THANJAVUR: Between the sharps and flats of his rustic violin, S Natarajan’s music is like vintage wine. The violin, strung together for five decades, is safe in the hands of the 76-year-old, one of the last gatekeepers of the riveting music that is slowly ebbing away from Thanjavur’s unparalleled cultural charm of Chola legacy.
Natarajan, hailing from a family of musicians, does not care. He has been imparting violin lessons to kids since he was 31. While his father was a teacher of Nagaswaram at the then Tiruvaiyaru Music School (now a music college), his uncle was T R Pappa, the renowned music director and composer in the Tamil film industry.
No wonder, Natarajan held an upper-hand both in terms of heritage as well as genes. Trained in the gurukulam style, where students reside at the teacher’s house for the entire duration of their training, Natarajan spent 10 years gaining precision of violin. He was then taught to play the Nagaswaram by his father. He could play the Nagaswaram until 10 years ago, when he had to discontinue it owing to dental problems, he tells TNIE.
Natarajan’s violin classes are extremely popular. His students, representing varied age groups and backgrounds, come from far and wide.Natarajan started out as an accompanying artist, or someone who plays alongside the lead vocalist, and tagged along with doyens like Madurai Somu. Even today, he accompanies Go Pa Nallasivam and Tirumuraichanters like Dharumapuram Swaminathan.
But what keeps this septuagenarian going?
“There were over 10 violinists in Thanjavur. Now, only two or three, including myself, are left . I want Thanjavur to retain its name for music, and so I have been giving violin lessons to children on weekends and holidays,” he tells TNIE.
Natarajan attributes the migration of artists, especially violinists, to the advent of electronic media and television. “Some forayed into other professions, while some others shifted to cities in search for better opportunities,” says Natarajan. This space, now has been usurped by social media concerts. “I start with teaching basics like sarali varisai and proceed with geetham, varnam, Tamil, and Thyagaraja Keerthanas (compositions),” he adds.
Despite having a contact person in the Tamil film industry, Natarajan was never attracted to fame. He was in Chennai for a brief stint, but his uncle could not be of much help owing to his commitments to films and the All India Radio (AIR). So, he decided to return to Thanjavur and set on his mission to revive music- a herculean task, he realised.
“It was embarrassing, he says, when the students are progressing in a traditional way, parents would ask him to teach them to play some songs for an upcoming function at schools,” he recalls, highlighting that students prefer keyboards and the mridangam, to an extent. Although no one from his classes in the span of 30 years as a teacher has taken up violin as a profession, some continue to deliver on-stage performances.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, Natarajan’s music withered away, although temporarily. He recalls managing provisions given to artists by charitable organisations. Residing with his wife in a portion of his married daughter’s house, Natarajan continues to spread the melody emanating from the violin strings.