Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
MUSIC: November 29, 1998
Setting high standards of purity
Goddess Lakshmi is usually referred to as the mother-in-law of Goddess Saraswathi. Telugu poets often bemoan the fact that because of this relationship Lakshmi and Saraswathi do not stay at one place together. Poets, musicians, priests and teachers, who are devotees of Saraswathi, are hence notoriously poor.
Bammera Pothana, the "Maanasika Guru" of Saint Thyagaraja, was taunted by his brother-in-law Srinatha to sell his work Bhagavatha and earn some money to afford two square meals a day. Pothana was disturbed for a moment but then had a vision of Saraswathi shedding tears. The confusion was cleared and Pothana burst out, "Oh great Daughter-in-law of Narayana, Rest assured, I promise you with purity in thought, word, and deed, I will not sell you to these despicable Karnatas, Kiraatas and Keechakas to fill my stomach." He remained poor for life.
Thyagaraja consciously kept away from money but there were others who were poor not by choice. There was the extreme case of Todi Seetharamiah (19th century) who was a good musician and had attained an enviable level of excellence in that art. He could sing in a Todi raga so well that the raga's name became a part of his own name. But stricken by poverty, he took to strange ways to meet his needs. He would pledge or mortgage Todi raga for a loan of Rs 15 or 20. The deal was that he would not sing that raga till the loan was repaid. Other affluent persons, eager to hear him, would repay the loan, redeem the raga and ask him to sing for them.
Mohandas V. Badagara/Wilderfile
This was the picture of the music world in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. There were many giant musicians and composers. Mysore's Veena Seshanna and Bidaram Krishnappa, Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Maha Vaidyanathar Aiyar, Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar, Thatchur Singarachar brothers and Mysore Vasudevachar among the composers, and Semmangudi Narayana Iyer and Thirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer among the violinists were the more prominent. They did not suffer from dire poverty but could certainly not be called well-to-do.
It was in this background that Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was born on August 25, 1908 in Semmangudi village near Thanjavur to Radhakrishna Iyer and Dharmambal. Thirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer was his maternal uncle, and Semmangudi Narayanaswami Iyer his cousin on his mother's side. In a way Srinivasa Iyer's life symbolises the history of Karnataka music during the 20th century. How he was trained, became a mature singer, pursued beauty in the art, how he succeeded and how he has imperceptibly brought about a permanent change in the singing pattern, all add up to a fascinating study of the life of a person whose devotion to music was total and pure, and who shunned temptations to make easy money.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer started learning music in 1916, at the age of eight from Semmangudi Narayaswamy Iyer. He was then under the tutelage of Gottu Vadhyam Vidwan Tiruvidaimurudur Sakharama Rao for a few years. It was during this time that there was a discussion on whether "Chani Todi theve" was in Harikhamboji or Khamas, Semmangudi suddenly said it was Khamas. This was much appreciated by the elders.
Later he went to Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer from whom he learnt any number of Thyagaraja songs and lastly was a disciple of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer.
Semmangudi's moral uprightness often unnerved even his Guru. Once, having got the stuff for a drinking bout, the guru told a friend "Wait till Seenu gets into the train and leaves Madras. We can then have our drinks."
Semmangudi's first music recital was in 1926 at the Kumbakonam Nageswaraswami temple. "The 15 or 20 people who had gathered at the temple could not go away owing to heavy rain", he recalls and that made his first concert memorable. The next year he sang at the Congress session in Madras, and has never looked back. He was made "Asthana Vidwan" of the Travancore Royal Court in 1939. In 1941, he joined the Sri Swati Tirunal College of Music, Trivandrum, to edit and make ready for publication the kritis of Maharaja Swati Tirunal. This turned out to be a milestone in the history of South Indian music. More and more of Swati Tirunal's songs came to be sung in concerts. Semmangudi later succeeded Harikesanallur Muthiah Bagavathar as Principal of the institution, which office he held with distinction till 1963 when he retired from the State service. During this period, he was attached to All India Radio also as Chief Producer for three years. It was during his work in AIR that one day he told a higher up - "what I sing may or may not be good but I am unable to listen to everyone singing. I want to give up this work."
Music concerts in those days - closing years of the last century and early years of this century, were elaborate affairs. The concert lasted anywhere between four and five hours. Elaborate singing of three or four main ragas like Kalyani, Thodi or Kambodhi, equally elaborate "neraval" sessions, often looking like pallavi singing, and a ragam, thanam and pallavi formed the concert. It was at this stage that Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar appeared on the scene with his innovative restructuring of the concert pattern. A varnam, followed by not very short but not very long rendering of major ragas followed by kritis, and a ragam, thanam, and pallavi formed the main cutcheri. Short songs with a raga or swara elaboration in between the main items enlivened the atmosphere. This cutcheri pattern originally devised by Iyengar for a 3-1/2 hour duration has slowly been reduced to 2-1/2 hours at best now.
In a warm reference to the services of Ariyakudi to our music, Semmangudi says he did for music what Subramania Bharathi had done for Tamil poetry and the freedom movement and Kalki for Tamil prose. Iyengar sang in such a way that the listener quickly knew what the raga was. This was not so earlier. Iyengar created, or rather educated an entirely new type of audience. The listeners were so familiar with the ragas and songs that they would compare one musician with another. The audiences became larger and larger. The new pattern also required that the musician had to enlarge his repertoire greatly. Ariyakudi himself was reported to have known the largest number of songs.
