Balu called on me this morning. As always, it was a pleasure interacting with this simple soul, whose greatest happiness in life is to keep centuries-old Aradhanas, temples and mutts going. That he does not in anyway benefit from such fund collection drives has never occured to Balu. He always says he has enough. After we had spent a pleasant hour together and he had left, I was reminded of a tribute that I had written in 2008 to the memory of Balu’s brother TS Krishnamurthy, who founded the Karnatic Music Book Centre. In a way it owed its success as much to Balu as it did to Krishnamurthy. So here it is, a tribute to both, as published in Sruti.

‘KMBC’ Krishnamurthy
Founder of a musical landmark

T.S. Krishnamurthy, founder of the Karnatic Music Book Centre — a unique establishment in Chennai, passed away on 7th January 2008. He ran the business with passion and involvement, always more interested in the propagation of music awareness than in the bottom line.

In the world of Carnatic music books, the name of A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer is well known. The younger brother of Sangeeta Kalanidhi Alathur Srinivasa Iyer and a vidwan and guru in his own right, he pioneered the concept of publishing books ranging from beginners lessons to varnam-s. These, which came out initially in Tamil and later in English, became very popular. Krishnamurthy had a role to play in popularising them. He was the brother-in-law of Panchapakesa Iyer, his sister having married the musician. Later, he also became the vidwan’s son-in-law. Krishnamurthy worked in the corporate world as did his elder brother Balu, a staunch bachelor who had enough time to devote to any good cause he felt was worth his while. The two, visiting the Tyagaraja aradhana in Tiruvaiyaru in the 1960s, felt that it was a good spot to market the books of Panchapakesa Iyer. They set up a stall at the venue in 1968 and found business to be brisk. Encouraged, they returned year after year and in 1978 Krishnamurthy decided to set himself up in the book trade with Carnatic music books as his sole line. The Karnatic Music Book Centre came up as a result and within a few years, the tiny shop tucked into a by-lane off Sripuram 1st Street in Royapettah became a landmark and a treasure trove for any researcher into Carnatic music.

The company grew in name, though not in the physical area of its outlet, and acquired several titles. These included those of the Indian Music Publishing House which had been run by Professor P. Sambamoorthy. This was acquired in 1982 and Adi and Company, which published K.V. Srinivasa Iyengar’s Adi Tyagaraja Hrdayam was taken over in 1991. With the publishing boom of the 1990s, the bookstore became a single point outlet for music titles and several universities in India and abroad preferred to do business with KMBC which could boast of housing about 2500 titles in many Indian languages. A number of senior artists like Semmangudi, T. Viswanathan, Jon Higgins, B. Rajam Iyer, Nedunuri Krishnamurti, K.J. Yesudass, K.R. Kedaranathan, Sudharani Raghupathy, and scholars like Dr. Arudra, were regular customers. When Balu took voluntary retirement from his job, he came over to help his younger brother, and the duo became icons in the music world.

Balu was the more tactful of the two. “Namaskaram” was Krishnamurthy’s way of introducing himself over the phone in his quite unique voice. You had never any doubt about who was at the other end. A passionate soul, he had a habit of expressing his opinions on any subject without beating around the bush. The slow and bureaucratic methods of publishing houses and the tendency of musicians to debate endlessly on copyright issues were his pet irritations. He vented his spleen periodically on these topics to anyone who cared to listen. People who owned copyrights and did not bring out-of-print books into circulation were yet another pet peeve. I have often been privy to telephone conversations in which Krishnamurthy abruptly signed off with a “Go to hell”! If it was a pleasant conversation, it would end with a “Nalladu”. But such was his genuine love for music and its propagation that this acerbity was taken in the right spirit by most who did business with him. He also helped musicians and authors store their stock of books in his premises without charging them any demurrage. He simply loved books.

When you visited the bookshop with just one title in mind, Krishnamurthy and Balu who knew much more than you did on the subject, would recommend many more books and you would come out with a whole bag full. KMBC despatched books to outstation buyers as well. The brothers’ knowledge was a bonus to any researcher and a conversation with them on matters musical was always a pleasure. Never mind if the shop was dingy and books were stocked higgledy-piggledy and it needed a Krishnamurthy or Balu to tell you where exactly the various titles were located. The shop had a treasure trove of old titles, including manuscripts dating back to the 19th century. Some would be made available for viewing to a select group of friends. But if Krishnamurthy was fond of you, he would not hesitate to part with one of these for a very reasonable price. I was lucky to purchase an original edition of Abraham Pandithar’s Karunamrita Sagaram from him.

Krishnamurthy was diabetic and an accident in the 1990s restricted his mobility. He therefore spent most of his time in the shop leaving Balu to deal with the world. But over the years the brothers found running the bookshop too much of a strain. Krishnamurthy’s health was failing and Balu was happier collecting funds for kumbhabhishekam-s, the Tyagaraja aradhana, the Sadasiva Brahmendra utsavam at Nerur or the Sridhara Venkatesa Iyyaval festival at Tiruvisanallur. So they decided to put the shop on the market. That is when I interacted very closely with them, for it was Krishnamurthy’s dearest wish that I should acquire the business! But, I, working in hydraulics and software, besides trying to run, write on music and history was not keen. After many “Go to hells!” between us, Krishnamurthy gave up the idea, though he never stopped lamenting about it.

The business was acquired by another firm which was into publishing and the shop moved a few buildings away into a larger, more modern showroom where it continues to survive and thrive. Krishnamurthy went into retirement and Balu went back to his fund collection drives. In the years that followed, I became a close friend of Balu’s and in fact take pride in considering myself one, for such is the goodness of his heart and genuine interest in deserving causes. One of them is the conduct of a traditional aradhana for Tyagaraja that under the baton of the octogenarian Chellam Iyer, continues to take place in Tiruvaiyaru, in parallel to the one that goes on at the Samadhi in the full glare of television cameras. Not many people attend this private aradhana, but perhaps it is best that way.

Krishnamurthy and I called each other at times and discussed music titles. He and music historian T.S. Parthasarathy were quite a combination and they spent hours on the telephone talking about music research, each helping the other. At this time, both were fairly restricted in their movements and therefore found much solace in these regular telephone conversations. When TSP passed away, Krishnamurthy felt the loss very keenly.

A couple of weeks ago, Chellam Iyer called to discuss his Tyagaraja aradhana and by way of conversation mentioned that Krishnamurthy was in hospital. I made a note to call up Balu the next day and enquire. But before that there was a call from Balu who, in a matter-of-fact voice, stated that his brother had passed away that morning. His diabetes had finally taken its toll. Balu being Balu, then went on to discuss the forthcoming Tyagaraja aradhana, bless him. But Krishnamurthy would have understood. In fact he would have been pleased. To him, the only way music could be propagated was to be matter-of-fact and business-like about it.

PS: Chellam Iyer is now in his nineties and going strong!