Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar: The Trailblazer

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar: The Trailblazer

“I was greatly influenced by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. I do not want another life. But if there is one, I want to be able to sing like Ramanuja Iyengar” exclaimed the doyen of Carnatic Music, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar popularly known as Ariyakudi, was born in  Ariyakudi, a town in Karaikudi district near Tamil Nadu, in 1890, to Tiruvenkatacharya, who was a famous astrologer and veda exponent.

Music Initiation

Ariyakudi started learning under Pudukoti Malayappa Iyer at the age of 11. He then continued under Namakkal Pallavi Narasimha Iyengar. Then eventually for a period 12 years, he learned under Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar (also known as Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar), a senior disciple of Patnam Subramanya Iyer.

Ariyakudi practiced in the gurukula system. He performed in a concert in front of his Guru at the wedding of a Chettiar family and gained appreciation of stalwarts and scholars. This debut concert of his opened doors of fame. Next he performed at the famed Tiruvayyaru Thyagaraja Aradhana and won accolades. Since then, he started performing regularly and independently and there was no looking back for this stalwart. Though he rose to great heights, he never stopped learning. It is said that he practiced Veena under Karaikkudi brothers, to perfect his gamakas. He also learnt a couple of compositions from Veena Dhanammal and many attributed his short but crisp alapana style to being influenced by Dhanammal style.

Contribution to Music

Ariyakudi is regarded as the architect of the current day concert format. His concerts never failed to impress the audience, the reason being his unique concert format. Ariyakudi’s concert started with a Varna, followed by a couple of brisk compositions (kritis). He rendered raga alapana, neraval and swara prastara for each composition, though briefly. Everything was moderate. This was followed by raga, tana, pallavi, which lasted not more than half an hour. Lighter compositions or tukkadas, as they are called, like ashtapadi, javali, dasarapada, verses from Tiruppavai followed the RTP. He concluded the concert with a tillana. This concert format, where there was never a dull moment or feeling of boredom throughout the concert, was well accepted by audience and soon became a rage and was expected from other musicians as well and is followed till date.

Ariyakudi has to his credit, of introducing the largest number of lesser known compositions of the Trinity, pallavis and tukkadas. He composed the tune for Andal Devi’s Tiruppavai’s 30 compositions, compositions of Arunachala Kavi’s “Rama Nataka”, sang them regularly in his concerts and popularized them. He was instrumental in reforming the way Pancharatna kritis were rendered in Thiruvayyaru during Thyagaraja Aradhana.

Some of his prized students are Palghat K. V. Narayanaswamy, B. Rajam Iyer, and Madhurai Krishnan, who carried on his legacy.

Ariyakudi Style

Ariyakudi reached the peak of his career during 1930s. It was at this time when the concert platform was devoid of stalwarts like Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, his Guru Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, Madhurai Pushpavanam Iyer. He had mastered the art of singing continuously for 4-5 hours, letting his listeners sink in his divine music and held their attention by adhering to wholly dignified methods. His aesthetic refinement, natural and effortless voice culture and his laya values created an abiding reverential admiration. Though his style of singing looked easy, it was very difficult to achieve.

The distinct and fundamental attributes of our classical system are its “Gamaka shuddha”, the prime importance given to madhyama kala and the strict maintenance and a neat mixture of Chowka, Madhya and Drutha kalas, the appropriate use of the correct kala pramana and the necessary gamakas in the phrases. These are illustrated very well in his style. This, his gift for Gamaka shuddham and madhyama kala, makes us yearn more for his music. Full-throated and the undeflected middle position of the chin and face, the mouth, neither too open nor too closed, the use of pure akaaras- these were the key ingredients for the divinity in his music and musical longevity. His swara prastara was soothing to the ears and mind, as it did not involve too much mathematics. He brought out the essence of the raga, or raga bhava within the first few seconds of starting the raga alapana. He knew compositions of various languages like telugu, tamil, kannada, marathi, hindi etc. Ariyakudi’s concert was enjoyed by scholars and laymen alike.

Some of his popular renditions are of the kritis evarimata, anupama gunaambudhi, dinamani vamsha,sri venkatesham, ramakathasudha, sheshachalanaayakam,rajuvedale etc.

“Anupama Gunaambudhi” rendition of Ariyakudi:

Ariyakudi – the magnetic personality

He was a man who believed in dignity and stood by his principles. With all his equipment, musical, and temperamental, he rose by sheer merit to eminence. Distinguished people and patrons sought him. He, being such a graceful, pleasing and inoffensive person, never disappointed them. Inspite of a successful career, he never used his art for personal gains. He always placed his musical ideals in a high pedestal and stood by them and never sacrificed his ideals or make any concessions thereof to please a particular section of the public. He is one musician with the real sense of humility. The great concern he showed for the success of his performance, how he spent time on a performance day, avoiding sleep in the afternoon even at that age and doing musical “mananam” all the time, these indicated what reverence he had for the art and how humble he was.

With Ariyakudi’s death, a musical era came to an end. He effectively exploded the myth and illusion which were prevalent for a long time that “Sampradhaya” and tradition were not pleasing to the ear. The music world is and should be indebted to him for the service he has rendered in stabilizing and presenting our prasiddha and rakthi ragas in their true basic and traditional form and with their characteristic and unmistakable sancharas, sangathis and prayogas.

Other Famous Musicians to Follow


  1. Ariyakudi will always remain the greatest exponent of carnatic music and he was one of the closest to Saint Thiagaraja and a devoured Rama chakra.
    I had the great fortune to sit and hear his concerts just NEAR the stage and the experience was so divine .My memory is still fresh after 75 years ,that is the impression of his radiant personality.He is immortal

    1. What a fascinating experience that might have been, Mr. Narasimhan! Thanks for sharing with us! 🙂

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