Devoted Sishya, Beloved Guru: PS Narayanaswamy (24 February 1934 - 16 October 2020)
PS Narayanaswamy, who succumbed on 16th October to a chronic ailment that had troubled him for the past few years, was a true musician’s musician, who sang in a vibrant akara-oriented voice without frills or fireworks. His musical lineage boasted early grounding in the Semmangudi bani.
My first encounter with Ludwig Pesch, now internationally known as an authority on Carnatic music and the author of monumental works on related subjects, was in 1982 or so when sitting on the steps outside the Kalakshetra auditorium, he loudly denounced electronically amplified Indian art music on the proscenium stage of a large hall. “It is meant for intimate gatherings in private spaces,” he thundered. My first reaction was to mutter angrily, “Who the hell are you kurta-clad European to try and save our arts from us?” What made me angrier was the fact that he was right. Over the decades, though, Ludwig and I have become friends, and I have come to realise that he has done more than many of us to promote genuine Indian classical arts in the West.
In the years that followed, I was lucky enough to listen to many chamber concerts, including Hindustani music baithaks, even though most of them might have been even more authentic and enjoyable had they dispensed with the use of microphones. These informal cutcheris often offered a window of opportunity to listen to musicians who were no longer crowd-pullers, thanks to their refusal to play to the gallery, or the nuanced sophistication of their music-making that needed a certain highly developed aesthetic sensibility to appreciate. The late flautist T Viswanathan of the Dhanammal school was a standout purveyor of such layered raga music to small audiences in private homes during his annual visits to Chennai from his US home. “My music is for ears attuned to it,” he once prefaced one of these recitals with. “I find it difficult to perform before such a big crowd.” When I did a quick headcount, I found exactly 42, men and women, present.
If listening to Viswa was often a sublime experience that made you feel you belonged to a charmed circle, I must thank my friend Ramesh who lives in Bahrain, for introducing me to the world of Jaga Jagadiswaran—a musician-rasika from Singapore-Malaysia—who for years in the 1990s offered an even more exclusive musical treat. On the 16th of every month, he invited friends and lucky strangers to a vocal recital by his guru PS Narayanaswamy at his ground-floor Abhiramapuram flat. It was thought the date of the monthly concert was based on the assumption that PSN had been born on 16th February 1934.
PSN, who succumbed on 16th October to a chronic ailment that had troubled him for the past few years, was a true musician’s musician, who was never a raging hit on the cutcheri circuit. He sang in a vibrant akara-oriented voice without frills or fireworks. He was proud of his musical lineage, which boasted early grounding in the Semmangudi bani when Srinivasa Iyer initiated him into it while teaching at the Swati Tirunal Music College in Tiruvananthapuram. PSN—Pichai to family and friends, named so in the manner of children born after long years of prayer by their parents—remained a loyal sishya of his guru all his life. Though you could not accuse him of false modesty, he was never afraid of confessing that he was no master of musical pedagogy, no authority on the Sangita Ratnakara or the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini. If his humility was genuine, so was his pride in his legacy and the pathantara he followed and carried forward faithfully; you only need to witness the scores and scores of sishyas that advertised their allegiance to him like a badge of honour. Surely, he did not know many of them individually, one used to wonder at least half-seriously. The surest way to confirm the authenticity of such claims made by young aspirants was to attend their concerts. PSN rarely missed them, making it a point to sit in the front row from start to finish. The feedback he gave was invaluable: even while striking a corrective note, he made sure the criticism was constructive. When he praised, he did so wholeheartedly, never adopting a note of condescension.
I was a fan of PSN’s clean, no-nonsense musicianship marked by a deep appreciation of ragas cultivated through rigorous practice of the exemplary creations of the Trinity and other composers. At Tiruvaiyaru and numerous venues in Chennai, he was an unfailing participant, often in a leadership role in the Tyagaraja aradhana group-singing. To him, the quiet, austere homage to the bard on the banks of the Kaveri on Mahasivaratri night was as worthy a cause as the more glamorous annual aradhana on a much larger scale, under the glare of the national media, if not more important.
PSN felt for Muttuswami Dikshitar’s masterly oeuvre of altogether more mystical and scholarly compositions just as much as he cared for Tyagaraja’s spontaneous outpourings on God, the human dilemma and music itself, but in my opinion, he and his fellow Semmangudi sishyas drank deeply of Syama Sastri’s grand compositions, especially the swarajatis in Bhairavi, Todi and Yadukulakambhoji. When they rendered these masterpieces individually or in a group, they succeeded in giving expression to the very essence of Carnatic music.
Yes, Narayanaswamy was a musician’s musician, and an able, dedicated guru, but he was known as a good man more than anything else. Any disappointment at not being honoured with the Sangita Kalanidhi award, the ultimate title in his domain, must have been tempered by the satisfaction of producing so many sishyas who may one day achieve that distinction—and at least one who has already done so. And Sangita Kala Acharya—the Music Academy’s recognition of his eminence as a guru—does describe him perfectly, doesn’t it?
(Image credit: psnarayanaswamy.org)