Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan: Violinist whose work encompassed classical and popular music

As a violinist and composer, Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan was a powerhouse of creativity. Steeped in the customs, devotional austerities and elations, grammar and vocabulary of Carnatic art music, Vaidyanathan was also a revelator of musical unorthodoxy and adventurousness. The most astonishing aspect of his lengthy musical career was neither his reputation as a principal soloist nor the pantheon of notable musicians whom he accompanied or played with. Rather it was his straddling of and success in two musical camps at opposite extremes.

In fact Vaidyanathan's careerwas a judicious balancing act. In the one palm he held the inherent sobriety and seriousness of South Indian art music, and in the other the implicit headiness expected of the Indian film industry. That contrast is plain in two recordings: Vaulting with the Strings (2003) reveals his absolute command of art music, while Golden Krithis Colours (1999), which was co-credited to the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, reveals his mastery of popular music and orchestration, albeit grounded in raga forms. A major supplier of film music, he also appeared in the blockbuster Anniyan (2005), the most expensive Tamil film made up to that point – which, in the Indian manner, once dubbed into Telagu (as Aparachitidu) and Hindi (as Aparchit) became a hit three times over.

For anyone not attuned to the ways of Hinduism down south, probably what struck people first about Vaidyanathan was his forehead. Extending from his eyebrows upwards, he wore a good-sized vermillion splotch (pottu) of kumkum – a preparation of turmeric powder which, once combined with lime juice, turns into shades of red. Like a broad crescent over this, from ear to ear, he applied a stripe of vibhuti – holy ash made from dried cow dung baked to white purity. The story he told was that once a holy man had happened by. He asked the 13-year-old his name and whether he played the violin. Spying his vibhuti, the sage gave guidance on how to apply the vibhuti and kumkum "insignia" before vanishing. Vaidyana-than took it to be a manifestation of, and blessing from Lord Murugan, a Hindu deity close to Tamil hearts.

In the manner of many South Indian musicians' names, Vaidyanathan's also indicated lineage and locality. Often a place name supplies birth, residence or achievement signals. Kunnakudi – or Kunnakkudi – in present-day Tamil Nadu was where he was born. His father, Ramaswamy Sastri, sang and played a variety of instruments including the bamboo flute, jalatharangam (tuned, liquid-filled bowls brought to voice by sticks) and veena (crudely, the South's equivalent of today's sitar). Vaidyanathan's older siblings sang or played percussion. For centuries, the violin had become a primary instrument for accompanying the voice. When the violinist scheduled to accompany Vaidyanathan's sisters' performance failed to show and then, the next day, went further, goading his father and brother for not having produced a violinist, Vaidyanathan's fate was sealed. His guru-father began teaching him the violin.

Vaidyanathan went on to become one of India's greatest violinists. N. Rajagopalan's entry for Vaidyanathan in A Garland: a biographical dictionary of Carnatic composers & musicians (1990), opens: "A top performer, arresting violinist, innovator and an artiste of varied interests, Kunnakudi [sic] Vaidyanathan is a phenomenon and a class by himself." He was all that and more.

Ken Hunt

Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan, violinist and composer: born Kunnakkudi, Madras Presidency, India 2 March 1935; married (four sons, one daughter); died Chennai, India 8 September 2008.

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