Carnatic music, as far as art forms go, is a culture steeped in tradition. The concept of parampara and sampradaya are deeply entrenched in the way we perceive and evaluate our music. We are continually advised to follow in the footsteps of our gurus, and become torchbearers of their tradition. Each school of Carnatic music is therefore incredibly unique, replete with identifying characteristics and nuances clear to the trained ear. I could go on for many articles speaking of the importance (for better or worse) of different schools in music and dance, but this particular piece is to serve as a primer to my own lineage of mridangists — the illustrious Tiruvarur bani of percussion.
We are continually advised to follow in the footsteps of our gurus, and become torchbearers of their tradition.
Tiruvarur — Birthplace of Music
Tiruvarur, located in modern day Tamilnadu, is a temple town home to the Thyagaraja Temple of Lord Shiva. It was to this very town that the court-poet Giriraja Kavi had relocated his family from the village of Kakarla in present day Andra Pradesh. This kavi of course, is none other than the grandfather of the vaggeyakara himself — Thyagaraja of the Carnatic trinity.
It is incredibly fitting for the story of my musical lineage to begin in a town steeped in history.
The Tiruvarur Family
Our story begins with Tiruvarur Kunju Iyer, a well respected mridangam vidwan and grandfather of my guru Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan. While Kunju Iyer was a seasoned concert artist of repute, he was equal parts an inspirational teacher for many budding young artists. One student in particular, Vidwan Tiruvarur Krishnamurthy, was “overcome with emotion” upon speaking of Kunju Iyer during an interview in The Hindu. Kunju Iyer cultivated his students in musicians with a traditional sense of gurukulavasam — classes lasting for hours upon hours, helping with household chores, and perhaps most importantly instilling a bhajana sampradayam within the school. Kunju Iyer would regularly encourage his students to accompany bhajans during Radha Kalyanam and Sita Kalyanam festivals for practice, and often times for their enjoyment. This fondness of Kunju Iyer is relayed most clearly when Sri. Krishnamurthy mentions his frequent attempts at skipping school to head to Kunju Iyer’s house, and his guru “chasing him back to school”.
Kunju Iyer passed in perhaps the most befitting way, while playing mridangam after the mahadeeparadhana at a Radha Kalyanam festival. In his wake, he left behind the students who would nurture and spread the Tiruvarur school of percussion. His son, Sri. Tiruvarur Nagarajan, carried on the tradition and was responsible for much of my guru’s early training. Additionally, Sri. Krishnamurthy continued the Tiruvarur tradition both within and outside of his family. Although he remained relatively unknown in the concert circuit, mainly due to living outside of the Chennai area, Sri. Krishnamurthy took to crafting notable students including his nephew Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, Neyveli Skandasubramaniam and Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani who carry on the lineage of Kunju Iyer.
Poongulam Sabesa Iyer was another renowned mridangist to study under Kunju Iyer’s tutelage. A large presence in and around Kumbakonam, an article by The Hindu mentions that “there was hardly a leading vidwan whom he had not accompanied, including Ariyakudi, Madurai Mani Iyer and GNB.” Sabesa Iyer also emphasized the bhajana sampradayam which was instilled in him by his guru, receiving the Bhagavatha Sironmani from Swami Haridass Giri. Sabesa Iyer passed in 1995, but not before cultivating leading artists in the contemporary Carnatic scene including Poongulam Ramakrishnan, Poongulam Subramaniam, Kudanthai Saravanan and Arjun Ganesh.
Kunju Iyer was also the guru of Smt. N.S. Rajam, one of the first female mridangam artists to ascend the heights of the Carnatic world. Smt. Rajam in fact, went on to receive the prestigious title of Kalaimamani among a plethora of accomplishments in her career.
My own guru’s route, however, is distinguished by a trek off the beaten path and a penchant to perfect his own tradition. My guru, Sri. Tiruvarur Vaidyanathan, began learning at first from his grandfather (Kunju Iyer), and then from his uncle (Tiruvarur Nagarajan). From an early age, he was immersed in music and specifically in within the Tiruvarur bani. Descending from that very lineage, Kunju Iyer’s music coursed through his veins.
Although Sri Vaidyanathan trained extensively under the maestro Guru Karaaikudi Mani, he has retained a very particular vision of mridangam onto which he has augmented techniques rather than transforming it. This is not to say one particular vision of mridangam is necessarily better, but rather to explain more clearly why Sri. Vaidyanathan is distinct from comparable artists of Mani Sir’s school.
Vaidyanathan Sir’s style emphatically suggests the trademarks of the Tiruvarur bani. Since he was a young child, Vaidyanathan Sir built his technique and stamina primarily through bhajan accompaniment. A point he makes clear to his students during Radha Kalyanam events at his house in Chennai. While much of his technical arsenal, for example korvais and nadais, are reminiscent of Guru Karaaikudi’s style, his accompaniment is very much of the mellifluous sarva laghu variety. The Tiruvarur bani is also evident in other, more subtle ways, such as my own experiences with gurukulavasam — often times skipping school for days at a time for classes.
This article is meant as a primer to the Tiruvarur bani, and why it is unique in its own right. Understanding the nuances of this tradition and individual styles will require a whole series of articles, and potentially more recordings than I currently have access to. But for now, I leave you with this — the Tiruvarur bani is dynamic and rapidly changing. While some may claim that those whose gurus learned primarily from Kunju Iyer are the true torchbearers of this tradition, Sri. Vaidyanathan has without a doubt popularized and potentially refreshed the tradition of his own family. Whatever the consensus may be, I am absolutely ecstatic to hail from such a storied musical background.