Why should anybody in north India care that 76-year-old Carnatic violinist, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, passed away on Tuesday in Chennai? Because this is one man who tried his best to make the rarefied world of Carnatic music accessible to the masses. “He took the glory of Carnatic music to the greatest number of people with strategic thoroughness, from his huge, red attention-grabbing tilak to his orchestration for Bharata Natyam ballets by dancer Krishnakumari Narendran,” said dancer Anita Ratnam. “He did not hesitate to put a saxophone next to a veena or keyboard.”
Born in 1932 into a purohit family in Kunnakudi, Tamil Nadu, and rigorously trained in the violin, Vaidyanathan had the opportunity to accompany the greatest Carnatic vocalists of the 20th century — Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Maharajapuram Vishwanathan Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and many others. In the 1970s, when he had acquired sufficient stature, he became a soloist himself, playing an eclectic mix of classical, devotional and film compositions in his concerts. It was unheard of, but wholly delightful, as the mass attendance at his shows attested.
“Make no mistake, his knowledge of Carnatic music was vast and deep. But he made good use of his film and political connections, of his passionate love for Tamil and his keen sympathy for young talent, to serve the cause of Carnatic music, even getting railway concessions for artistes,” says Carnatic violinist Lalgudi GJR Krishnan, son of maestro Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. Kunnakudi also masterminded the massive annual Thyagaraja Aradhana in homage to the 18th century saint-composer at his native Thiruvaroor.
“It took great organisational skill and media savvy to pull that off, he was amazing! He related cordially with every musician,” said Krishnan.