.

What was it like to perform with your teacher? Were there other students of his who were on the stage?

Not at that time ; I was the only serious student. On stage, he was always very serious, never telling jokes, never flippant, always concentrating totally on the music, I had feelings of reverence, awe, all sorts of things for him ; I was totally in love with his music. I would be playing along, sometimes out of pitch, and he would look over at me, and he would grind his teeth ! (Laughs).

And then one day, when I was playing a concert with him, he finished playing a swarakalpana and said, "Come on, play !"

Just out of the blue?

Just out of the blue. There I was, struggling, stumbling. I was a little boy but the audience was laughing, enjoying my efforts, and I was so upset. But these humiliations shouldn't bother you, you just go ahead. And so every time, I'd just try again, tumble and fall, and break my teeth, as we say in Tamil. After two or three concerts I was much better. That's how I became stronger in laya, even as I made mistakes. I got my grip over rhythm from hearing my teacher and practising hard.

Had he given you no training in swarakalpana?

No training—in gurukula, hearing your teacher is training.

Would the same be true for your development of raga knowledge ?Did that come mostly from your teacher or from your family?

Actually, from both. After teaching me a kriti, my teacher would ask me to play it to my mother when I next visited her. Being young then, I didn't understand at the time why he would say that. I didn't realize until later that he had such a great respect for Dhanammal's interpretation of songs. At the time I just said to myself : "Well, he is teaching ; why do I have to go and play to my mother ?" You know, complaining and grumbling to myself!

Was there any conflict ever, between your teacher's and your family's approaches?

Whatever my mother said was fine for him. He agreed with our family version of compositions. My mother left the other aspects to him.

Can you tell us when you began to play as a soloist, and who your early accompanists were?

It's hard to pinpoint because the transition to being a soloist was so gradual, but it must have been in the early 1940s, I believe that Palani Subramania Pillai and Papa Venkataramiah were the first big name accompanists to accompany me, and afterwards Palghat Mani Iyer, Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai and Mayavaram Govindaraja Pillai. The musicians I have performed with over the longest period of time are : for violin, V. Thyagarajan, and for mridangam it was almost always Ranganathan, right from the beginning. Since Ranga was my brother, we were always playing together. The other day I was thinking about it, that Ranga and I have played together more than I have played for Bala. V. Nagarajan has played kanjeera as upa-pakkavadyam for over two decades.

So right from the beginning, Ranga was your mridangam accompanist. And Ranga, obviously, had been listening to and learning the family repertoire.

Yes. He heard it all the time. And that's why he was so good at providing accompaniment to Dikshitar kriti-s, pada-s and javali-s. He was solid. My cousin Abhiramasundari, who also accompanied me sometimes on the violin, also had a fantastic feeling for the family repertoire. And I remember that when I played pada-s and javali-s with Abhiramasundari and Ranga as accompanists, it would make my hair stand on end ! Their feeling for the music was so powerful.

Why did you go to study at Annamalai University ? Did you have an academic interest in music at that time?

I went there in order to be with my teacher, who was then Principal of the Music College. I didn't have an academic interest in music at that time. I took music as one of the subjects, along with physics and chemistry; but T didn't care much at that time for theory or musicology.

Were you performing while you were an undergraduate, and did that conflict with your studies? Did you consider yourself a serious academic student, or was that just to secure your future?

To secure my future, definitely. I was more interested in music than in academic subjects. I was performing, and it was hard to maintain both. But I tried to do both ; I had concerts, and I used to play for Bala as well. I actually continued and finished my M.A. in Economics at Madras University, so that I would have some kind of a secure job, because I was not sure whether I would be able to earn enough money as a musician. And my guru always encouraged me to finish my graduate work. He used to say : "Don't depend on music."

Did your family support your musical career?

Yes, but they all felt that I should have some other training so that I wouldn't have to depend just on music for a living. At the same time, they always supported my music. Our family style of music is different, and they believed in that style, and they always supported me. And they never said ; "Why don't you go and play like such and such a person to gain popular reknown ?"

Did you have support for your music from outside your family?

