Karukurichi Arunachalam did not hail from a traditional nagaswaram family. His father Balavesam was so fascinated and impressed by the artistry and prestige of Koorainadu Natesa Pillai that he attempted to learn to play the instrument and become a performing artist. Unfortunately he did not quite make it as a musician, but found solace in his son Arunachalam’s talent for the instrument. Arunachalam learnt nagaswaram from Kattumalli Subbiah Kambar and vocal music from Kalakkad Subbiah Bhagavatar and his son Ramanarayana Bhagavatar. (Some accounts have it that he learnt vocal music from Kallidaikurichi Ramalinga Bhagavatar). A great fan of nagaswaram wizard Rajaratnam, Karukurichi constantly dreamt of training under him. Through a fortuitous opportunity to accompany him on stage when TNR’s aide Kakkayi Natarajasundaram Pillai fell ill before a concert at Karukurichi, he did fulfil his dream.
Arunachalam did gurukulavasam shadowing TNR at home and concerts and learning the nuances of his music largely by osmosis. Soon he assimilated the best facets of Rajaratnam’s music in abundance, and became renowned in equal measure for the beauty of his handling of ragas and compositions.
At the height of his fame, Arunachalam had a large fan following, hugely enhanced by his nagaswaram contribution to the film Konjum Salangai, in which he played pure classical music as well as raga-based songs composed for the movie. The song Singaravelane deva in which the playback singer S Janaki sang in tandem with his nagaswaram playing repeating every phrase of his became a runaway hit, still remembered and enjoyed by audiences fifty years later. Once he became well settled in his music career he left Karukurichi in Tirunelveli district where he was born and settled down at Kovilpatti town in the same district.
A tribute in the Indian Express on 7 April 1964 said, “Sri Arunachalam’s renderings of ragas, kritis and pallavis were noted for their tonal purity and melodic beauty.” Natabhairavi, Kharaharapriya, Pantuvarali, Shanmukhapriya, Nata and Gowla were described as his favourite ragas, while rare ragas like Chandrajyoti and Takka were his forte, too. According to a charming story, Rajaratnam, who was a fan of his disciple’s music, once sat down on the road in T’Nagar to listen to Arunachalam’s Huseni raga alapana in a temple procession, refusing to move even though he was causing a disruption of the traffic.
Karukurichi Arunachalam’s death at the Palayamkottai Government Headquarters Hospital on 6 April 1964 marked the end of a distinct era in nagaswaram music of the Rajaratnam school. It would not be unrealistic to speculate that he would have reached great heights in music, even achieved the Sangita Kalanidhi title at the Music Academy where he often electrified audiences.