The pitamaha of Carnatic music

Print edition : November 21, 2003


Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, 1908-2003.

"MY colleagues and those who were close to me are all gone. Why should my life drag on?'' the grand old man of Indian music asks a visitor a few months before his death on October 31 in Chennai. The visitor becomes emotional in responding to this melancholy. Does the world of Carnatic music not need him, its sangeeta pitamaha, patriarch and role model? But the 95-year-old Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer's mood has changed. He breaks into a toothless smile, which lights up the whole room. "Actually, the god of death did come for me last week. But what with the muddles of old houses given new numbers on this street, he made off with a neighbour.''

A little later, when the talk touches on similar seeming ragas, he relives a scene still green in his mind. "Long ago, I was studying music with Sakharama Rao in Tiruvidaimarudur village - do you see his portrait up there on the wall? Doesn't he look like a saint? He was one, almost, but a martinet all the same. Anyway, my guru was sitting on the tinnai strumming his gottuvadyam and telling another vidwan that the song ''Sujana jivana'' was set in Khamas, not in Harikhambhoji as the visitor contended. I was only a child, but I butted in saying that my guru was right, and sang the phrases to prove my point. I was not showing off, just being fiercely loyal. Both disputants blessed me and said that my future would be a bright one.''

We have heard this and more before. But we are just as ready to hear him repeat his reminiscences, as his magnificent Kalyanis or Kambodis. Both are links to a golden age of great musicians, each with a distinct style of his own, and a personality to go with it.

Village Semmangudi (in Tamil Nadu) had no music teachers, and little Cheenu had to follow the gurukula mode of moving to the teacher's home. His relationship varied with each guru. Semmangudi's voice quivers when he describes `Rayarval' (Sakharama Rao) coming home for his puja after the morning dip in the river, "in fresh kachham, his forehead streaked with the sacred mark, looking as venerable as Tukaram swami himself. You wanted to fall at his feet.''

It was in Tiruvidaimarudur that Semmangudi fell under the spell of nagaswaram wizards whose names roll off his tongue like an incantation - Mannargudi Chinna Pakkiria Pillai, Kumbakonam Sivakozhundu, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, Veeruchami Pillai... With moist eyes he recalls their mallari rhythms launching the night processions of the deity around the streets. Midnight in Terku Veethi (south street) would bring melodies divine - Todi, Bhairavi, Shanmukhapriya, Kedaragowlai. Those nocturnal revelations stayed with him. They were to invest his music with depth, grandeur and incandescence.

Sakharama Rao's ill-health took Cheenu to gentle Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer of Tyagaraja's sishya parampara in Kumbakonam. His repertoire was enriched, so was his knowledge. Although Swaminatha Iyer was no concert artist, "he made me realise that I stood on the `shores of a limitless ocean'.'' Seeking, finding and polishing its treasures became his life's mission.

Next, he benefited immensely as student-in-residence with hot-tempered cousin Narayanaswami Iyer, whose concert accompaniment for top rankers introduced him to a variety of music. Once the irascible guru thrashed the boy for singing a phrase, which revealed that he had secretly listened to a musician whose style was unacceptable to Iyer. There was little support when the boy's voice broke and traumatised him by its harshness. The croaks made laya vidwan Dakshinamurthy Pillai advise him to take up the violin like his uncle Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, a cult figure in the field.

But the determined stripling undertook demoniac practice. The reward? Srinivasan served his concert apprenticeship with a singular vocalist of his time - Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. "He treated me like his own son.'' The disciple was happy to manage the master's household, bring pots of drinking water daily from the Cauvery, and stay awake on train journeys to guard his trunk and tambura. From what he does not say we can guess that Viswanatha Iyer's unorthodox lifestyle was not the strait-laced disciple's cup of tea. The guru could be caustic; on one public occasion he said to the prostrating sishya, "Get up, everyone has seen your namaskaram.'' Srinivasan realised also that the guru's lightning flashes were not for him, nor his penchant for Hindustani ragas.

From the start Semmangudi had wholehearted approval from senior accompanists. "Ghatam Kothandarama Iyer watched over my music and my conduct,'' he acknowledges gratefully. Dakshinamurthy Pillai was happy he had been proved wrong in asking the boy to switch to the violin.

Mentor Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar was responsible for a turning point. Semmangudi was invited to Travancore to assist the Bhagavatar edit, notate and publish the compositions of Swati Tirunal. Succeeding the senior as Principal of the Swati Tirunal College of Music, Semmangudi left a lasting influence on the Carnatic music scene in Kerala. The Travancore royal family became his life-long patrons.

