T VISWANATHAN (1927 – 2002)
“A Sound Like No Other” - A Tribute
by Kay Poursine, Connecticut, USA
T Viswanathan, brother of T Balasaraswati and T Ranganathan, and uncle of Lakshmi Knight, died September 10, 2002. His death is a monumental loss for the music world. He was the epitome of the great Vina Dhanammal family music tradition. When he played his flute or sang everyone heard a rare musical expression at one with nature.
Three days before he died, I accompanied Viswa to the Sri Satyanarayana Temple’s dance drama fundraiser in Hartford, Connecticut where he gave his blessing at the beginning of the performance. During our return trip to Middletown, he told stories of performances with Bala, his mother Jayammal, the great mrdangist T Kuppuswami, and Ranga his brother, with the young Lakshmi sitting on the side devotedly assisting the family group. Recalling the evening Bala performed for the Maharaja and Maharini of Travancore, Viswa described the royal puja room where Bala danced. The program consisted exclusively of Maharaja Sri Swati Tirunal’s compositions. “The performance blew everyone’s minds. So many stories to tell, Kay, so many stories.” I sat in the back seat wondering if I would ever hear them all.
My first Karnatic singing class was at Mills College during Bala’s residency in 1972. I had no idea what was expected when I heard that it was necessary for every dancer to learn the music for the items Bala taught; the kriti Natanam Adinar, the padam Alolam and Kalyani Jatiswaram. Viswa taught singing and his brother, Ranga, taught nattuvangam for tisram alarippu. I remember hearing Viswa’s concert the night before Bala’s performance and was mystified that we were expected to learn this incredible music. As I sat in that first class with Viswa patiently guiding the American dancers through the first swara exercises, I was in awe of his attention to details in the tones and sounds that at that time I did not hear. The subsequent vocal classes with Viswa at Wesleyan were a great challenge for me. Viswa wanted not only excellence from his students, but also a student to develop a refined sense of taste so famously exemplified in the artistry of his family. Because of his teaching, I hear the universe when I dance.
I think there are many people who miss Viswa terribly, above all his wife, devoted student, and soul mate, Josepha who must endure this heartbreaking time. His passing is particularly difficult for his current students. They must accept the unacceptable. He cannot be replaced, but will remain in our hearts and minds forever. He has taken his place in that extraordinary family group with his beloved Bala, Lakshmi, Ranga, Jayammal and Dhanamal.
T Viswanathan was truly unique in his ability to maintain the cultural and aesthetic values of his family and teacher while teaching students half a world away from his homeland. Viswa, as he was known to all, was born in 1927 into one of the most illustrious music and dance families of South India and was one of India's most noted and respected musicians. His grandmother, Veena Dhanammal, was considered to be one of the finest veena players of her century. His sister, T Balasaraswati, was regarded as the greatest exponent of Bharata Natyam, the classical dance of South India. At an early age, he was sent to live and study with his flute teacher, T N Swaminatha Pillai, and throughout his entire musical career he wove the two styles, that of his family and that of his guru, into a seamless
Viswa studied ethnomusicology at UCLA on a Fulbright scholarship from 1958 to 1960, and was head of the Department of Music at Madras University from 1961 to 1966. He taught at UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts before joining the Wesleyan faculty in 1975. He earned his Ph.D. at Wesleyan.
In 1976 Viswanathan and his brother T Ranganathan (Wesleyan's first Artist in Residence in Music) recorded the musical accompaniment for Bala, a film on the life of their sister, produced and directed by Satyajit Ray. Other recordings by Viswanathan include South Indian Flute (World Pacific), Pallavi (Nonesuch Explorer Series), South Indian Classical Flute, (JVC), and Tribute (VG. Arts).
Viswanathan received some of the most prestigious awards in India and the United States, including Instrumental Musician of the Year (Kalaimamani) from the Government of Tamil Nadu (1978), the President's Award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1987), Sangita Kalanidhi ("Treasure of Musical
Art") - the highest award given to a South Indian musician--from the Music Academy in Madras (1989), and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1992) in recognition of his contribution and achievement in South Indian music. He has performed throughout the world, touring China and Ireland in the past year and a half of his life.
More important than his impressive achievements around the world, Viswa was beloved by his family, friends, colleagues and students as a considerate, loving, and generous man, one who faced illness, personal disaster, and all manner of adversity with cheer, good humor and music. He was a great and committed teacher, and a cornerstone of Wesleyan's music program.
Attended by a small group of family and friends, Viswa was cremated with a Hindu puja on September 14, 2002 at Rocky Hill, CT. His coffin was covered with beautiful flower petals. The presiding priest was AV Srinivasan, a long time close friend and associate of Viswa's.