This leading player of the flute in Indian classical music comes from a family that could provide the bookings for an entire music series without leaving the house. His brother, T. Ranganathan, is as legendary a player of the clay drums known as mrdangam as Tanjur Viswanathan, usually known as T. Viswanathan, is on flute. His sister, Balaraswati, was the noted Indian classical dancer Bala; noted Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray made the documentary Bala about her in 1976. In addition, Viswanathan's aunts and at least one grandmother were singers. By the age of ten, he already knew more than 100 songs. One of his earliest musical influences was the flautist K.M. Swaminatham Pillai, whom he first recalls hearing perform at a wedding when he was only nine years old. The family seems to have made a quick decision to inquire if their musically fascinated son could go off to the city of Tanjore to study with this master.
Before he knew it, Viswanathan was on a Tanjore tangent: his teacher tickling him awake at four a.m. for music practice as the rest of the day was filled with chores such as selecting the day's fruits and vegetables as well as attending elementary school. Apparently the tutor was as concerned with the selection of produce as he was with the flute lessons, but slowly and steadily Viswanathan learned one elaborate musical system after another. These compositions were passed along without actually showing the student any of the fingerings on the flute; he was expected to learn the piece of music, then figure out how to actually play it on the instrument. Meanwhile his mother, tiring of his separation from the family, figured out a way to have the teacher Pillai relocate to Madras. This type of arrangement was actually not that difficult, because even though artists and teachers such as Pillai were greatly respected in Indian culture for their mastery of classical music techniques, their only income was whatever they could scavenge from the occasional gig. They also were paid nothing for the music lessons they gave, even providing free food for the students! Viswanathan began accompanying Pillai in his concert appearances around the Madras area. Within a few years, the older artist was suddenly turning over improvising spots to his young apprentice. As he became established as a young concert artist, Viswanathan became known not only for technical proficiency, but for absorbing and projecting the meaning of the songs he was performing, an ability he has said he developed through the influence of his sister. He began performing as a solo artist for radio concerts at 12. A few years later, he also became part of the ensemble accompanying his sister.
He certainly got off to a young start professionally, but did not burn out early on by any means. His professional career is full of many highlights involving not only concert performances and recording, but a long record of academic excellence and involvement with some of the top cultural institutions in North America. He received a Fullbright fellowship for study in ethnomusicology from 1958-1960, then took his doctorate at Wesleyan. He returned to India to become head of the Department of Music at the University of Madras, a position he maintained through the first half of the '60s. With flower power beginning to bloom stateside, he dropped back into the heart of it all in order to teach at the California Institute of the Arts. In the '70s he joined the faculty at Wesleyan and has remained there, writing a dissertation and a series of articles about Indian classical music and improvisation. The 1972 Nonesuch release Pallavi: South Indian Flute Music paired him with violinist L. Shankar as well as his brother and is considered a landmark recording of Indian classical music. For many listeners, this was an introduction to this genre on an instrument other than the well-known sitar. The album teamed him up with L. Shankar, a violinist who created an interesting career in world music combining classical virtuosity with jazz and popular music forms. He has continued recording off and on. He released the South Indian Classical Flute CD on JVC in 1998. In 1992, he received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Besides his brother, with whom he frequently performs concerts, his musical collaborators include Trichy Sankaran, Ramrad V. Raghaven, David Nelson, A. Ananthakrishnan, and T. Mukta.