Vidwan T. M. Thyagarajan

T. M. Thyagarajan, or TMT, as he is fondly referred to across the Carnatic music world, represented an institution in his own right. He carved out and belonged to a unique bani that was beyond peer in the industry. His distinctive style comprised a perfect blend of grammar and emotion. This balance was a hallmark of any composition that he handled on the concert stage and the impact that this had on the larger world of Carnatic music is evident in the extent to which it has been followed both by his own students and by others that have been influenced by his style.

 Born in Tanjavur, on 28 May, 1923, TMT came from a family of great musical lineage. It was a time dominated by the famous Tanjore Quartet and by the nattuvarnars—among them, Govindasamy nattuvanar, Kalyanasundaram nattuvanar, and Nankara Chetty Theruvu Kudumbum. These were days when almost each of the nattuvarnars was also skilled at the mridangam. Within this family, Chinnaya nattuvanar was a vocal musician and Mahalingam Pillai emerged as a great mridangam vidwan. Mahalingam Pillai’s three sons formed a trio, with one playing the mridangam, another the violin and with TMT emerging as the vocalist par excellence.

 As a young boy, he learnt Bharatanatyam from his elder uncle, Chinnayya nattuvanar and even performed an arangetram at the family temple. Later, he danced in Ramanathan Chettiar Hall too. But he felt an urge to go beyond dance as a career. He joined the Golden Saradambal Theatre and later the Nawab Rajamanickam Theatre to pursue drama. He was paid Rs. Seven per month by these drama companies, but once again there was a sense of dissatisfaction in him. He was -it became quickly evident to him- determined to make it as a musician. So, he invested in full-time music lessons from his father. He declined offers to act in films and gave every ounce of his energy to Carnatic music.

In some ways, TMT  later success was predestined. When he was only six-years-old, the great mridangam vidwan, Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai predicted a great future for him, seeing an innate talent in him that others might have missed. Indeed, it was Vaidyanatha Iyer, the other great mridangam vidwan of the time, and a friend of TMT’s father, Mahalingam Pillai, who suggested that TMT be sent to Trivandrum to take up pupilage under Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi R. Srinivasa Iyer.

When he met Semmangudi for the first time, the master asked him to sing a few avartanas or swaras. It is believed that on TMT’s rendition, Semmangudi was impressed that he exclaimed, “You are already singing so well. Why did you need to come now to learn?” But he persisted, received training from Semmangudi and later assisted him in tuning several compositions.


Soon, as TMT’s confidence grew, his mastery over the art took over. He not only began to compose songs, setting them to music, but he also tuned the compositions of other composers. He developed an enviable repertoire from outside the Trinity, including compositions of Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar, the Tanjore Quartet, Cheyyur Chengalvaraya Sastri, Ramaswami Sivan, Neelakanta Sivan, Annayya, Periasami Thooran, Ramalinga Swamigal and other rare Tamil composers. He also set to tune Ganapati Sachidananda Swami, Guru Surajananda, Andal’s Tiruupavai, and Manikavachagar’s Tiruvempavai, varnams, and tillanas. The list really is endless.  Some of the famous compositions tuned by TMT are Muruganin in Behag, Karpooram narumo in Khamas, Palani Nindra in Kapi and Tunga Teeravirajam in Yamuna Kalyani.

At the request of Trichy Doraiswamy Iyer, TMT also set to music several Tiruppugazhs for an Arunagirinatar festival. Indeed, it became a practice of the time among nagaswaram vidwans to include the Tiruppugazh, Amudulavum in Sindubhairavi tuned by TMT as the concluding piece in their concerts. Well before the era of computers, TMT was meticulous and systematic in maintaining a documentation of his compositions. He notated, wrote them down and preserved his notebooks with a great sense of care.

TMT career was marked by the great respect and admiration that he had for his contemporaries, regardless of whether they were senior or junior to him. He founded and headed the Sangita Vidwangal Sangam in Tanjavur with vidwan Sangita Kalanidhi T.K. Murthy as vice president. The forum used to meet regularly on Saturdays at the Ramalinga Mutt in Tanjavur with other members and would hold various discussions on art and music. He was a stickler for discipline and integrity and would spare no person who stepped out of line. He was unerring in his observation of norms and principles that he held dear. He would repeatedly advice his students to refrain from chasing after persons for concert opportunities, instead laying stress on a need to focus on their own skillsets, and to concentrate on practice and perfection. Work hard and the opportunities will follow; this was TMT’s mantra.

TMT ’s innovated and created a unique bani. This bani was so special that one could see the TMT stamp etched even in the order of the sangatis, the varied sancharas, and apoorva prayogas used by him, the unusual patterns and the scintillating melodies that added to the grandeur of his style. His approach to the setting up of any composition was of extraordinary refinement. His style of rendering raga alapana would compulsively adhere to certain phrases in the same octave and would not jump from position to position. That was also followed in his rendering of the neraval. A certain procedure was required to build the alapana. He was particular about the sahitya falling at the correct place in the talam during neraval and he would get irked when one came down to Sa and went up at panchamam. He would expect one to take the upper octave from ‘mel Sa’ and in general to avoid doing things in a haphazard manner. He would object to finishing the avartana with an elongated swara and would insist on arohana-avarohana kramam while singing kalpanaswaras. He would object to kalpanaswaras being rendered for madhyamakala sahitya. While singing tanam, he would follow only tanam phrases and make no allowances for raga phrases. Unmindful of any criticism, TMT laid the path for sampradaya sangeetham, which won him many accolades as a musician, teacher and composer.

TMT was awarded the prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy, Madras in 1981. He also served as the Vice Principal in the Tamil Nadu Government Music College, Chennai, and as a Principal in Madurai Government Music College, Teacher’s College of Music at the Music Academy, Chennai and Annamalai University in Chidambaram. He taught many students both from India and abroad. His musical legacy remains alive and continues to be cherished.

 Subhashini Parthasarathy

(the author is a vocalist and a disciple of TMT)

Click here read the full cover story