A Colossus Called TRS – Pallavis & Beyond – Part 1


Note: This article appeared in the last issue of ‘Shanmukha’, the quarterly journal published by the Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts & Sangeetha Sabha, Mumbai


A Colossus Called TRS – Pallavis & Beyond

Perhaps one of the most striking examples in the entire annals of Carnatic music is the way, while still a teenager, he allowed himself to be tested on his Pallavi skills by the panel of judges and thereupon unquestionably bagging the first prize.  The event that has now become historic, consisted of T.R.Subramanyam (TRS) composing a line that he submitted as his entry to the contest.  The judges consisted of luminaries none other than the then acknowledged Pallavi maestro Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer and the Alathur Brothers.

“What is this Mani?”  The judges are said to have questioned.  “This is just one line.  In what ragam are you going to sing this pallavi?”

“Well, you can select any ragam that you wish and tell me,” TRS replied with his characteristic confidence.  “I will sing it in whatever ragam you ask me to”.

“Have you prepared the talam of the pallavi?”

“No.  You can tell me the talam that you want and I will fit the words of the pallavi accordingly and sing!”

“Oh!  What about the ‘nadai’?”

“You can choose the ‘nadai’ as well – I will sing it in whatever ‘nadai’ that you ask me to!”

In the end he was asked to sing the Pallavi in Mukhari ragam,  in Sankirna Chapu talam and in Sankirna Nadai.  Needless to say on being given these instructions, he executed the Pallavi on the spot obviously without any prior preparation and sang with élan, surprising the judges beyond measure with his sheer brilliance and supreme confidence.  His winning the first prize was naturally a given.

His interest and enthusiasm for Pallavis continued unabated throughout his life.  Perhaps it was the sheer challenge of mathematics combined with the aesthetic that drew him to Pallavis and for them to occupy a special place in his heart.  His stock of Pallavis was nothing short of remarkable and consistently had the ability to keep churning out Pallavi after Pallavi like an inexhaustible geyser.

Thoughts from his team members:

Two recent remarks made in conversation by renowned vidwans:

“I remember a pallavi he sang when I played for him in a concert at the Thirunakkara Temple, Kottayam,” recalls mridangam ace Thiruvaarur Bhaktavatsalam.  “It was a pallavi in Adi Tala but set to Sankirna Nadai.  M. Chandrasekharan was on the violin.  TRS sang as if he had practiced and sung the pallavi all his life – such was his supreme comfort level and the ease with which he executed the pallavi.”

The maestro continues, “Also, the fact that the tri-kaalam of a Pallavi could also be executed from the ‘arudhi’ instead of the conventional and compulsory ‘idam’, is something that I first experienced only with TRS.  This was a revelation to me at that point – I must have been about 24 or 25 years old then!”


“Sir, do you remember a concert in the year 1992 at the A.P.Bhavan in New Delhi?” I asked the maestro V.V.Subramanian when I met him at a private function recently.

“Shankarabharanam ragam and the pallavi was in Tisra gati,” was the immediate and prompt reply! “How will I ever forget this concert!”

Such was the impact TRS had on his peers and his accompanying team.

And here I feel compelled to add an unforgettable experience:

The year was December 1989.  Some of us students had requested him to sing a pallavi in the raga Natakurinji.  He had immediately agreed to do so.  However in the subsequent concerts that took place that December Season, no pallavi in Natakurinji was sung.  Finally, he was reminded of this in the car on the way to his concert in Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.

“Oh, I completely forgot!  Let me see… why don’t I try something new…”

In a matter of minutes, he modified a pallavi that the legendary G.N.B. had sung in Raga Kalyani, set it to Adi Tala Khanda Gati and it was clear that he was ready with the pallavi by the time we alighted at the Sabha premises.

As TRS tuned the tambura and handed it over to me in the greenroom, he just casually mentioned the pallavi to Guruvayur Dorai who was to accompany him on the mridangam.  As far as I know, G. Harishankar didn’t get to hear the pallavi at all except when TRS finally sang on it stage.  T. Rukumini on the violin, I remember, had just arrived straight from the train from Mysore to the concert without even going home.

The result however was something else – an exceptionally executed RTP in Natakurinji and the pallavi really seemed as if it had been rehearsed by the team.  I remember being completely bowled over by the sheer teamwork, the exceptional mutual understanding and most of all, the joyful camaraderie the four artists shared on stage.


TRS always used to say that it was the sheer genius and brilliance of G.N.Balasubramanian that actually drew him to Carnatic music and made him seriously pursue it.

“Once I came to know that GNB was performing around the precincts of Tirunelveli,  I would always make it a point to go for his concerts.  Even if he performed in neighbouring towns like Kalladaikurichi, I never thought twice about walking all the way there for the concert and walking back, in those days!”

