S. Kalyanaraman (2 June 1930 – 9 January 1994), popularly known as SKR, was a vocalist in the Carnatic tradition. Hailing from a famed musical family, where his great-grandfather was Komal Muthu Bhagavathar and his grand uncle was the celebrated vocalist Madirimangalam Natesa Iyer, S.Kalyanaraman became one of the foremost disciples of G. N. Balasubramaniam and established himself as an original musician in his own right.
Born in the ancient city of Thiruvengadu at his mother’s residence near to N. Srinivasa Iyer, S.Kalyanaraman was born in a well-to-do musical family and received his initial music training under his father. Recognizing the boy’s prodigious talents, his father realized that Kalyanaraman needs expert guidance from a respected musician. At that time, the reigning superstar of Carnatic music was none other than G. N. Balasubramaniam or better known as GNB & indeed, Kalyanaraman sang in the GNB bani even before becoming the disciple of his idol. In Chennai, a music teacher better known as Kittamani Iyer identified the boy’s talents & upon realizing the impact of GNB’s style on the boy’s music, he introduced the young Kalyanaraman to GNB. Upon realizing the boy’s immense potential, GNB took him under his arms and trained him for 15 years.
Like his master GNB, S. Kalyanaraman’s musical acumen is beyond the ordinary and within less than a year of instruction under GNB, he was providing vocal support. GNB once remarked “What’s there for me to teach, you are already singing so well”.
So versatile was his voice that even before his debut in 1949, Kalyanaraman was already getting attention from the audience as a leading vocal accompanist to GNB. At times, realizing the rich manodharama of Kalyanaraman’s musical intuition, GNB would hand him the reins for improvisations in his own concerts. The brief moments of Kalyanaraman’s music captivated the audience who came to listen to GNB.
At his debut in the Gokhale Hall in 1949, guru GNB was in the audience and was carried away in musical wonder for Kalyanaraman’s originality while retaining the mesmerizing bani of his own. GNB further added “The best respect to a guru is to follow his style in total. The best tribute to a guru is to embellish a style of your own. My dear boy… I am proud you are… indeed your own.” Once while listening to Kalyanaraman’s rendition of Nilayam Onru Enukku Arulvai, a Suddhananda Bharathi composition, GNB walked up to Kalyanaraman and demanded “Teach me this and give me the notation.” So vast was his musical acumen and knowledge that G.B. Duraiswamy (the eldest of GNB sons) used to remark “the way he discussed intellectual queries and doubts with GNB was a treat to watch.”
From then, S. Kalyanaraman’s rise in Carnatic music was phenomenal. Like his guru, he emphasized on artistic individuality and won acclaim as a great artiste in his own right. His musical acumen transcended Carnatic music and when performing with musicians, he would sing aptly with the Hindustani touch when rendering Hindustani ragas. Such was his admiration of Indian music, that he saw more similarities than differences in both Carnatic & Hindustani systems. He would go on to explain the gamaka technique in Carnatic music which most Hindustani musicians criticize as being detrimental to shruthi clarity. His climb to the ‘A’ Top rank in All-India-Radio (AIR) was meteoric. In his later years, Kalyanaraman gave some whistle concerts whistling away compositions of the Trinity, an art that he learnt with passion.
As a soloist he planned his concert items differently, often singing rare compositions while keeping popular numbers to a minimum, specializing in vivadi (dissonant) ragas rarely attempted by most popular musicians of his time and was full of musical complexities. He became a specialist in the handling of vivadi ragas and popularized the Śruti bhedam technique (modal shift of tonic note) introduced by his guru. He used nadais (transposed rhythmic patterns) extensively and unfortunately to the uninformed audience, his concerts are painstakingly challenging to be understood and interpreted. His renditions of vivadi ragas like Chandrajyothi, Sucharitra, Hamasanadam are well loved by the connessieur and the informed audience for the musical weight Kalyanaraman’s genius had given. The buzz word that went around was “if it was easy, Kalyanaraman would not do it”.
However, Kalyanaraman didn’t completely ignore the legacy of his guru to forge that of his own, he popularized the GNB bani (style) of singing and also immortalized his guru’s hallmark ragas like Shanmukhapriya, Kalyani (raga), Dheerasankarabharanam, Kapi Narayani and many more. He gave Hindustani touches to Hindustani ragas like Dwijawanthi, Brindavana Saranga and Hamir Kalyani. Such was his voice that it had an almost perfect substitute to the inimitable voice of GNB and while singing his guru’s signature compositions it would often confuse the acute listener whether it is GNB singing or Kalyanaraman singing.
He notated a book, the first volume of GNB compositions with Trichur V. Ramachandran which was released by the GNB Foundation.
As a musical innovator he faced much criticism in his time for creating new ragas such as the dwi-madhyama ragas in which he eschewed the panchama of the first 36 mela ragas substituting with the prathi-madhyama. Apart from theoretically creating a new set of 36 of his ragas, he demonstrated them at a lecture held in the Music Academy in 1993. He was also ridiculed by critics that he would only handle the “rare stuff” of Carnatic music. But nothing bothered his style and preference. He also composed several varnams, krithis (some in ashtaragamalika format) and thillanas in both popular and vivadi ragas and like his guru, he refrained from using a mudra.
He was a strict teacher and expected nothing less than devotion to the art from his students. As such many of his students, unable to understand his teaching methods, left him. He would also take a back seat and analyze his teaching methods whether anything went wrong in his teaching. Noted among his disciples are his wife Bhushany Kalyanaraman, Prof. Gowri Kuppuswamy, Brinda Venkataraman and the popular cine playback singer, Anuradha Sriram.
Above all, he emphasized a lot on shruthi clarity which he felt Carnatic musicians lacked unlike their Hindustani counterparts. He formulated and tested methods to improve shruthi clarity in Carnatic musicians as well as some of his innovative teaching methods. He planned for the release of a book of all his findings, but it was never published.
Kalyanaraman’s influence undeniably bore the GNB mudra. Though criticized many a times for his unique and misunderstood musical prowess, his renditions and contributions are finally gaining popularity among the younger generation as well as recognition. Held in high regard by most of his senior contemporaries like T. N. Seshagopalan, Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna, M. S. Gopalakrishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman, Kalyanaraman’s contribution to the world of Carnatic music is noteworthy.
The SKR Trust, established by his wife and student promotes his music and his legacy. A documentary of his life and work, is released by Kalakendra Sanskriti Series “The Sunaadha Vinodhan” in an audio visual DVD format.