Lingering memories of our Guru Pichumani Iyer
Ramnath Iyer and Gopinath Iyer
For eight years, the routine was the same. We would traipse through the noisy streets of Mylapore to our guru Pichumani Iyer’s house, veena picks and oil box gripped in one hand and meticulously copied notation notebook in the other.
And even now, thirty-six years later, the memories of each class linger in our minds—our guru’s kind yet firm words, his watchful eyes following the fingers dancing on the strings, the echoes of the veena pulsing through the room.
Born in Nagapattinam on 18 May 1920, Pichumani Iyer hailed from a family of musicians. As a boy he learnt vocal music from “Jalar” Gopala Iyer of Tiruchi. He later took to the veena and learnt from Tiruchi Kupanna. He was fifteen by this time and had already established his talents by winning the prestigious award of the National College, Tiruchi in a Carnatic vocal music contest. He studied up to S.S.L.C. in the National College School before joining the Annamalai University. At the University he received the Sangeeta Bhooshanam for veena in 1942 after completing the four-year course under the tutelage of Tiger Varadachariar, K.S. Narayanaswamy and Gomathi Sankara Iyer.
Soon after graduation, he relocated to Madras to join AVM Studios in their music troupe. He was a key veena player in the orchestra for over 16 years and his veena music in many film songs was highly acclaimed during that time when classical music ruled the roost in cinema. His veena playing for the films Penn, Sampoorna Ramayanam, and the hit songs Maalai pozhuthin mayakkathile, Veenai kodiyudaya vendaney and Indru poi naalai va, speak volumes of his talent. In 1959 he quit his job at the AVM Studios and started his career as a full-time vainika, teaching and performing concerts.
He was conferred several titles and awards by organisations and institutions—including the TTK award from the Music Academy, Madras, the Kalaimamani award from the State Government of Tamil Nadu and the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award. He performed all over India and undertook his maiden trip overseas to Australia in 1999 at our invitation. He published a number of audio recordings; some of his early gramophone records brought out between the 1950s and the 1970s were popular and regularly broadcast by All India Radio. He was a top-grade artist of All India Radio and Doordarshan. Pichumani Iyer was a composer of merit too, with a few swarajatis, varnam and tillanas to his credit. One of his tillanas is in the raga of his own creation called Vasanta Kaisiki.
Pichumani Iyer trained a number of students, many of whom are notable veena players in their own right. To name a few performing disciples: Vasantha Krishnamurthy, P. Vasanthkumar, R.S. Jayalakshmi, B. Kannan, Revathi Krishna, R. Raman, Thayapari Niranjan (Singapore), Sastry Vedham, Shriram (U.S.A.) and the two of us called Iyer Brothers (Australia).
It is always difficult to capture the power of music in words. This reflection, however, from a press review by the highly respected music critic the late N.M. Narayanan (The Hindu, Friday, 14 June 1991), encapsulates Pichumani Iyer’s impact. “It is a problem of discovering a point where the practical and the idealistic meet. It is a point from which the classical music that flows is practical without being over-practical and profane, and idealistic without being lost in useless and unproductive idealism. The modern kutcheri pioneers showed the way of sustaining classical music with dignity on this middle path… R. Pichumani has fashioned a method for himself. It is a method by which veena music retains character and is made entertaining at the same time.”
Any rasika who has attended his kutcheris can attest to the high calibre of performance. His supple fingering, unique attention to detail, and rich rendering of traditional compositions made each concert moving in its own way.
Tracing the career of Pichumani Iyer demands reflection not only on his success as a professional veena vidwan but also celebration of the personal impact he had on the lives of his many students as a guru. Even when our IT jobs eventually took us out of Chennai, our lessons with him were a highlight of our annual trips to India. “Vadhyar”, as we fondly referred to him, gave us so much. Each class would go on for at least two hours, three times a week. It was like a gurukulam! Beyond the classroom, Vadhyar and Mami (his wife) treated us like their own sons; bequeathing us with the duty of getting ‘Kumbakonam vettalai’ and ‘vaasanai seeval’ from their favourite shop in Mylapore’s East Mada street before each class.
Every class was more than just a lesson on the veena. Without a tape recorder in the early learning years, Vadhyar would make us repeat the sangatis incessantly to ensure the music was etched in our memory. He also inculcated in us the discipline of notating songs promptly at the conclusion of each class. In this way, we absorbed a sense of discipline, responsibility and attention to detail that we try to apply in our lives.
|Iyer Brothers with their guru at a practice session|
remember Vadhyar for his gentility and soft-spoken nature. Many of his musical peers were his close
friends. The noted composer Tanjavur Sankara Iyer and veteran vocalist Calcutta
K.S. Krishnamurthy were his classmates from Annamalai University. Tanjavur
Sankara Iyer would visit him often and engage in musical discussions. We have
watched and eagerly enjoyed some of these interactions during our class,
relishing the lively back and forth between vidwans. Veena
S. Balachander and Chitti Babu were also close friends of our guru.
Vadhyar used to remark about the conversations with Veena Balachander, who would occasionally visit his house late in the night and take him to the Marina beach where they would relentlessly chat for hours! Balachander was very keen to understand how Vadhyar had such a fine “meetu” (plucking) technique without the plucking noise. Other musicians such as Seergazhi Govindarajan, Vellore Ramabhadran, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Lalgudi Jayaraman, N. Ramani were also his good friends. Vadhyar teamed up with Seergazhi Govindarajan to conduct the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru for a few years.
On the completion of the centenary of his birth, we celebrate our guru, Pichumani Iyer for his multitudinous achievements in Carnatic music. We can still recall his vibrant, gamaka-oriented playing and respectful adherence to the vocal style. Melodious rich tone, soft plucking and sensitive playing were the unique hallmarks of Pichumani Iyer’s style. Beyond this, we also remember his generous spirit, his humility despite countless accolades, and his genuine passion as a teacher.
We are blessed to have been his sishyas, and will be forever grateful for the lessons he taught us not only in music, but in life.