The Music Academy has announced that Shri AKC Natarajan, Clarinet artiste, has been selected to receive the Sangita Kalanidhi award this year. The SK is a very prestigious award and there is always a lot of excitement surrounding the choice and announcement every year. Online bulletin boards usually start speculating well in advance and I'm not sure if AKC was even in the reckoning. Personally I think this is an excellent choice. Firstly the artiste is one of the senior most vidwans, who broke into the strong domain of the nadaswaram maestroes with a different instrument. He has performed with exceptional skill and success for more than 50 years and is a worthy choice. The Academy has definitely done itself proud by selecting AKC.
A few years back I had the good fortune of spending about 10 days with AKC in Cleveland and it was most memorable in more ways than one. This was my first encounter with him and he came across as a very warm individual who hardly had any traces of arrogance or seniority. This is very rare as I have come across several senior musicians who were so full of themselves and more than eager to stamp their personality on you rather than their music! Nadaswara vidwan Seshampatti Sivalingam, had also come with us in that trip. I still remember at Chicago airport as we were waiting to clear our baggage, he came up to AKC and said "How is that when we hear you play, there is no difference in the sound between the clarinet and the nadaswaram?" He said that he had pulled out a few of the keys in the instruemnt and modified it so that he ppaid it mroe like a nadaswaram than as a conventional clarinet. Which is why he was able to reproduce most of the nadaswara gamakas and phrases.
During the entire week in Cleveland I was the honorary coffee maker at the Comfort Inn lobby at Cleveland for several musicians like AKC, Vina Venkatraman and Vellore Ramabhadran. In the afternoons I would just walk into AKC's room and have a chat with him about various things.After a couple of days he told me "Please come to room tomorrow and sing for some time. I want to warm my fingers and get ready for the concert!" So I went and he took his instrument and started playing along as I sang. After a while he got so enthused and put down his instrument and started singing himself. And how well he sang! I still remember a Karaharapriya alapana that he sang. Vellore Ramabhadran was also there and he joined in and there was a terrific imromptu jam session!
AKC also had an impish sense of humour. Once he said, "I'll teach you a song. Once you start singing it in your concerts, young girls will just be queueing up soon!" And guess what he sang for me "Oho kaalame" in Sahana. I asked him for the notation and he promised to give it to me. Later I found a recording of Dandapani Desigar singing that and song and learnt it immediately. AKC also gave me pointers to a lot of compositions that he ahd learnt and hoefully I will be able to get it all in soon. He told me that when he started out there was a lot of oppositeion among nadaswara vidwans. Whenever he came to temple festivals, the nadaswara vidwans would ask him to stay back as his instrument was only a "band vadyam" or an instrument from the European band and not a traditional temple instrument. But his hard work, dedication and efforts finally paid off and today he stands apart as an oustanding exponent of carnatic music who has proved himself to be bracketed with the best among the best in modern nadaswara music.
The Academy has also not been too kind to ndaswara vidwans. In fact in its 80 year existence only 3 nadaswara vidwans have been given the SK. It is also most fitting that this is given in the year of the centenary of SSI, because Semmangudi himself was one of the great fans of Nadaswaram and he would have been most happy withthis choice.