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Tanjore Viswanathan / T. Viswanathan(Profile/Biography)

United States
English

Tanjore Viswanathan (Madras, India, 13 August 1927 - Hartford, Connecticut, United States, 10 September 2002) was a Carnatic master musician specializing in the Carnatic flute and voice. T. (Tanjore/Thanjavur) Viswanathan was the grandson of the legendary Veena Dhanammal, considered one of the greatest players of Veena, the South Indian lute. Viswa's sister was T. (Tanjore/Thanjavur) Balasaraswati, regarded as the greatest exponent of Bharatanatyam (South Indian classical dance). His brother was the mridangam player T. Ranganathan (1925–1987). Viswanathan's instrument, the kuzhal, is a bamboo flute with seven or eight holes. The basic pitch of the instrument depends on its length. The kuzhal has no metal keys; its subtle ornamentation is produced by the position of the fingers over the holes and by movement of the head.

Carnatic music, Karnāṭaka saṃgīta, or Karnāṭaka saṅgītam, is a system of music commonly associated with southern India as well as Sri Lanka. Although there are stylistic differences, the basic elements of śruti (the relative musical pitch), swara (the musical sound of a single note), rāga (the mode or melodic formulæ), and tala (the rhythmic cycles) form the foundation of improvisation and composition in both Carnatic and Hindustani music. Although improvisation plays an important role, Carnatic music, usually performed by a small ensemble of musicians, is mainly sung through compositions, especially the kriti (or kirtanam) – a form developed between the 14th and 20th centuries.

Though hailing from a highly esteemed musical family, at age eight Viswa sought the tutorship of Tiruppamparam Swaminatha Pillai, one of the innovators of the bamboo flute as an art musical instrument. At the time, Pillai lived in Tanjoor, about 200 miles from Madras, so Viswa left his parents' home to live and study with his teacher. He would practice for four hours a day, both before and after school. After a year, Pillai relocated to Madras, so Viswa returned to his family home but continued to study with Master Pillai for another 20 years.

He first came to the United States in 1958 on a Fulbright fellowship, studying ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles from 1958 to 1960, and later teaching there. He returned to India and was Head of the Department of Music at the University of Madras from 1961 to 1965. He settled in the United States in 1966, and also taught at the California Institute of the Arts. After earning his Ph.D. from Wesleyan University in 1975, he taught at that university for many years. Among his best known students were Anuradha Sriram, T.R. Moorthy, Jon B. Higgins, Douglas Knight and David Nelson. While a majority of South Indian (Carnatic) flautists play with the 8-holed flute fashioned by T.R. Mahalingam (Mali), students of T. Viswanathan play with the 7-hole flute innovated by Swaminatha Pillai. In 1976 he and his brother T. Ranganathan recorded the musical accompaniment for Bala, Satyajit Ray's film on the life of their sister.

For over 40 years Viswanathan toured India, Europe, and North America both as a solo performer and as an accompanist for his sister. Viswanathan received some of the most prestigious awards in India, including Instrumental Musician of the Year (Kalaimamani) from the Government of Tamil Nadu (1978), the President's Award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1987), and the Madras Music Academy's Sangeetha Kalanidhi ("Treasure of Musical Art"), the highest award given to a South Indian musician (1988). In 1992, Viswanathan became the first Indian musician to be awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the United States' National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In 1992 he also received a research fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies.

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