Our family style was never a popular style, but almost all the musicians respected it, and that gave me encouragement. I remember that I was very honoured that nagaswara vidwan Rajarathnam Pillai once said that I had combined the styles of my guru and my family well. And then Dr. V. Raghavan was always so supportive of my family and our music. He supported my playing at the Music Academy, year after year. I am greatly indebted to him for that. Now I also understand that the late K. Chandrasekharan also helped during those years.

Viswa, was there ever any decline in your prestige because you played for dance?

That's a very good question. And no, even though I played for dance, I don't think there was any decline of prestige in my case. Because all the musicians knew the value of dance music in the Dhanammal school. Hardly any soloist will have that much of dance repertoire. They knew that I was a good soloist also. Perhaps I am one of the very few who has a large repertoire of classical and dance music combined.

Today it's become more popular on a programme to include one or two pieces from the dance repertoire in a concert. In your concerts when you were young, did you draw from the dance repertoire also?

Well, musicians always expected me to play one or two dance pieces during my concerts. The usual complaint was that I played too few pada-s and javali-s. And then one famous musician, whom I don't have to name, always tells me whenever I see him : "Ennada, Viswa, you have a treasure in your house. Why do you want to play all these swarakalpana-s, all these kanakku-s ? It is like using a big stick." [Laughs].

How do you use the dance repertoire in your solo concerts?

Sometimes I play a swarajati instead of a tana varnam, a pada varnam in the middle of the concert, and pada-s and javali-s near the end. Also the phrases in the dance music help to enrich my interpretations during raga alapana. I like to combine rakti phrases from pada-s with regular phrases.

Do you mean to say your alapana-s are different from others?

No, they are not radically different from normal alapana-s. But I place greater stress on vilamba kala phrases from pada-s and on the singing style. My approach is not totally based on the wind instrumental style.

Do you teach dance compositions to your students?

Oh yes, I believe dance repertoire should be taught to students. For example, I feel students should be taught a few good jatiswaras along with varnam, because they give the raga swarupa and a good grip over rhythm.

Once you finished your degree, did you ever have any kind of job besides music?

Yes. After I graduated, first I was a clerk  in the Economics and Statistics Department of the Government of Madras ; my salary was 90 rupees a month. That was the only job I could get ! But I wanted to have a regular income, because I couldn't get that many concerts. Wherever I was working, I never revealed that I was a musician. After that I was an Economic Investigator for the Rural Development Pilot Project under the Economics Department of the University of Madras (Laughs). I had to keep statistics of how many cow-dung cakes were made in the village, and all sorts of things. When I got to the village, the landlords gave me a separate room on the outskirts of the village. After I settled in at night I would sit and practise. And every morning I would take all my papers and files for my rounds. Once one of those landlords came up to me and said : " Viswanathan ! I heard some beautiful music somewhere in the village last night Did you hear that ?" I said : "No, I don't think  so . . . ." (Laughs). "My God !" he said, "you must have really slept . . . . We were hearing it all over the place !"

This went on for a couple of weeks. Then one day I said: "I have to go to Madras to see my family." Actually, I had a radio engagement. The landlord (Rayar) said : "Alright, OK." So they helped me to get a bus seat—in those days, it was very difficult to get one. I went to Madras and played a radio concert—on a Friday night. These mittadars had radios and when they tuned their sets on, they heard the announcer say : "T. Viswanathan, flute." When I went back to the village after two days, the landlord, who had spoken to me on the subject earlier said : "Do you know what ? There was a fellow with your same name who played the flute on the radio ! It sounded like the flute I've been hearing at night. . . ." (Laughs). And then it dawned on him suddenly and he started asking questions : "Hey ! What is this ? What are you . . ." And then, my god, after this I was treated royally, I had meals, lunches and everything. And when they heard I was Balasaraswati's brother, they wanted to come and see my house. So they came and stayed with us in Madras ! Theywere such great, friendly people, really.

But you didn't stay in that job very long, I take it…..

Oh no, I quit within six months, because I got the Government of India scholarship, in 1955. That was the first batch of scholarships the Government gave for musicians who didn't have financial resources to concentrate on their music and further improve performance skills. That's exactly what was happening in my case, so I applied and luckily I got it.

