In Carnatic music, it is often possible to identify an artiste from the demeanour of the audience as it streams out at the end of a performance. Such an exit poll would often show excited conversation, vehement arguments, eulogistic praise and sometimes sheer awe. For one artiste alone, the audience invariably left the hall in complete silence at the end of the performance. For that artiste invariably made the audience join him in worshipping music. It was a communion between a musician and many musical souls and that experience left the audience in a state of bliss for describing which silence was perhaps the best tribute. That artiste was KV Narayanaswamy or KVN as he was fondly referred to.
KVN was born on 15th November 1923 at Palakkad to Viswanatha Bhagavatar and Muttulakshmi. The father was a violinist. Grandfather Narayana Bhagavatar and great grandfather Viswam Bhagavatar were musicians in Krishna Attam performances, a dance form of Kerala and Viswam Bhagavatar had been honoured by Maharajah Ayilyam Tirunal of Travancore (r 1860-1880AD). From very early in life it was clear that KVN would shine as a musician and his conventional schooling was therefore given up when he was in standard VII. He had his initial musical training under his father and also his grandfather. His first concert took place when he was very young, at a village near Kollengode. His grandfather not wanting to intimidate the boy by his presence hid behind a pillar and was very proud to hear the audience appreciating the child. Indicating shades of forthcoming musical excellence, KVN spent hours at home singing with his head inside a mud pot because he loved the sound effects. None stopped him from this peculiar habit and it was perhaps due to this that he developed such an astounding sense of fidelity to pitch.
The mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer was a close friend of the family and took on KVN as his student. From Mani Iyer he learnt niraval and swara singing. Needless to add, a strict control over laya or time measures was instilled in him thanks to Mani Iyer. On Mani Iyer?s recommendation he also learnt music for a while from CS Krishna Iyer then resident at Kalpathi. In between there was a short film career as well in 1937 when KVN, who was extremely good looking by then was asked to act in a movie produced by BV Rao. The film bombed and KVN bade goodbye to films.
In early 1941, he was sent to Madras to observe and learn from violin maestro ?Papa? KS Venkataramiah. When ?Papa?s family moved to Tanjavur in 1942 following the evacuation of Madras, KVN followed suit. It was clear however that given his training under Mani Iyer and Papa, he would soon gravitate to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, the then numero uno in Carnatic music and the one whom both Mani Iyer and Papa literally worshipped. The introduction happened in Madras at Devakottai House, present day AVM Rajeshwari Kalyana Mandapam in Mylapore in 1942. KVN became a student in residence under Ariyakkudi?s care and soon became a faithful adherent of the Ariyakkudi bhani. He began accompanying his Guru in concerts and here again such was his unerring sense of pitch that he was always given the honour of tuning the tambura. Training under Ariyakkudi also meant performing several household chores along with other disciples such as B Rajam Iyer and Madurai Krishnan, all of which KVN cheerfully accepted as part of his tutelage. In the meanwhile his own career progressed and soon he was in demand. In 1947 he made his appearance at the December festival of the Music Academy, Madras. His first major concert in Madras city however was in 1954 when at the instance of Mani Iyer he stood in for his Guru who excused himself from a Music Academy performance. Over the years he emerged as the most popular concert performer in the Ariyakkudi tradition. However unlike his Guru who excelled in the madhyamakala or medium tempo, KVN began to specialize in the vilambakala or slow tempo as well. In this he was influenced by the styles of Musiri Subramania Iyer and the Veena Dhanammal family among whose members he leant padams and javalis from Jayammal, the mother of T Balasaraswathi. These influences gave a soft, soothing touch to his music and enhanced the bhava or emotional element.
As a result of these influences, a KVN concert had all the winning elements. The structure was largely Ariyakkudi?s, for KVN too began with a varnam and presented a number of pieces from what was truly an enormous repertoire. The songs he had learnt from Ariyakkudi were presented in the same style but with the little slower gait and enhanced emotion that were his own hallmarks. His knowledge of most south Indian languages ensured he presented the lyrics most faithfully. His niraval was superb and full of bhava. He invariably included a ragam tanam pallavi suite. The emotion laden shlokas and viruttams that he sang in the second half of his concerts were unparalleled. Among the end pieces the song ?varugalamo ayya? from the Nandan Charittiram of Gopalakrishna Bharati was an eternal favourite and in later years so was MD Ramanathan?s ?Sagara Shayana Vibho?.
KVN married Palghat Mani Iyer?s cousin Annapoorni in 1948. They had three daughters and a son. It was a happy union till her sudden death in 1962 leaving KVN bereft. In 1965 he married his own disciple Padma who later also began accompanying him in his concerts. He had a daughter through his second marriage. KVN was a man of great discipline true to his Gandhian ideals. At the same time he was loving and gentle and this resulted in several disciples attaching themselves to him. He taught them all with equal love and affection. In 1962, KVN joined the Central College of Carnatic Music Madras, now the Isai Kalluri and retired from there as Professor of Music in 1982.
KVN?s concert career spanned almost sixty years. He was a frequent performer in India and overseas locations throughout this period. His first major concert abroad was at the Edinburgh Music Festival in 1965. The same year he was invited by the Wesleyan University for a two year teaching stint. Many of the major awards came his way. These included the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy (1986), the Padma Shri (1976) and the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1976). Perhaps the award that in name best summed up his music was Nada Brahmam which was conferred on him by the Narada Gana Sabha in 2001.
KVN?s biography was written in Tamil by the veteran journalist and music lover Neelam in 2001. This was translated into English the same year by Justice VR Krishna Iyer who was a great admirer of KVN and his music. KVN passed away on 1st April 2002 after a lifetime in music, much mourned by fans all across the world.