He was one of the first musicians to extensively employ mathematics in swara singing, and that he was a master of ‘poruttams’ is well-known.  He attributed this to the inspiration he received both from maestros M.Balamuralikrishna and Lalgudi Jayaraman.

“Both these virtuosos’ interpretations and approaches used to be very different and would appear to me very refreshing indeed,” he often used to remark.

Language and Niraval

His comfort with the languages of Carnatic music particularly Telugu was so complete that he took a diametrically opposite stance against some well-established conventions back then.  He was a stern critic of singing niraval in the line ‘vaanimatalaku kopakincikanti’  for the Tyagaraja kriti Maajanaki (Kambhoji).  Ditto with the line ‘kaaryamu telusunu tyagarajuniki’ in the Dhanyasi kriti Sangeetagnaanamu.  He conceded niraval being sung, albeit rather unwillingly for the “conventional” lines “veda sastra tatvaarthamu telisi” in Endukupeddala and for ‘vaasavaadi sakala deva…’ in Sri Subramanyaaya Namaste.

“These aren’t the best of lines certainly,” he would say.  “But at least these aren’t as atrocious as singing niraval for ‘vaani maata…’ and ‘kaaryamu telisi’..!”

Another line he strongly negated singing niraval was ‘Paramaanandamane…’ – the Anupallavi line for the popular ‘Swara Raga Sudharasa’.

He however encouraged niraval in rather different places in certain other kritis and often sang them himself.  One striking example is Tyagaraja’s kriti in Pantuvarali  ‘Vaadera daivamu manasa’, where TRS fused the last line of the charanam ‘sItA patiyani pEru kaligina’ with the pallavi line ‘vADErA daivamu manasA’, thus making the meaning complete for niraval.

A different example where he chose an offbeat line for niraval is the line ‘tyAgarAja bhAgya dAyaki’ in the kriti Mahitapravruddha – Tyagaraja’s Lalgudi Pancharatna kriti.

Lifetime of Teaching

As a Guru, it really seemed that TRS had taken birth in this milieu to impart knowledge in his inimitable way.  He was such a born teacher and instructor – the whole process of teaching came so naturally to him and he reveled in teaching concepts, phrases, meanings of songs, alapanas – practically each and every possible nuance of Carnatic music.   His wonderfully patient nature stood him in good stead and I recall a time when a middle-aged gentleman approached TRS in sheer enthusiasm to learn, in the mid-1980s.  This gentleman’s grasping abilities were not of the highest order and TRS in his position could have easily refused to take him on as a student.

But TRS did accept to teach, and the class commenced with Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Isamanohari kriti Sri Gananatham.  Getting the music of the syllables ‘Sri’, ‘Ga’, ‘Na’ and ‘Naa’ was itself a tall order.  The student in his enthusiasm would sing the fifth syllable as well which was ‘tam’.

“’Tam’ ippo vendaam,” TRS would say and ask him to repeat the first four syllables again.

The whole process of just getting these four syllables right, took almost an hour and when I think back to the class now, nowhere did TRS display the slightest impatience or even a speck of displeasure.

After this first class was over, I did not get to see this gentleman immediately for some time.  It was almost after a couple of months, when we met again at TRS’ residence.  My class being over, I just waited to see what was being taught.  To my enormous surprise the gentleman sang Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Hindolam kriti ‘Saraswati Vidhiyuvati’ almost like a performing artist.   The student had come a long way and without doubt everything was owed to the unswerving patience and faith of the born-Guru.

Guru Guha Choir and Organizational Abilities

The passion for teaching ensured that the students were exposed to the best of compositions and to rare ones as well.   TRS’ brainchild was a creation of a choir that was aptly christened “Guru Guha”.  Through this choir several compositions were propagated, especially the Divyanama Kirtanams of Tyagaraja in particular.  One of the most impactful items featured by this choir under TRS’ supervision was the singing of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s matchless Chaturdasha Ragamalika ‘Sri Viswanatham Bhajeham’.  The pallavi being sung in unison by all the members of the choir, each charanam was sung by two members in turn.  Needless to say, the item made a wonderfully lasting impact.

Other notable features that were exhibited through the Guru Guha choir were several Purandara Dasar devarnamas that were tuned by TRS himself; Musical Trinity-based programs and Tiruppugazhs set in the Chanda talams.  These were featured in several sabhas and also on Doordarshan.  There was even a quiz on Carnatic music conducted by him on All India Radio in Delhi.  The unique feature of this quiz was that it was conducted completely in Hindi!

With its complete monopoly over television, Doordarshan was much sought after those days and getting engagements with Doordarshan was naturally a matter of great prestige and was also no mean task.  Yet TRS through his sheer scholarship, rectitude, goodwill and humour, always managed to have the Delhi Doordarshan accept his suggestions.  The most heartwarming aspect was that TRS would ensure Doordarshan would have an engagement for practically all visiting artists from Chennai and otherwise.  He saw to it that no visiting artist came all the way to Delhi for “just-one-concert”.  If an engagement with Doordarshan was not possible, then an extra couple of concert opportunities would be arranged along with perhaps an All India Radio recording.  Artists overall would return to their base from Delhi with satisfaction – such was his benevolence and the sheer intention to do assist the Carnatic music fraternity.

