The most striking thing about Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan was the ruddy disc of kumkum embossed on his broad forehead like the motif on the Japanese flag. Next most striking, right below the kumkum, were his eyes—restlessly darting about in merriment and mischief, hardly glancing at his violin, probing his audience for reactions and signs of pleasure.
Kunnakudi, who died on 8 September at the age of 75, was one of Carnatic music’s most colourful personalities, and not just for his electric blue kurtas and glittering shawls. The violin, with its pliable sound, was his bait of choice to draw, as he put it, the common music lover into the fold of Carnatic connoisseurs. I remember watching a performance of his on video, many years ago, and being startled at how, in the middle of a raga alapana, he would introduce strains of a popular film song in the same raga. He also composed film scores extensively, introducing a Carnatic touch into the soundtracks of more than 40 movies.
“What is wrong if I have my serious ragas and kritis (songs) in the main course and stick to light numbers as my tail-enders?” Kunnakudi once said in an interview. “Isn’t every music born out of swaras (notes)?” It wasn’t just “light numbers”, however; Kunnakudi could coax out of his violin the sound of birds, of water flowing, of storms and thunder, of waves crashing upon the shore. In one concert, a story goes, a baby in the audience let out a cry in the middle of a Kunnakudi exposition. Immediately and perfectly, Kunnakudi reproduced the sound of that cry on his violin.
But make no mistake—behind that puckish spirit was a complete mastery of the instrument, born out of a career that started at the age of 10. Even when he was barely a teenager, Kunnakudi had begun accompanying the redoubtable stalwarts of the art—Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. In time, with his contemporaries T. N. Krishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman, Kunnakudi began popularizing the idea of the solo violin performance.
There were, inevitably, some critics of Kunnakudi’s style of playing. You often heard the Tamil word “konashtai”, a word only inadequately translated as “gimmickry”, applied to many of his innovations. In Carnatic music, that is a particularly harsh indictment. But many, many fans preferred to think of it as simply an extension of his gregarious nature, and of his desire to speak, with his violin, to as many people as he possibly could.
For many years, Kunnakudi was also the secretary of the Thyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha, which conducts the festival in honour of the composer Thyagaraja every year in a town named Tiruvaiyaru. That was where I saw him last, in January 2006. According to custom, the attending musicians and devotees sat and sang on either side of a bare aisle—bare, that is, except for Kunnakudi sitting and playing in its very centre. I was some distance away, but even from there, I could make out the kumkum, and I could see his dancing eyes rake the crowds. And even through the din of the chorus, I could pick out the sharp, clear sound of his violin.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org