Once upon a time, when the plane flew overhead

S.R. RAMAKRISHNA writes from Bangalore: Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, who died earlier this week, was a rare combination of violin maestro and clown.

One evening, as we sat listening to him at Visveswarapuram in Bangalore, a plane flew over the Ganesha pandal, its drone making his music inaudible.

He stopped in the middle of his raga exposition and looked skywards. The sound of the plane didn’t subside for a long time. The audience waited, slightly puzzled. It then dawned on them that Kunnakudi had captured the exact frequency of the plane, and was bowing out the sound from his violin!

His face broke out in a huge smile, and his wiry frame returned to the raga with furious energy.

Kunnakudi loved playing such pranks on his audience.

Like Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840), the Italian violinist who stunned the world with his unorthodox technique, Kunnakudi could do many startling things with his instrument. For instance, while he played a serious Tyagaraja kriti, he could suddenly swipe his bow on a string to mimic the sound of a whistle or catcall.

Kunnakudi lived alongside some great violinists: Lalgudi Jayaraman, T.N. Krishnan and M.S. Gopalakrishnan… Lalgudi distinguished himself with his unadulterated southern classicism, while Gopalakrishnan gravitated to northern (Hindustani) classicism, and adapted some of its stylisation in his playing.

(Gopalakrishnan’s LP record of Bhavanuta is a good example of the path he chose: it has a traditional Carnatic opening, and progresses into Hindustani style elaboration in the later improvisational passages).

As far as I know, the three legends did not play film songs at their concerts. Kunnakudi always played some towards the end of his concerts. He played Raj Kumar hits whenever he came to Bangalore. They sounded incongruous in a classical music setting. Some loved it, but those with more conservative tastes found it unacceptable. No one complained at the concerts though.

So was Kunnakudi a pioneer, an avant garde experimenter? I guess not. That last epithet can perhaps describe the veena player Chitti Babu, who created his own harmonic compositions using an ensemble of veenas. The veena is usually played solo, and the idea of a veena ensemble playing western style harmonies is in itself an innovation.

Kunnakudi did not attempt such experiments, although his son Shekar is an accomplished member of the Madras String Quartet, which plays a divine mix of classical Indian and Western compositions.

Kunnakudi came from an orthodox Brahmin family, and his father was a scholar in Tamil and Sanskrit. On his forehead, he wore a vermillion mark below a characteristic vibhuti arch. His orthodoxy did not stop him from romancing the movies. He even produced a film called Todi Ragam.

Earlier on, he had played the violin in the movie orchestras. Todi Raga wasn’t a hit, and it appears its hero, the famous vocalist T.N. Seshagopalan, didn’t much care for the experience either.

So where does Kunnakudi stand among his peers?

The pace of his music was too frenetic to make him a connoisseur’s delight. He was vigorous, he was good, he was entertaining, he was lovable, but when I feel like hearing a moving rendering of Mokshamu galada (Tyagaraja, raga Saramati), I play Lalgudi.

S.R. Ramakrishna is resident editor, Mid Day, Bangalore

Photograph: courtesy Wikipedia