By Gowri Ramnarayan
Impressed with the young vocalist’s musical prowess, Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar of Mysore gave him a scholarship to study under Patnam Subramania Iyer at Tiruvaiyaru. The boy was 19 when Subramania Iyer agreed to teach him and he left Mysore to seek his guru at the village in Tanjavur district. Vasudevachar did not know Tamil, but knew that the great musician he had heard back home lived in one of the streets in that pilgrimage centre.
He eventually knocked at one of the doors of the agraharam to ask for directions, only to be met with a growl from a majestic figure that opened the door. “Anda medhavikku edir veedu.” (The genius lives in the opposite house). The boy had arrived at Subramania Iyer’s archrival Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan’s door!
Mysore Vasudevachar would one day become a famous musician like his guru. Appointed asthana vidwan in the Mysore court, he was lauded as performer, scholar and composer. He set to music the grand verses of his royal patron Jayachamaraja Wodeyar. Examples were Kshirasagarasayana (Mayamalavagowla, Dhruva); Srijalandhara (Gambhiranattai, Adi) and Sivasivasivabho (Nadanamakriya, Jhampa).
Vasudevachar spent his last years in Rukmini Devi’s Kalakshetra at Chennai, where he revelled in the challenge of composing for the Ramayana dance drama series based on Valmiki’s epic. His music for this modern genre has been a perennial favourite ever since. The immediate impact on audiences was overwhelming. Even the fastidious, hard to please statesman Rajaji was moved to exclaim, “Rukmini Devi and Vasudevachar have built a peerless temple for Rama!’’
Known as Pachai Thatha for the green shawl he constantly wore (Sivappu Thatha was the formidable Veena Sambasiva Iyer), Vasudevachar was endearingly humble all his.
When M. S. Subbulakshmi sang “Brochevarevarura” in a Kalakshetra concert, he declared that he could not recognise the song as his own. His homely daughter had returned after marriage, decked in gold and diamonds! (A similar story is told in relation to other musicians as well, but this episode had several eyewitnesses at the Kalakshetra auditorium).
Stories abound about his struggles to master music. Once when his senior Veena Seshanna took him along to Coimbatore where he had a concert, Vasudevachar learnt an Ata tala varnam from the master by rushing to his second class compartment from his own berth in the third class every time the train stopped at a station.
Vasudevachar’s compositions are original, but contain the ardour and sweetness of his role model Tyagaraja. “Abhinava Tyagaraja”, as he was often called, was a true uttama vaggeyakara, for the words and music of his compositions, more than 200 in number, emerged together from his uncluttered creativity. Besides the lovely Kalyani piece, “Srimadadi Tyagaraja guruvaram’’, he paid homage to the Trinity in three ragamalikas.
Once when the Maharaja asked him to compose in his mothertongue, Kannada, Vasudevachar refused saying that he was well-versed in Sanskrit, and Telugu came to him as a blessing from Tyagaraja, but to compose like a Purandaradasa was beyond him.
Interest in Vasudevachar’s compositions was kept alive during the tenure in the 1990s of the composer’s grandson S Rajaram at Kalakshetra, which he came to head as director. At Kalakshetra, at his residence and at workshops arranged by such organisations as Sampradaya, he taught many musicians and students a wide choice of songs from his grandfather’s repertoire.
Mysore Vasudevachar was indeed one of the 20th century’s outstanding vaggeyakaras.