Face to face with T.K. Murthy

Shruti, Worldspace Satellite Radio’s 24 hour Carnatic music channel broadcast a 2 hour “face to face” program on 14th Aug 2007 that featured veteran mrudangam maestro Shri T.K. Murthy. I am posting a few excerpts from the same based on the notes I took. The entire conversation was in Tamil while the notes below are in English. This is not a verbatim translation.

Shruti channel is doing some commendable work and is a boon especially for people located in places where not many Carnatic concerts take place. I just hope it keeps going great guns like this.

Vidwan Shri T.K. Murthy

on his early years …..

I was born in Neyyathangarai. It is enroute from Tiruvananthapuram to Kanyakumari. I was born opposite the Krishna temple and hence got the name Krishnamurthy. I was born on a Wednesday, on the 13th of Aug 1924. I don’t know how I was able to play mrudangam when I was 7 itself. I used to listen to a lot of good mrudangam players. My family was a musical family. We were vidwans of the Trivandrum palace.

I was taken to Tanjavur when I was 9 by Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer for getting trained in mrudangam. My first concert was when I was 10. Musiri Subramanya Iyer was singing, Karur Chinnaswamy Appa was on the violin, Tanjavur Viadyanatha Iyer was on the mrudangam and I played along with him.

My next concert was at the Mysore palace. Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer was singing with Mysore Chowdiah on the violin and my teacher Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer on the mrudangam. Though I refer to him as a teacher, he was like my father. That year in 1934, the palace honored me for my playing and gave me Rs. 1000.

When I was 15, I started playing for MS. I have played for her for 55 years and toured all over the world with her. She considered me as her younger brother and showered a lot of affection on me. I considered her as my elder sister.

I started learning vocal but somehow got into mrudangam. No one at home knows how I started playing mrudangam. I even played in the palace. Everyone in the palace was very affectionate towards me. That was the period when Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer spotted me and took me with him for training me.

about his guru Sri Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer ……

Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer’s style is a very great style of playing the mrudangam. I, Palghat Mani Iyer, Umayalpuram Sivaraman and many others learnt from him. He was like a father to me. I stayed with him and used to sleep in his bed. He used to treat me and Palghat Mani Iyer as his sons and showered a lot of affection on us. He was a relative of the great singer Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan. He was a very great vidwan. The way mrudangam is played today is all due to him.

He didn’t become famous to the extent he should have. He used to tell things very frankly. If he didn’t like something, he told that very frankly. May be he didn’t become famous because of this.



on the Tanjavur and Pudukkottai styles of mrudangam playing …..

Pudukkottai style is Mammoondia Pillai’s style. It is the style in which Palani Subramaiam Pillai played. Mammoondia Pillai was a great musician. It is a good style. We have a liking for it. But Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer’s style is the one that is prevalent today . Mammoondia Pillai style no longer exists (in its original form?) today.

Narayanaswamy Appa can be considered to be the originator (of modern mrudangam playing?). His student was Sundar Rao. I have listened to him play. The pharans played today were not played in those olden days. Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer made the pharans. He specified ways of playing for varnams, kritis, pallavis etc. It is his style – the Tanjavur style, that is prevalent today.


about Sri Palani Subramaniam Pillai …..

Subramaniam Pillai was a great musician and a genius. I had great regards for his style of playing. He was very intelligent. He didn’t get any rewards or recognition. I feel very bad that no such recognitions as Sangeetha Kalanidhi came to him. I play some things I like in Subramaniam Pillai style also. Not only his, I like styles of many maestros from the past like Kumbakonam Azhaganambia Pillai. The pharans we play before mora in taniavartanam are predominant in Tanjavur style.



about four unforgettable experiences in his life ……


1. Musiri Subramania Iyer and Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer were very good friends. When Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer was playing for Musiri, I was asked to play along with him, though I had not gone there with the intention of playing. Musiri used to sing at 4 kattai pitch in those days. This was a great experience and was the first concert I played after joining Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer.

