Narayan Iyengar

Narayana Iyengar (January 25, 1903 – January 11, 1959) was a master Indian Carnatic musician of the South Indian instrument, the chitravina (also known as the gotuvadyam). He contributed heavily to the development of the instrument.

Early years

K S Narayana Iyengar was born on 25 January 1903, near Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, India. His father Srinivasa Iyengar was an engineer and an amateur violinist himself, and his mother Srivaramangai was a music lover too. Though Narayana Iyengar displayed an early fascination for music, he only commenced learning formally at the age of 14.

His guru was Kodaganallur Subbaiyya Bhagavatar, a fine vocalist who could also play the gottuvadyam. Narayana Iyengar also showed skill in painting and photography, and honed his skills in these with a stint at the Raja Ravi Varma High School of Arts. He had his general education at the Pattamadai High School. It was music that held his fascination and he decided to dedicate his life to it.

He was enchanted with the beauty, challenge and scope of the gottuvadyam, which was re-introduced to Carnatic music by Tiruvidaimarudur Sakha Rama Rao. Narayana Iyengar requested him to draft him in as his pupil. Sakha Rama Rao, a highly principled artiste, who never cared about money, name or fame, was impressed with Narayana Iyengar's talent and attitude and agreed to teach him. A few years later, he agreed to take on another talented lad, who also brought him glory, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

Narayana Iyengar practised with an obsessed rigour, sometimes up to 18–20 hours a day, and reached great heights in a very short time, which led to people giving him the prefix of the instrument of his choice. He came to be called Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar.

Concert career

Narayana Iyengar's first performance was in his early twenties, and he was soon in great demand all over the country for solo performances. Even in his mid 20s, he was invited to be a Royal Artiste in Trivandrum and later in Mysore. He performed in many prestigious events like 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 the Navaratri Festivals in Trivandrum and Mysore. Narayana Iyengar was a top-ranked artiste at the All India Radio ever since its inception and was featured in many of its national programmes.

Tours abroad

He was invited to perform in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, and his concerts won rave acclaim from the public and the press alike.

On October 2, 1939, the Malaya Tribune wrote:

"The highest flights of ecstasy to which Carnatic music can raise were revealed by the performance on the famous gotuvadyam by Professor 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."

Musical style and impact

He was at ease whether at improvising or interpreting the compositions of great masters. One of his concerts held the then Viceroy Lord Wellington and Lady Wellington so spellbound that they cancelled all their subsequent engagements and had him play encore after encore.

His other admirers included the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Maharajas of Jaipur, Cooch-Bihar, Gwalior etc. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Rabindranath Tagore, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Swami Shivananda also appreciated Narayana Iyengar's music. Sarojini Naidu declared, "In his hands, the gotuvadyam ceases to be an instrument. It becomes a subtle, living voice, capable of expressing every nuance of human passion." Rabindranath Tagore said, "Mr Narayana Iyengar impressed me immensely with his expert expositions".

Veteran Mysore Doreswami Iyengar narrated once (in a speech in Krishna Gana Sabha, Madras, 1994) the extent of Narayana Iyengar's impact in Mysore. Giants like Veena Seshanna and Subbanna felt so insecure with their instruments that they secretly removed the frets from their veenas and converted their instruments to the gotuvadyam, and attempted to master it for a few months. Once the challenge became insurmountable, they reverted to their chosen careers. Mysore Vasudevachar was another great admirer of his music.

Narayan standardised the internal structure, string arrangements, tuning and playing methods of the gotuvadyam. A great artiste like Harikeshanallur Muttaiah Bhagavatar was so captivated by this instrument that he learnt it from Narayana Iyengar for a few years, during their joint stint at the Royal Court of Mysore. V V Shadagopan learnt vocal music from Narayana Iyengar. The latter's technique and style inspired many artistes like Mannargudi Savitri Ammal and M V Varahaswami to take to this instrument. His brightest disciple, however, is his own son Chitravina Narasimhan, who continued to practice and popularise the method and style that his father had created.

Narayana Iyengar, hailed as "the wizard of strings," won numerous awards and titles like Nadabrahma Vidya Varidhi, Digvijaya Nadavani and Gotuvadya Kalanidhi. He had several best-selling gramophone albums to his credit like Mokshamu galada, Parama pavana and Vaishnava janato.

He died on January 11, 1959, soon after playing a live concert for All India Radio. He is survived by his son, Chitravina Narasimhan, and his grandchildren N. Ravikiran, Shashikiran, Kiranavali, and Ganesh.


"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 much sought after by mankind."


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