There were no loudspeakers there at the beginning of the century Musicians had to sing at the top of their voices to be audible to people sitting far away. This had its inevitable effect on the style of singing. Musicians sang in short phrases. Semmangudi also says that singing in short phrases was more due to the nature of our music being based on the veena style and points out that great vidwans like Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer did sing continuously.
Semmangudi narrated a moving anecdote about Konerirajapuram Vaidhyanatha Iyer. Thirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer used to rebuke Vaidyanatha Iyer often on the stage for the unsatisfactory music produced by him. As he lay dying, Vaidyanatha Iyer wept. When a visitor tried to console him, Iyer said: "I am not crying for fear of dying. I have just begun to understand what Krishna Iyer was telling me all these days. I just want to live long enough to sing at least in two cutcheries according to what Krishna Iyer told me." He did not live to do so.
Music in short phrases was not the style of the nagaswaram players either. Unaffected by compulsions of cutcheri demands and lack of mikes, they played long and continuous music. Their lengthy phrases brought out more brilliantly the "swaroopa" or the beauty of a raga than the vocalists did with their short phrases. It had occurred to no one that the nagaswaram style of music could be adapted with suitable adjustments, to vocal singing also.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, as a boy, was struck by this beauty of nagaswaram music. His cousin, Narayanaswami Iyer was not, however, impressed by the boy's fascination for the nagaswaram music, but still allowed him to listen to nagaswaram vidwans approved by him.
The elder musicians - vocalists and violinists were strict traditionalists, and held in reverence the art they had inherited, and would not allow anyone to tamper with it. A student had to sing as he was taught and was not expected to change the pattern as he liked.
This resistance might have slowed down somewhat Semmangudi's ardour to adapt the good points in nagaswaram style to his vocal music but the desire for change never left him. He had to hasten slowly - not offending the traditionalists but at the same time evolving his own style to bring out the beauty of the ragas as he saw them. A student of music can follow these slow changes in his style with the help of a twin cassette album prepared by the Semmangudi Golden Jubilee Trust, and brought out by the AVM Bharat Film Distributors. The earliest recording (1931) shows Semmangudi too singing in short phrases but long enough to bring out the innate beauty of Kharaharapriya. The next, a 1942 recording, of Chalakallalaadu in Arabhi of Thyagaraja shows much change from his earlier style. The Ragam, Thanam and Pallavi (Kambodhi) is evidence of still further progress. The moving rendering of the khamas song of Ramadas (Rama Jogi Mandukonare) in 1979, is one continuous piece of musical excellence, a picture of perfection as it were. The earlier style of singing has been completely forgotten now. All musicians have adopted the continuous style. This is Semmangudi's singular contribution to our music.
Continuous creative activity is the life blood of any art, especially in a field like music. The temptation is overpowering, almost sensual, to produce new compositions. We can never hope to get another Thyagaraja or Syama Sastri or Dikshitar, but we have had during the 20th century a succession of composers who have enriched the heritage to no mean extent. The scholarly and lilting compositions of Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar and Papanasam Sivan, the sedate beauty of Mysore Vasudevachar's kritis, and the daring exploration of new frontiers by Balamuralikrishna, are sure to stand the test of time and survive for long.
But then new compositions are not the only aspect of creative activity, and even seem like child's play compared with the enormity of effort and talent needed to preserve the heritage in proper shape. It is here that Semmangudi stands taller than anyone else in the twentieth century. With a humility and devotion that only great men are capable of, he has stood like a rock against cheap deviations. He has sung the compositions of the masters in his unique style in a way that others can easily follow. Swaras and ragas are his divine friends, and he their beloved devotee; they are not lifeless missiles to be thrown about. He could easily visualise their delicate beautiful turns and twists and they guided him when necessary. He could re-discover the raga details or rhythmical nuances that the composers intended, mercilessly weed out deviations and restore the compositions to their original grandeur. Every song he thus "polished" and sang became a hit. Thyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastry became more accessible than ever before. Semmangudi's work on Swati Tirunal's compositions is a demonstration of what a creative mind can achieve. He studiously avoided composing new songs but that he could have produced a dazzling variety is apparent from the tunes he devised for Sadasiva Brahmendra's songs.
How does one assess such a person? One way could be to have a look at his disciples. With a Bharat Ratna for his disciple that too becomes a difficult job. Violinist T. N. Krishnan is also a disciple. Semmangudi himself names some of them - T. M. Thyagarajan, P. S. Narayanaswami, and Kadayanallur Venkatraman all of whom have a made a mark in the field. He told his disciples "Learn from me but sing like Ariyakkudi."
He becomes really difficult when you try to pinpoint his contributions. He denies he pioneered anything. Here is a man who has inspired generations of musicians and has set high standards of purity and devotion. Here is a man who has preserved our culture, our civilisation and art and enriched it in every way. But society has been indifferent to him. Titles and honours have been bestowed on him by the dozen, but the small amounts he got for his concerts are no compensation for his great sacrifices. We come back to the mother-in-law syndrome. He was never in poverty. With a modest house and some income from deposits, he can manage. But the farm land he had bought in the Forties with hard earned money had to be sold for a song in the early Fifties when politicians planned land ceilings. The result is that today he cannot afford even a small car.
What of the future? New electronic gadgets produce "mind-blowing" noises in the name of music, and there is a new breed of tunesmiths and song mongers. All this will however be a temporary aberration. People like Semmangudi have ensured this.
Copyrights © 1998, The Hindu.
Republication or redissemination ofthe contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of The Hindu.