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A friend sent along the link to the YouTube video of a Carnatic music performance. I clicked on it and started listening. Within a few seconds, I had to close my eyes since I was getting lost in the music. Sight and the scenery it was bringing in was becoming a distraction. My thoughts, feelings and emotions and all the million complaints and peeves were fading out against the bold but soft notes of the nagaswaram. At some point, I felt like crying and tears did come from my eyes.  I don’t remember the last time I cried. It must have been many years ago…

Karukurichi Arunachalam

I WhatsApped my friend and asked him who was playing the nagaswaram? He said it was Karukurichi Arunachalam. The name didn’t ring a bell. He then said this was the same man who played in the film song, Singara Velaney Deva.

Full disclosure: I know very little about Carnatic music. That I didn’t know who Arunachalam was should speak about my ignorance.

So why did Karukurichi Arunachalam move me to tears? Certain kinds of music attract me. I love listening to rock band Pink Floyd. The slow, melancholic, loopy music and downbeat lyrics perhaps sync with my mental state, I have reasoned.

Hindustani musician Mukul Shivputra, otherwise an erratic performer, has a similar spellbinding effect. He could make the listener forget their mind, to use the Tamil term, Mei Marandhu. Though pitch perfect like most Hindustani musicians, Mukul Shivputra demands attention. We have to choose to pay attention to his music which would then draw our focus.

Genius TN Rajarathinam Pillai spotted Arunachalam’s natural talent while he was playing Naiyandi Melam and took him under his wings

Karukurichi doesn’t demand attention. He can play in the distant background, yet suffuse the ambience with his music. There’s a certain ease, grace and naturalness to what tumbles out of his pipe in a torrent but doesn’t make a splash. He doesn’t orchestrate the concert peak as is the norm. Those peaks are there throughout his performance and they happen in a natural way.

Was it his initial days playing in Naiyandi Melam troupes that can explain his free flowing style? Unrestrained folk music can imbibe a certain exuberance in performers that can be tempered by training in structured formats such as Carnatic music. Apparently, genius TN Rajarathinam Pillai spotted Arunachalam’s natural talent while he was playing Naiyandi Melam and took him under his wings.

Karukurichi Arunachalam's memorial spot in Kovilpatti

Karukurichi Arunachalam’s memorial place in Kovilpatti

Here’s what someone who knows the intricacies of Carnatic music says about the power of Karakurichi Arunachalam’s nagaswaram. Carnatic music enthusiast Lalitharam breaks Karukurichi’s music down to several aspects. Nagaswaram music negotiates several opposites and most performers align themselves to at least some of the poles on the list of opposites: fingering vs blowing, vocal vs instrumental, kuzhaivu vs continuity, aesthetics vs virtuosity. Karukurichi, however, was the golden mean, Lalitharam says. Technical virtuosity wouldn’t mar the pleasing-to-the ear quality of his music, for instance. Karakurichi’s playing captures the essentials of the instrument but sticks to the vocal style. It is perfectly aligned to the note but doesn’t compromise on the rich tone of his instrument.

Lalitharam talks about Karukurichi’s unique swara playing style. While in Carnatic music, swaras or notes are played with a refrain, a line that repeats itself in every pattern, Karakurichi would play swaras without a refrain. The notes would keep flowing freely almost like in a raga alapana but to a basic thala structure. Perhaps the freedom in Naiyandi Melam is recalled in this.

Lalitharam has given a detailed talk on the nuances of Karukurichi’s music that would be on the Music Academy YouTube channel starting December 24.

Karukurichi was the golden mean, says Lalitharam

The moderation, the ease and the affection that Karukurichi conveys may perhaps be attributed to the type of being he was. Apparently, Karukurichi was a mellow, gentle soul. He took good care of his family and was generous to people. Folklore has it that a Karukurichi fan in Maniachi organized a concert for him selling all the jewellery in his home. When he came to know of it, Karukurichi Arunachalam gave back his concert fees.

It may well be that the special appeal of Karukurichi Arunachalam’s music comes from his human values. In the 100th year of his birth, it is worthwhile to recall that aspect.

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