The period between 1930 and 1965 is considered glorious in Carnatic Music and several stalwarts strode the field. Some were top-ranking performers; others were noted for their in-depth knowledge which they preferred to impart to students, at the same time pursuing a concert career. TK Rangachari falls into the latter category.
Born on 3rd June 1912, TK Rangachari came from a family that originally hailed from the village of Thandalam. His early memories were of the songs sung very sweetly by his mother and music took such a grip on his mind that he preferred it over conventional schooling. He was also greatly moved by the powerful nagaswaram performances that took place in the great temples of South India. He once said, ?The rich sonority of the nagaswaram of Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai, Tirumarugal Natesa Pillai and his nephew Rajarathinam Pillai, Nagoor Subbiah, the Keeranoor Brothers and others who became legendary figures pervaded the whole of the South like a perfume and stirred one?s sensibilities?. But the tavil, used as an accompaniment in nagaswaram performances fascinated him even more and he would drum on any conceivable surface at home. His family nicknamed him ?Tavil Rangan?.
Initiation into music happened at the hands of a legendary figure- Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar. Iyengar who was a contemporary of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan and Patnam Subramania Iyer was the guru of such greats as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar. He was living towards the end of his life in Srirangam and young Rangan was five or six when he went to stay with his maternal grandmother in that temple-town. An introduction was made and Iyengar began teaching him. He later apprenticed under Kodaganallur Subbiah Bhagavatar, a teacher who, according to Rangachari was known for ?his open mind about Hindustani music combined with deep devotion to Carnatic music, his ability in the briga and niraval in three speeds and his laya vinyasam which was worthy of note?.
In 1928, the Music College in Chidambaram was begun by Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar and Rangan wanted to train there when he grew old enough to be admitted. Armed with a letter of introduction from the arts-personality and secretary of the Music Academy, E Krishna Iyer, he applied for admission. The entrance test involved demonstrating the difference between the two closely allied ragas Nayaki and Darbar to stalwarts TS Sabhesa Iyer, Ponniah Pillai, Desamangalam Subramania Iyer and Madras Balakrishna Iyer. He was not only accepted but also allowed to skip the first year.
TK Rangachari?s debut concert took place at the Pattamadai High School, Tirunelveli and his rendering of Tyagaraja?s ?Dwaitamu Sukhama? (raga Ritigaula) electrified the audience. His progress as a concert-artiste was slow, given that he was a latecomer and several of his contemporaries had, through the traditional gurukula system, made their debuts much earlier than he. But he did make a mark as an artiste who was known for purity of style. His voice was mellow and pleasing marked by elegant modulation. His renditions were methodical, building up ragas step by step, with careful planning. But he was never mechanical and this brought about freshness in his concerts. The veteran music critic and historian BVK Sastry wrote that what Rangachari presented was ?colourful, evocative and featured a delicious blend of the classical and lyrical aspects of the art. This applied no less to his rhythm in niraval or swara. He sang with refreshing vivacity. By the overall sprightliness of his music and the underlying lively imagination, he impressed and secured the esteem of the cognoscenti by bringing the features to regions bordering on the exotic but never over-stepping traditional limits?. Asked about his creativity, Rangachari was characteristically modest and claimed inspiration from Tiger Varadachariar for his originality of ideas, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar for his artistic swarakalpana, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar for his methodical planning and refined sense of design, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer for his spontaneity and Veena Dhanammal for her spiritual fervour?. But the greatest influences in his music he said were from Sabhesa Iyer and Ponniah Pillai, both his tutors at the Music College.
TK Rangachari literally deified Papanasam Sivan and said that in ?his works he felt and enjoyed the real spirit and soul of Carnatic music?. Rangachari was somewhat responsible for making well-known the greatness of Sivan as a Tamil composer. For he sang the latter?s ?Paamalaikku inai undo?, Sivan?s Harikamboji tribute to Subramania Bharati, in a Tamil Isai competition at the Annamalai University in 1940. This was noticed and Sivan?s compositions received a big boost in popularity.
Besides being a concert artiste, Rangachari was a staff-member of the Music College of the Annamalai University in Chidambaram for over thirty years. He also taught for a while at the Central College of Carnatic Music in Madras. He did not release many commercial recordings either on 78 rpm or LP. The Tamil version of the Venkatesa Suprabhatam was set to music by him. He also sang, along with MM Dandapani Desigar, verses of the Divya Prabandham in traditional Tamil Panns for the Tamil Isai Sangam and the AIR.
TK Rangachari passed away in 1979. Among his disciples was Vairamangalam Lakshminarayanan who passed away a few years ago. Yet another well known disciple is vidushi Neela Ramgopal. His own daughter Mallika Jayanth Kumar and grandson DB Ashwin carry on the tradition. In 1984 a concert recording of TK Rangachari was released commercially. His recordings, though hard to come by, are treasures for they show music as it ought to be sung.