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A feature on the legendary Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar, who is credited with resurrecting the Gotuvadyam or Chitravina back to the concert platform. Narayana Iyengar's birth centenary falls on January 25, 2003.

Gotuvadyam K S Narayana Iyengar was easily the best artiste of his instrument in his times and one of the best musicians that India has produced. His contribution to the instrument Gotuvadyam (now referred to by its traditional name, Chitravina) is as prolific as it is inspiring. His music thrilled and swayed the pundits and the public alike all over India as also in several other countries.

Narayana Iyengar was born on January 25, 1903, near Tirunelveli, in South India, to Srinivasa Iyengar and Srivaramangai, and started learning music when he was 14, from Kodaganallur Subbayya Bhagavatar, a fine vocalist who could also play the Chitravina. He then had advanced training under the legendary Gotuvadyam Sakharama Rao, who was also the guru of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. With rigorous practice, sometimes up to 18-20 hours a day, he reached great heights in a very short time.

His first performance was in his early twenties. By his mid-20s, he had already established himself as an outstanding artiste, and was soon invited to be a Asthana Vidwan (Royal Artiste) first in Trivandrum and later in Mysore. He eventually settled down in Mysore.


Narayana Iyengar with Swami Sivananda and little daughter Gayatri

A much sought-after performer, he was held in high esteem by his contemporaries such as Harikesanallur Muttiah Bhagavatar, Mysore Vasudevachar, Vina Dhanammal, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and others. He was one of the performers at the 42nd Indian National Congress meet at Madras in 1927 (which marked the inaugural year of the Music Academy, Madras), the Classical Music Conference, Calcutta, in 1938, and Navaratri Festivals in Trivandrum and Mysore. Narayana Iyengar was also a top-ranked artiste of the All India Radio ever since its inception.

His musical style was a blend of many brilliant aspects. It was classical, electrifying, breath-taking and majestic, all at the same time and broke the barriers of language, religion, caste and creed. He thus captured the hearts of the connoisseurs and the lay, even those not familiar with his culture. His admirers included several royal patrons from all over the country such the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Maharaja of Jaipur, Cooch-Bihar and Gwalior, as also national and spiritual leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru and Swami Sivananda, who have often expressed their praise for him in writing. While the great poet Rabindranath Tagore said, "Mr. Narayana Iyengar impressed me immensely with his expert expositions", Dr. Sarojini Naidu wrote, "In his hands, the Gotuvadyam ceases to be in instrument. It becomes a subtle, living voice, capable of expressing every nuance of human passion.”

Narayana Iyengar was one of the few Indian musicians whose music was welcomed in different countries, even in the 1930-s. He was invited to perform in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka etc, and his concerts won rave acclaim from the public and the press alike. He was known as the wizard of strings as he had the ability to transport his audiences to another world wherever he played. That his music transcended all frontiers is best brought out in this incident, involving a concert of his in the Mysore Palace in honour of the then Viceroy of India, Lord Wellington and Lady Wellington.

A leading daily, Deccan Herald, recorded this event thus: “At a State Banquet held in honour of a visiting Viceroy, a neat, little, handsome young man, seated on a platform, was performing his part of the show by providing music. The guests had eaten their food and tasted their liquor. There were fewer scurries of the attendants and in the think air of a banquet formality, the Viceroy, his Lady and entourage sat down to go through another ritual. The artiste, for his part, knew that before he settled down, his role would be over in a carefully planned programme and that it was hardly worth exercising himself. In deference to music, an artificial lull fell over the richly decorated banquet hall and as the artiste’s fingers flew over a strange instrument akin to the Vina, the hall was soon reverberating with a humming melody. Even in a performance like this, Narayana Iyengar could not help causing a wonder. The air of formality was gone. Guests relaxed in their seats to enjoy the music. The Viceroy signalled to his aide that the performance be continued and cancelled a following engagement. His Lady, a connoisseur of arts, was so enchanted with the new experience that she had two repeat performances.”


One of his concerts at Malaysia provoked the critic of the popular daily, Malaya Tribune, to write, “The highest flights of ecstasy to which Carnatic music can raise were revealed by the performance of the famous Gotuvadyam by Prof. Narayana Iyengar at the Town Hall of Kuala Lumpur. The extent of the profound effects he has produced on the audience numbering nearly a thousand can be gauged from the fact that he was able to hold them spell-bound for over 3 hours, whereas it would be considered a remarkable achievement if a million dollar film could do the same for just over an hour.”

That Narayana Iyengar's music held sway over several generations of vainikas was reflected in a speech by the late Vina Doreswami Iyengar at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Madras, in 1994. Doreswami Iyengar said that giants like Vina Seshanna, Subbanna and others felt so dissatisfied with their fretted Vinas that they secretly removed the frets and converted their instruments to Chitravina and spent the next few months attempting to master it. Soon they found it to be a pretty insurmountable challenge and reverted to their chosen careers!

With violinist-brother Krishnaswami

Narayana Iyengar was not only endowed with artistic abilities of the highest order, but was also blessed with a scientific temperament which not only put the Chitravina back on the performing platform, but also resulted in several improvements and innovations in the instrument itself. He standardized the internal structure, string arrangements, pitch, tuning and playing methods. With his assiduous practice and analytical research, he set and maintained such high standards for the instrument that his methods are absolutely foolproof and his style has an enviable following. Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar was so captivated by this instrument that he learnt it from Narayana Iyengar for a few years when they were colleagues in the Royal Court of Mysore. His techniques and style inspired many artistes like Mannargudi Savitri Ammal and M V Varahaswami to take to this instrument. Among his well-known disciples is Prof. V V Sadagopan, who learnt vocal music for a few years, and his own son Chitravina Narasimhan, who continues to practice and popularise the methods and style that his father had created. The latter has successfully passed it on to his disciples, Chitravina N Ravikiran, Chitravina Ganesh, Kiranavali and others.

He won numerous awards and titles like Nadabrahma Vidya Varidhi, Digvijaya Nadavani and Gotuvadya Kalanidhi. Some of his raging gramaphone hits include Mokshamu galada, Parama pavana, Vaishnava janato, etc.

Despite being an extremely successful professional, Narayana Iyengar was primarily a true nada-yogi who believed that “Mastery over the instrument and the Art needs a great guru, apart from talent and skill of the artiste. It also requires patience, rigorous practice, perseverance, reverence and devotion to the art and the guru. Once the art is mastered, one can raise one’s own soul to the spiritual level and attain spiritual bliss mush sought after by mankind.”

He attained immortality on January 11, 1959, soon after playing a live concert for All India Radio. But his music lingers forever.


Posted on , 2003


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