Semmangudi held some unpopular notions about sidemen's roles. "Mridangam should merely keep the beat like the Hindustani tabla," he declared. And though he encouraged violinists with bhesh and shabhash, he disliked long essays by them. Was this because his voice lost its malleability during the long interludes of string or drum? Did his reverence for the kriti see the percussionist's role as merely banking, and not shaping, the kriti in his beats? But he did not deny that his blitzkrieg brilliance in "Kshinamai'' (Mukhari) or "Marubalka'' (Sriranjini) - the initial words of those songs became his titles - owed greatly to sidemen collaborations.

In the old days many would find the khadi-clad Srinivasan at the spinning wheel. His admiration for Gandhi and Rajaji did not stop with setting tunes to Subrahmania Bharati's patriotic verses and singing national songs despite a ban on them by the British Raj. He joined the spinners lining the street when Rajaji marched to Vedaranyam for the salt satyagraha. An admirer compared Semmangudi's voice to homespun - uneven even when proficiency achieved a silken texture.

One day, humming an old favourite "Enru taniyum inda sutantira daham'' (when will the thirst for freedom be assuaged), Semmangudi brought out his old charka to show how it worked. He looked up to add, "Our values are like this charka now, dusty, disused...''

But Semmangudi was not one to see nothing good in the present. He was a sought-after speaker at functions not only for his wit and humour, but for his appreciation of eminent seniors and his encouragement of younger artists and earnest projects. He had mixed feelings towards women singers. While he respected the Dhanammal heritage, he wished for a certain restraint in women artists, particularly in the `male domain' of tanam and swara. And though he openly praised many artists who transgressed rules that he never broke, this was not just diplomacy. He respected certain other attributes they possessed.

He himself remained orthodox in appearance and daily rituals. He would not change to suit the times. Although he greatly valued money, he would not accept engagements only for its sake. He refused to be tempted into foreign tours. Had he not promised his father never to cross the seas?

The teacher in him was ever willing to share his knowledge. He taught more by lapsing into self-forgetful raga essays at unexpected moments at home. Fortunate disciples would listen entranced, knowing that they were getting their best lessons. The guru was singing for himself, without the pressures of pleasing an audience, or classroom timetables. His voice performed miracles, because he became unaware of its recalcitrance that plagued him all his life, despite a throat surgery at the height of his career.

Semmangudi's own style was distinct, with an originality firmly grounded in tradition. His school does not permit cloning. M.S. Subbulakshmi is the best examplar of the kriti structure that his research and practice honed to perfection. In T.M.Tyagarajan we see the undeviating traditionality; violinist T.N. Krishnan combines the purity of ragabhava with imagination; we have heard Kedaranathan render a Sankarabharanam with his guru's majestic sweetness; P.S. Narayanaswami delivers enthralling sarva laghu swaras in the Semmangudi mould; Seetha Rajan maintains his aesthetics. V. Subramaniam and Palai Ramachandran adhere to the master without imitation. It is also interesting to see how younger musicians like Sanjay Subrahmanyam and T.M. Krishna have adopted some of the veteran's techniques, especially in swara singing.

The maestro excelled in all departments - ragam, tanam, swaram and kriti. His pallavis were marvels of rhythmic exuberance, untainted by excess. But he did cross swords with music reviewer Kalki Krishnamurti for `murdering' the text. A famous sample was the transformation of `Siva, siva, siva enarada' to `Jiva, jiva, jiva enarada'. Why not, Semmangudi would muse in private, seeing words as grids for the music. He scorned what he called the `chew-'n-spit' method of enunciating the words in the song. His sloka rendition at the end owed its moving impact to the melodising, not the lyric.

This attitude was surprising in one who spent years editing the compositions of Swati Tirunal, who was in ecstasies over the diction of Muthuswami Dikshitar's Navavarana kritis. Syama Sastri's swarajatis bear the Semmangudi stamp, but the accent is on ragabhava.

His friendships were for life, as with fellow vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer or with T. Sadasivam, whom he initiated into the joys of rummy, even as he introduced new kritis to his wife M.S. Subbulakshmi.

Longevity and ripe musicianship made him the most respected figure of the century in his field. But the venerable artist could be everybody's friend. Visitors were touched by his warmth, and also by his extraordinary ability to remember their entire clan. "How is your Mama, the railway officer? Didn't your athimber teach music in Tenkasi? I knew your grandfather when he tutored our Maharaja in Trivandrum...'' His charm and bonhomie attracted young people. Through them he felt the pulse of current trends.

Once, when Semmangudi was a sprightly 74, he took a young friend through a walking tour of Tiruvaiyaru (the birthplace of Tyagaraja, in Tamil Nadu), scattering the streets with spicy jokes about old squabbles among old-timers. Stopping under a tree beside the river, he said, quite out-of-the-blue, "I have known heart break. Often my mind would resonate with a music that throat and voice were unable to express. What saved me from despair was the music of the great vidwans that I have absorbed with all my heart from childhood. I have tried my best to show you some glimpses of that light.''

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