I believe that it was your contacts with foreign scholars visiting India that led to your coming to America? Is that correct?

Yes. The first Americans studying Carnatic music whom I met in Madras were Harold Powers and Robert Brown. Powers was studying, in the early 1950s, with Rangaramanuja Iyengar and Musiri Subrahmania Iyer, and we became friends as he was living in Egmore near where we lived. He and Ranga were also very, very close friends. Powers was working on his Ph.D on the South Indian raga system. Bob Brown came in 1957 on a Fulbright fellowship as a graduate student from U.C.L.A. and he was attracted to Bala's family. He started studying with Ranga, and eventually wrote his Ph.D on mridangam style. Bob was living very near my teacher's house in Mandavelipakkam [near Mylapore], and as I went there every day, we also became friends.

When you saw a Westerner like Bob Brown studying in India, did you see value in that? Did that seem interesting to you?

Well, I was basically interested in what Bob was doing and I was trying to help, answering his questions and talking with him about music. And Ranga also helped ; he helped Bob a tremendous lot. Bob must have also realized my potential to do ethnomusicological work, for he asked me to come to U.C.L.A. [the University of California at Los Angeles].

What were the reactions of your family and friends when you decided to come to the United States?

 Bala encouraged it. My mom as a typical Indian mother didn't want me to go but she thought it would be good for me. She supported my interests, but she was very sad that I was leaving. Members of my family had cried when I left to live with Swaminatha Pillai; now, their eyes had tears again. I'm not sure how my teacher felt; he never discussed it with me. But I heard that several musicians didn't understand why an up-and-coming Indian musician would want to go abroad .Their question was: "What is Viswa going to learn there ?" You see, we all had the attitude, myself included at that time, that Carnatic music is the best music, and therefore there is no reason to learn about other kinds of music.

Certainly you and your brother Ranga have been pioneers in introducing Carnatic music to the West, through your teaching and performing. But here you are implying that you also had something to learn from the West. What effect did the two years at U.CL.A. have on you?

There was a strong effect. At U.C.L.A. I began to get interested in other kinds of music. I began to have respect for other music cultures, and it gave me a broader perspective on my own music. At that time [in 1958] U.C.L.A. had study groups in ethnomusicology. They were started by Mantle Hood, who always believed in "bimusicality", the idea that a musician canreach a level of proficiency to perform in a musical tradition that isn't his or her own. Needless to say, this was a controversial concept, and still is. But Mantle had these study groups. So, when I arrived in Los Angeles, in addition to teaching Carnatic music, I soon found myself playing Javanese gamelan, Balinese gamelan, Japanese gagaku, and Persian music. As I said, when I went there, I wasn't at all sure that I could learn anything from other musical traditions, but the experience was an eye-opener for me. And I not only learned about performance but about bow the musicians from other cultures taught. I started thinking about combining the Indian oral method with some of the technologies which were available in the West. I had initial difficulties in teaching Westerners, as well as in adjusting to their food, but I slowly picked up and developed a teaching method which would work for them. You see, at that time no one in the U.S. knew about South Indian music ; they had been exposed to Hindustani music by Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan but, as far as I know, I was the first trained Carnatic musician to be teaching in the United States.

And upon your return to India in 1961, you became Reader in Music at the University of Madras, didn't you?

At that time I was interested in teaching, in an academic institution. And also I was trying to combine performance and scholarship,I am not still sure whether it would be possible to do both well. I encouraged not only performance, but I also tried to teach basic ethnomusicology— to introduce some of the ideas and concepts which I had learned abroad, and to introduce world music cultures to the students. Actually, by 1966 I had decided that I wanted further training in ethnomusicology, so I took leave and came to Wesleyan University to take my Ph.D. I remember again leaving my mother; it was for the last time, because she died just two months after I left for the United States. I still feel terrible about it, that she died when I was overseas.

And since then, really, you've been living and teaching in the United States. If you don't mind I'd like to move forward in time and ask you if you had the opportunity to change something about the current musical scene in India, how would you want to see it change ? How would you want to influence the scene as it exists now, whether it's teaching, performance, or issues of how music is presented, or government support...

