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In Fond Memory : Sangeetha Kalanidhi T. Viswanathan (1927-2002)

Chandrika Govardhan

On September 10th 2002, the international music community lost one of its most acclaimed Flutist/Vocalist Sangeetha Kalanidhi T. Viswanathan. Having turned 75 this past August my uncle “Viswappa”, known as “Viswa” to others was going strong giving concerts, presiding and attending music/dance events in addition to holding a full-time faculty position as Adjunct Professor of Music at Wesleyan University. Viswappa was actually gearing up both as a performer and a organizer/host for the upcoming Navaratri celebration, an annual event that he initiated at Wesleyan in 1976. But fate took its course. His sudden demise due to heart failure has certainly left family, friends, colleagues and disciples in deep shock and grief.

Viswappa was born in an illustrious family of musicians and dancers. Indeed, for over two hundred years and several generations, the family has been a repository of the Carnatic tradition in its pristine glory. His grandmother was the legendary Veena Dhanammal who bore four daughters Rajalakshmi, Lakshmiratnam, Jaymammal and Kamakshi all of whom were expert musicians and respected teachers. Of the offsprings generated by the four sisters, the dancer Balasaraswati, Ranganathan (mridanga vidwan) and Viswappa(flute/vocal) from Jayammal’s family and Brinda(vocal), Muktha(vocal) and Abhiramasundari(violin) from Kamakshi Ammal’s family blossomed into excellent well-famed artists. With the passing of Viswappa, there is only surviving member of that generation, namely, Mukthamma, 89 years old. Muktha amma was conferred an honor this past spring at the Thiagaraja festival in Cleveland, Ohio at which time she gave a nonstop two hour vocal performance rendering kritis, padams and javalis in the family style and enchanting the audience.

Viswappa learnt flute from Tiruppambaram Swaminatha Pillai and his mother would polish the compositions imbibing the Dhanammal syle into it. Viswappa started accompanying his guru in concerts when he was just 11 years old and his solo performance career began in the early 1940’s. Stalwarts such as Papa Venkatarama Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai would be his accompaniment on other instruments. Later on, his brother Ranga provided mridangam acompaniment for the most part. Together, the brothers accompanied their sister Balasaraswati and later Lakshmi Bala’s daughter at Bharat Natyam performances in India and all over the world.

In the late 1950, Viswappa went to study ethnomusicology at UCLA on a Fulbright grant. Upon completion, he returned to India and worked at the Madras University for five years. He later returned to the United States to earn a Ph.D in ethnomusiocolgy from Wesleyan and has stayed there ever since, teaching music. His students considered him a teacher par excellence – patient, sincere, humorous and energetic. Viswappa invented his own style of notating Carnatic an extremely difficult and complicated task because of the gamakas involved. His in depth knowledge of theory allowed him to notate every detail of the gamakas facilitating Westerners to learn South Indian music. Several of his disciples have moved on to have an illustrious music career themselves among whom are several foreigners one in particular, the late Jon Higgins.

Viswappa’s music essentially was in the Dhanammal tradition, a rather unique style that is hard to imitate unless you are trained in that style. Viswappa adapted and evolved the technique of flute playing that brought out the depth and grandeur and richness of the family style. The slow tempo along with stress on deep gamakas really lets the audience appreciate the music and its nuances. He always interspersed his flute playing with vocal renditions of th etext bringing out the passion ans enotions even more. Much of my exposure to the family style came after I came to Wesleyan as a graduate student in the chemistry department. In fact it was due to Rangappa and Viswappa’s efforts and recommendations that I came to Wesleyan for which I am truly very grateful. They also provided tremendous moral support. I was also fortunate in other ways. Knowing very well that I was clueless when it came to music, Viswappa still let me share the music podium with him by letting me play the Sruti box at Williams College in Massachusetts.

I have a long list of favorite songs that I enjoy listening to when he renders it but three songs that are a real treat to listen to are “Ka Va Va, Kandha Va Va” in Varali ragam and the Vituttams “Varadh-irunthal” and “Vithi Illarku” for such passion, devotion and emotion can be heard and felt in the music. I was hoping to hear the Ka Va Va song one more time at this year’s Navaratri celebartion but Viswappa did not live long enough to take my request. I will certainly miss his music, charm, tease, smile (see photo) and enthusiasm for years to come. Peace.

(Dr. Chandrika Govardhan is the niece of T. Viswanathan. She has a PhD in chemistry is currently working at Altus biologics. )

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