“A good-looking man, his hair slicked down in the traditional way, sang like an angel with a delightful voice, husky at times, but never heavy throated or loud” – exclaimed Lakshmi Viswanathan, the Vice President of Music Academy Madras in her tribute to KVN when he passed away in 2002.
Kollengode Viswanatha Narayanaswamy a Carnatic musician par excellence, often referred to as KVN, was born on 15 November 1923 in Palghat in a family of musicians to fiddle Viswanatha Bhagavatar, a violinist of repute and Muthulakshmi Ammal. His grandfather was Narayana Bhagavatar and great-grandfather was Viswam Bhagavatar. Music was in his genes and KVN had his initial music training from his father and grandfather. He studied till middle school in Palghat and later moved to Coimbatore.
KVN began training extensively under the Mridangam legend Palghat Mani Iyer. He later trained under C.S.Krishna Iyer and Sangeetha Kalanidhi Papa Venkataramaiah. His father was keen to place KVN under the tutelage of Sangeetha Kalanidhi Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. However Mani Iyer waited for the right moment to place the young KVN under Ariyakudi and that moment arrived in 1942 when KVN came under the gurukulavasam of Ariyakudi. Since then, until Ariyakudi breathed his last, KVN remained a devoted zealous disciple of the latter.
KVN had a brief stint in movies as well. When he was 15 or 16 years of age, KVN’s father’s friend suggested to him that KVN could land an opportunity in movies. In those days, the primary requirement to act in films was an attractive personality, a good powerful voice, and knowledge of music. Since KVN met these requirements, he bagged an opportunity to act in a film as young Kannappan in Kannappa Nayanar. KVN fondly remembers that while they were shooting a scene in the forest, they were expected to sing and deliver the dialogue then and there since there were no technological facilities at that time and dubbing had not yet been introduced. He recalls that that movie ran for just four days in their town as the movie bombed. This was his first and last appearance in a film.
KVN delighted his rasikas both in India and abroad for four decades with his immense classicism, delightful voice and wide repertoire. His major break came at Madras Music Academy when he had to unexpectedly substitute his Guru Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who was not in a position to attend the conference under unforeseen circumstances. At this concert, which proved to be a milestone in his career, he was accompanied by doyens Palghat Mani Iyer and Papa Venkataramaiah. The sound training of rhythmic nuances under Palghat Mani Iyer made KVN feel at ease when accompanied by legendary musicians.
Some of the major music festivals where KVN was a part of Adelaide Arts festival in Australia, Berlin Music Festival in Europe, a coast-to-coast concert tour in the US, Dubai, Muscat and many more. He became the first Indian musician to be awarded the Fulbright scholarship and under this scholarship, he traveled to San Diego State University in California as an artist-in-residence and taught there for nine months. During this time, he toured the whole of North America and performed extensively.
KVN’s inimitable style
KVN’s rendition of Sri Venkatesham in Todi raga, a composition of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar.
Strict adherence to shruti, sahitya shuddham or lyrical purity and poignant rendition are the distinctive features of KVN’s music. Though he came from the Ariyakudi Bani, he developed his own distinct style over the years. He had a wide spectrum of students, whom KVN taught all the aspects of music such as voice culture, laya and performance techniques. KVN always encouraged full-throated style of singing. He encouraged the students to open up their voices and sing freely with full energy and vigor. KVN’s style of teaching is adjudged to be the best method of teaching. He would not compromise on raga bhava or laya. He was a perfectionist and would not let go until the student sang the way he envisioned a sangathi or a composition. For example, if a student did not get a sangathi correctly in the first instance, he would break down the sangathi and teach them in parts and when the student sang the whole sangathi in the manner KVN had envisioned it, a satisfied smile would appear on his face. This became a huge lesson to take back not just for the student whom he taught directly, but also the other students present there. KVN was not a rigid teacher. In fact if a student sang a new sangathi, KVN would analyze the sangathi and then approve of it genuinely. This is a rare quality that shows the humility of KVN that he was open to learn and accept new ideas from a student as well.
Time and again, it has been demonstrated that passion and commitment coupled with humility makes a complete musician.
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