(Laughs). Let me first say that, since I have been out of the country for much of the past 20 years, I am not as much in touch with the current scene as I would like to be, and I know that conditions in India are rapidly changing. My basic belief, however, is that there shouldn't be just one, single style of music. It shouldn't be one ; there should be different schools, different styles. In fact, there are. And again there is the question of what is pure, what is true ; you cannot draw a line and say this style is pure, this is not For example, in my music, the vilamba kala is the dominant element, while in the others’ music it will be the madhyama kala. The pendulum may swing between the two styles, but they both are legitimate, beautiful, and important — the one could not even exist without the other.

And I feel that if I want to preserve the music which I believe in, I should be able to teach it to others. Some people may get it, some may not get it. But you should try... and it should be recorded also. And the government or other institutions should support that. That is the only way we can preserve styles. That's my feeling ; that you must record it and, if no one at the current time is willing or able to learn, put it on a shelf for safe-keeping. Future generations will then have the opportunity at least to hear, if not to learn.

It seems that the gurukula system is very impractical in India now, by and large. A student can't afford to wait until he's 30 to perform; most artists don't have a lifestyle where a student can come and live with them and learn... That's my impression at least, that the situation has changed...

Well it is changing, and the gurukula system is disappearing. I have seen great vidwans struggling to have a true sishya in a gurukula style. The sishya cannot afford to waste his precious youth carrying instruments around, and taking care of the guru. It doesn't matter who it is, even if it is God.

As far as the changing circumstances under which students in India are learning music, what do you feel can be done to preserve the standards of Carnatic music?

I feel that the approach could be a little bit different. I mean, from my experience in the U.S., about teaching, having seen other cultures, how they teach, I feel we should combine both visual and oral methods.

Do you believe in the use of notation?

I believe in notation, but it should be supplemented with recording equipment. You know, we used to talk of audio recording. Now there should be video too, for learning. For dance, video is absolutely essential, but I'm saying that even for music you should have video. If you can see as well as hear a vocalist or an instrumentalist, it's much easier to learn a particular style. You should know how a musician opens his mouth, how his fingers work on an instrument. The learning process will speed up. That's what I am trying to do in my teaching. Why did gurukula fall apart ? Because it is a long process, too slow. It is too costly for a young man to spend 5 or 10 years of his life washing clothes, when he can use that time to enrich his mind or learn other trades.

But many things will be lost by not washing clothes, don't you think? It seems to me that the washing of clothes, or the doing of errands,the shopping for your guru, teaches you things about respect, about an approach to life, about humility. You yourself said that you learned many things in life from your teacher, besides music.

Yes, but is that what makes you learn ? That’s the question. Is it only the humility that makes you learn ? Is that the only way you can learn anything ? It is not. I believe that if you are not talented, if you are not intelligent enough to absorb what a teacher says, humility alone is not going to help. Under the gurukula system, there were a lot of people who were very humble towards their teacher, totally devoted, prostrating before their teacher every day, but they never came up. Or look at other disciplines, Chemistry or Economics. It's not humility which brings a man up...

It's the talent and hard work. 

That's right.

My next question is : in what direction is the music culture going in South India? Is it healthy? Is it vibrant? Or is it going down?

I feel it is not going down. I have heard a lot of people say that it is going down—my grandma said music was going down, my mother said the same thing, Bala said it, we all say it. Throughout time, if you look at all the treatises, they say : "Music is going down " But, Indian music, it is the dynamism which keeps it going. You may not like a particular style or way of doing thing now, but only time will decide whether it is worth surviving.

So change is...

Change is inevitable. You have to absorb and go along with day to day life. That's what we did. Look at Hindustani music. It could survive because it absorbed the impact of Islamic culture. Whatever, whoever invaded, we absorbed; we went on absorbing, and gave it another different form. India has always been like that, historically speaking.

So what you're saying is that the music culture will go where it's going?

That's right. You should keep track of all the things which have happened, especially now. After a hundred years, at least, people will know what is Dhanammal's style, for instance, or what any other style is. That should be there, recorded. So the opportunity will be there, if a scholar or student wants to follow that style. But you cannot say : "Don't change." I mean, it'sobvious—I myself believe that my mother had changed the music of Dhanammal.

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