For the 50th year of the Indian Independence TRS organized a unique event.  He chose compositions with a patriotic theme in seven Indian languages, tuned it and presented this through an orchestra that consisted of singers, instrumentalists and percussionists from all parts of the country.  Naturally, this involved much coordination, ensuring the stay for the artists from other parts of the country, the numerous rehearsal sessions and so on.  But TRS, given his extraordinary flair for organization ensured that everything went off without any hitch whatsoever.  The chief guests for this mega event were the then Lt. Governor of Delhi, the Chief Minister and luminaries like sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan.  The event was such a resounding success that it was repeated the following year in the Delhi Tamizh Sangam.

Notations? No! Recording? Double no!

It was only much later that TRS accepted the recording of classes.  Notations were also a strict no-no – initially.  In this scenario he taught his varnam in raga Sama ‘innamumshodanayo’ to me without resorting to either recordings or notation.  A musician who tries to learn a varnam will realize the practical difficulties of learning a varnam *orally* – it would seem impossible, especially considering the muktaayi swarams and the ettugada swarams.  But TRS made it all seem so easy and natural.  Small wonder that I have never felt the necessity to “revise” compositions learnt in this manner.  I subsequently realized that this was because his classes without exception never ever used to be dull or boring.  He would get so spirited with the process of teaching – his passion for imparting musical knowledge really took him and the student together to a different plane.

Clearly, his mission was to propagate Carnatic music everywhere and to distributed his stupendous knowledge to whomever that came seeking it.  It never ever even remotely occurred to him to send anyone away empty handed.  He was also always alert and on the lookout for imbibing the best knowledge in other musicians and ensuring this for his students as well.  Consequently, virtuosos like Lalgudi Jayaraman, D.K.Jayaraman, M. Balamuralikrishna and T.N.Sheshagopalan were brought to Delhi to conduct workshops, when all of them were at the peak of their careers.

To be continued…

About Mohan Santhanam

Carnatic vocalist, based in Chennai. Disciple of Late Shri T.R.Subramanyam (TRS).
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13 Responses to A Colossus Called TRS – Pallavis & Beyond – Part 1

  1. Dr M V Narasimha Chari says:

    Well done. Looking forward expectantly to the sequel. 🙂

  2. beautiful information. thank you sir

  3. Dr M V Narasimha Chari says:

    Pl excuse my ignorance of Tamil, but what are poruttams?

  4. Dr M V Narasimha Chari says:

    One more point. Are you sure the pallavi TRS sir sang for the contest was in Sankirna nadai and Sankirna chapu talam? Nadai or gati bhedam in the suladi sapta talas or the 35 variants due to the type of laghu, I can understand. But gati bhedam in a chapu talam?

    • Chari sir,

      Yes – the pallavi that was executed WAS in sankirna nadai *in* sankirna chapu talam! Gati bhedam is possible for sankirna chapu when you execute the talam as a series of nine beats just for the trikaalam alone. Its possible to do gati bhedam (including tisram) even for a khanda gati (irrespective of the talam), provided each mini-cycle of five counts is executed as five beats. Incorporating the tisram into this also becomes possible. This can be extended to any chapu talam.

      To answer your previous question – ‘poruttam’ is a Tamizh word for ‘matching’ – so the opening phrase of a kriti would be a final phrase of a mathematical combination of swaras with the same “count”. A simple example would be GrG MgM DmD nekkurugi!

  5. T.R.Sampoornam says:

    well done looking for further such write ups

  6. Dr M V Narasimha Chari says:

    Thanx for both the clarifications, Mohan.

  7. Kamini says:

    I was going to ask the same question about the talam for the Pallavi, but somebody else beat me to it, and I think I understood your answer!

    This is a lovely tribute to your guru. I think it’s great he taught you to not rely on notations – because once one is hooked onto that it is practically impossible to disengage oneself from it! It might be much more difficult initially but the effort is well worth it as the song is branded into one’s memory for life.

    Looking forward to the rest.

    • Kamini: You couldn’t be more right when it comes to notations and how difficult it is to “disengage oneself” from it! And touche’ to your comment on songs learnt without notations being “branded into one’s memory forever” – couldn’t be said better!

      Will shortly post the second and concluding part, thank you very much!

  8. Krishnamurthy S.P. says:

    You walked us through Mr T.R.S. sir and we are thankful for the memoirs.We were there for the concert at A.P.Bhavan at Delhi. Yes it was wonderful and divine.


    I am,an ardent bhaktha of TRS. A wonderful article on your Guru – A fitting tribute to a GURU by his sishya.. Waiting for the next part..

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