My guru Neyveli Narayanan sir is conducting his annual function in the memory of his guru Thanjavur Upendran soon:
I have been meaning to talk about Thanjavur Upendran (or Upendransir as my guru calls him) for a while now, and the apropos time has finally come.
The photo above is accurate; Thanjvaur Upendran was a left-handed mrudangist, but to my knowledge did not face the same hardship that Palani Subramania Pillai faced. Nonetheless, he had a very bright career as a Carnatic musician, which was cut short by his untimely demise at the age of 52. His memory is kept alive today by his students (most prominently my guru). Other students of Thanjavur Upendran include Thanjavur K. Murugabhoopathi and Thanjavur Kumar. I should also mention that Upendransir’s grandson, Thanjavur Praveen Kumar, is an outstanding upcoming young mrudangist. Oftentimes the gift for music skips a generation or two; there are numerous cases of not the children, but the grandchildren of famous musicians also having a gift for music.
Thanjavur Upendran developed an extremely distinct, unique style. He was well known for his finesse in accompaniment, which led to him being extremely in demand throughout his career. He played for all the famous musicians of his era, such as M. Balamuralikrishna, D. K. Jayaraman, Maharajapuram V. Santhanam, Dr. S. Ramanathan, T. R. Subramaniam, T. R. Mahalingam (flute Mali), N. Ramani, and Chittibabu, among others. He also accompanied female artists, including the Sikkil Sisters (flute) and M. L. Vasanthakumari. He was very meticulous in tuning his instruments – he was a fickler for perfection of the sruthi and only ever used kappi mrudangams. I’ve learned some of these aspects along the way; when checking the sruthi, the chapu, dhin, and nam strokes must all be aligned. Most vidwans do not check all three of these. The meetu must also be at the same sruthi; in fact sometimes Upendransir (and my guru) tune the mrudangam on the meetu alone! His style of accompaniment was very sensitive, and he was always quick to adjust his approach to that of the main artist; he was very popular with veena artists due to this reason.
This is a video of a concert from Mysore with D. K. Jayaraman (vocal) and M. Chandrashekaran (violin).
Above all, he is remembered today for his personality moreso than his music. I have read stories by so many of today’s mrudangam vidwans (including Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam and Mannargudi Easwaran, among others) who acknowledged the help and encouragement they got from Thanjavur Upendran at the slow points in their careers. I still remember when I met the late Thiruvengadu Jayaraman (my sister was taking vocal lessons from him), he had remarked “You are Narayanan’s student? Good. He was Thanjavur Upendran’s student… who himself was a true gentleman!”. Upendransir was very close with a lot of artists. In fact, he was the person who convinced Balamuralikrishna to settle in Chennai and initially used to accompany him a lot in concerts. Upendran later did the same with U. Srinivas, convincing him and his father to shift to Chennai from Andhra Pradesh. Upendransir used to take Srinivas to all the sabha secretaries as a kid and tell them to arrange his concerts, staking his reputation on him!
To describe Upendransir’s playing style and the resulting bani he established is tough. But, there are a few key points that can be made. I liken Thanjavur Upendran to his contemporary S. Kalyanaraman. Both were unsung innovators in Carnatic Music; I often tell my students “what Kalyanaraman was to vocal music, Thanjavur Upendran was for mrudangam!”. As far as I can tell with what little I have learned and what research I have conducted, Upendransir was the only mrudangist to actually incorporate tavil kannaku and other aspects in his style. This was because his father-in-law was none other than the legendary tavil vidwan Valangaiman Shanmughasundaram Pillai! The tavil influence came in the form of sollus based on meetu strokes to mimic the sound of the tavil, as well as the development of sankirna nadai. Most mrudangam vidwans shy away from playing sankirnam because the calculations often end up with non-integral values for each beat (4.5 as opposed to 3,4,5,7 or 8 per beat). But Upendransir formulated the nadai in an aesthetically pleasing format for mrudangam, cleanly developing 2 speeds and various korvais and nadais for each. There are stories that Upendransir and the late kanjira vidwan G. Harisankar used to explore sankirnam in their thaniavarthanams for up to 30 minutes! Alas, with both of them passing on, sankirnam has again fallen into disuse.
This is a thani from a concert of TNS from 1975. Upendran starts the thani with tisra gathi and then skilfully blends into sankirnam, playing the keezh kalam (lower speed, 4.5 per beat) for several minutes. This is an example of tavil kannaku (calculation). The development of this speed of sankirnam using farens phrases is distinctive and is his trademark. He concludes the sankirnam section with the standard adi thalam mohara. Then, he uses 9’s to convert to kandam (3+3+3+1)! This is especially interesting. After the kandam section is concluded, he goes back to chatusram (4 per beat), and then back to tisram, and he plays the standard adi thalam mohara in tisram followed by one of his signature korvais.
There are also some interesting moharas and korvais composed by Upendransir based on the phrase “thalangu thom” or “tha thalangu thom”. Some of these were composed specifically to highlight the strengths of the mrudangam – none of the other ‘upa’pakkavadya instruments have the chapu sound, and so when these are played, the mrudangam will be the highlight. They are also very misleading; it’s difficult to tell where they start or end, and so the main artist must be very confident, alert, and have a strong laya sense.
Besides his music, there is a personal connection for me as well. Upendransir was good friends with Madurai T. N. Seshagopalan. After Thanjavur Upendran’s untimely demise, TNS took an interest in my guru’s career, bringing him to the US on two concert tours in 1992 and 1994. Many years later, when I did my arangetram, we had invited TNS sir to come. Initially he was noncommittal, but that day I got a huge shock when he arrived early! Not only that, but he stayed through the whole thing and also gave a very nice speech with some words of encouragement which I still cherish to this day. This illustrates the power of Thanjavur Upendran’s friendship and lasting influence in the Carnatic music circle.
Most of what I have mentioned here is what has been told to me over the years by my guru Neyveli Narayanan; as I mentioned before, he maintains the memory of his guru through his playing style and this annual function.