The year 2002 has been a cruel one to Carnatic music, having claimed the lives of many stalwart musicians. September 10, 2002 saw the demise of yet another great musician Sangeeta Kalanidhi T Viswanathan, one of the last representatives of the Dhanammal bani. Here is a tribute from David Nelson, a disciple of Viswa and his late brother T Ranganathan. Nelson, who has been closely associated with Viswa's family for over 30 years is currently an Artist in Residence at the Wesleyan University.
T Viswanathan was a unique figure in the history of the world's music in his ability to maintain the cultural and aesthetic values of his family, and as a teacher while teaching students half a world away from his homeland. Viswa, as he was known to all, was born in 1927 into one of the most illustrious music and dance families of South India and was one of India's most noted and respected musicians. His grandmother, Vina Dhanammal, was considered to be one of the finest vina players of this century. His sister, T Balasaraswati, was regarded as the greatest exponent of Bharatanatyam, the classical dance of South India. At an early age, he was sent to live and study with his flute teacher, Tiruppambaram N Swaminatha Pillai, and throughout his entire musical career he wove the two styles, that of his family and that of his guru, into a seamless musical art.

Viswa studied Ethnomusicology at UCLA on a Fulbright scholarship from 1958 to 1960, and earned his Ph.D. at Wesleyan University. He was head of the Department of Music at Madras University from 1961 to 1966. He spent most of his career teaching voice and flute to American students, including the late Jon Higgins, who was the first creditable non-Indian performer of Carnatic music. He taught at UCLA, California Institute of the Arts, the American Society for Eastern Arts summer programs, and at Wesleyan University, where he had been a beloved member of the music faculty since 1975. In the course of his career he developed a sophisticated notation system for teaching his highly-ornamented music, a system that is in use in India as well as the US.

In 1976, Viswanathan and his late brother T Ranganathan, Wesleyan's first Artist in Residence in Music, recorded the musical accompaniment for Bala, a film on the life of their sister. The film was produced and directed by Satyajit Ray, whose other works included The Music Room and The Apu Trilogy. Other recordings by Viswanathan include South Indian Flute (World Pacific), Pallavi (Nonesuch Explorer Series), South Indian Classical Flute, (JVC), and Tribute (VG Arts).

Viswanathan received some of India's most prestigious music awards. He was chosen for the title of Kalaimamani by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1978. In recent years he was given the President's Award by the Sangeet Natak Akademi (1987), and in 1989 was named Sangita Kalanidhi (the highest award given to a South Indian musician) by the Music Academy in Madras.

In 1992, he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in recognition of his contribution and achievement in South Indian music. In 1994 he participated and performed in the 10th anniversary of the Koizumi Fumio Archives in Tokyo. In recent years he toured in China, Europe and Ireland.

More important than his impressive achievements around the world, Viswa was beloved by his family, friends, colleagues and students as a loving, considerate and generous man, one who faced illness, personal disaster, and all manner of adversity with cheer, good humor and music. He was a great and committed teacher, and a cornerstone of Wesleyan's Music program. Saddened as we are by his loss, we are also inspired by his example as musical genius, teacher, colleague and friend.

Posted September 12, 2002


Tributes to other musicians


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