2. I had this intention of watching the Dusshera festival at Mysore and expressed my desire to see the same to my guru. He took me along with him for a concert of Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer where Chowdiah was on the violin and my guru was playing the mrudangam. The navaratri festival was happening there. Muthiah Bhagavathar asked me to play there. I said I hadn’t brought a mrudangam along. He said he will give me one and asked me to play. After my guru and I played, the maharaja – Krishnaraja Wodeyar gave me Rs. 1000. It was in 1935. He also honored us. He also expressed interest in hearing me play separately and I played in a separate concert the next day.

3. The third was the occasion of the marriage of violin vidwan Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai’s eldest daughter. My guru was playing there. I went just to listen to the concerts there. Karaikkudi brothers were playing veena and Dakshinamurthy Pillai was on mrudangam. Accompanying the stalwarts like Chembai, Ariyakkudi, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer etc on the subsequent days there were great mrudangam maestros like my guru Vaidyanatha Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyer & Kumbakonam Azhaganambia Pillai. I went there with a lot of interest to listen to all of these vidwans. I played for Ramanuja Iyengar’s concert. After that Ramanuja Iyengar and Viswanatha Iyer gave me lot of concert opportunities.

4. We were going to Trivandrum once and Lalgudi Jayaraman’s uncle Lalgudi Kandasamy Iyer (?) had a concert in Trivandrum. Keshava Bhagavathar was singing there with Kandasamy Iyer on Violin and my guru on mrudangam. I went there to listen to the concert and to meet my brother in Trivandrum. I didn’t go to play for the concert. I looked like a zamindar’s son. I was very well dressed and had diamond kadukkan. The musicians there came to know that I play the mrudangam. I was given an opportunity to play there.


on some of the great vidwans he accompanied who are no longer alive today …..

Muthiah Bhagavathar was one of the most intelligent persons ever to live in this world. He used to sing well and had a great saareeram.

Tiger Varadachariar and Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Iyer were one of the greatest singers. My ears can still hear them singing.

Ramudu Bhagavathar, a great grandson of Saint Tyagaraja was also a very great singer with a good saareeram.


on the role of a supportive accompanist and on how to play for songs ……


One must listen to how the past masters played, what they played, how they played for different songs etc. Hearing is very important to learning.

Pattu gnanam (Knowledge of songs) is very essential. Just knowing to play the mrudangam alone is not sufficient. One must know how to play for songs. Taniavartanam is just like doing homework and telling about it in school. Taniavartanam is like playing what was taught. It is like writing an exam. Playing for a song is where intelligence comes out.


There are some kritis in 2 kalai chaukam. Vasikka aarambikkambodhu “amuthanum”. (Gave two examples of the same using konnakkol).

In the olden days, there was mrudangam accompaniment for raga alapana also, the way thavil vidwans play these days (for nadaswaram alapanais). Mrudangam accompaniment was there for tanam singing also, though these days it is only there in Tiruvanantapuram/Tiruvanantapuram palace (Navaratri Utsavam)


I had the opportunity to hear to Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Azhaganambia Pillai’s mrudangam playing. It is only due to listening to them that I got the ability to play whatever I am able to today.


on the difference between the way accompaniment for songs was done in the past and the way it is done today …..


The way mrudangam accompaniment is played today is nothing when compared to the way it was played in those days. People might come to fight with me because I have told something like this. The way mrudangam accompaniment is played in concerts today is different from the way it was played in the past. Today people don’t like the way it was played in the past. This is why probably people don’t call me to play in concerts today.

on the link between music and bhakti …….

Tyagaraja sang and Lord Rama came. Muthuswami Diskhitar sang and Lord Murugan came. Shyama Sastri sang and Goddess Kamakshi came. Purandaradasa sang and Lord Narayana came. Who comes when we sing? They forgot themselves when they sang. That is bhakti. They were totally devoted to their God.



It is not like the way we sing today. These days we pray that we will go to the temple and break 2 coconuts if we get 1 lakh rupees or if a marriage gets fixed.

We most totally surrender to God.



his advice to youngsters …….

They should listen to elders playing the instrument. They must do hard work. I was fully dedicated to the instrument. I didn’t do anything else. When I used to practice, Palghat Mani Iyer and a few others also used to join and we used to play for hours together. We used to do a lot of hard work which reflected in our playing.

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