Text of speech at 37th annual event of the Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer Golden Jubilee Committee
By V Ramnarayan
(Some months ago, we heard Trivandrum Seethalakshmi—who now lives in Columbus, Ohio—at this very venue. Her student Aparajita, who sang the prayer today, did her proud. Congratulations, Aparajita.
Most of you present here probably know Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and his music better than I. But I have one advantage over all of you. I played cricket with Semmangudi’s son Radhakrishnan who is present here. I remember a news report from 1967. The headline said “Radhakrishnan scores a century”, and the opening sentence, “S Radhakrishnan, son of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, scored a hundred…”)
Smt Kalyani Sharma, Sri Ramabhadran, Sri PS Narayanaswamy, Sri V Subrahmaniam, Sri Vasanth Kumar, Ladies and gentlemen,
He was the pitamaha, the patriarch of Carnatic music. His singing was powerful, deeply moving. His profound scholarship never hampered his creative genius.
He was a star in the midst of stars like Ariyakudi, Madurai Mani Iyer, Musiri and GNB.
He battled a gruff and nasal voice all his life and managed to produce grand music despite having to fight those wayward vocal chords every inch of the way.
Through that gruelling vocal odyssey, it often seemed he was pleading with God, even wrestling with Him as he struggled to overcome his handicap.
It could not stop Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer from becoming arguably the top Carnatic musician of the 20th century.
Aeolus or SV Seshadri once wrote in Shankar’s Weekly:
Semmangudi’s imagination is kriti-centred. The central piece of reality for him is the kriti, and all other components like raga prastara, niraval and swara go to reinforce and augment the bhava of the kriti. They partake of the compactness and orderliness of the kriti. The mood of the raga is derived from the import of the song.
Semmangudi has no equal in bringing out the bhava of a kriti. He communicates the feeling and emotion of the sahitya with an intensity that has the imprimatur of a personal faith. His music is not merely brilliant but devout and moving.
We all know that Kalki Krishnamurti once accused Semmangudi of ‘murdering’ the text, as in the transformation of ‘Siva, siva, siva enarada’ to ‘Jiva, jiva, jiva enarada’.
Journalist Gowri Ramnarayan wondered in an article:
This attitude to lyrics 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 Sastry’s swarajatis bear the Semmangudi stamp, but the accent is on ragabhava.
If Ariyakudi shaped the structure of the modern Carnatic music kutcheri, Semmangudi defined its grammar and aesthetics. There was no room for thrills and spills in it; crooning was anathema to him. The Semmangudi influence has been responsible for the dignity and majesty that true lovers of Carnatic music associate with it.
According to Semmangudi, his first guru Sakharama Rao was a saint, “though a martinet” when it came to matters musical.
Of Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer of Tyagaraja’s sishya parampara he said, “He made me realise that I stood on the shores of a limitless ocean.”
When Srinivasan’s adolescent voice broke, it turned so harsh that his uncle advised him to switch to playing the violin.
That did not deter the young man. He was determined to conquer his troublesome voice. He practised, practised and practised. In his senior years he was to advise young aspirants to practise, practise, practise.
Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer treated him like a son and denied him nothing by way of musical exposure. The disciple imbibed much from Viswanatha Iyer while accompanying him on the concert platform, but eschewed his flashy ornamentation and his partiality to Hindustani raga-s.
Once he made his concert debut in 1926, Semmangudi gained much support from senior accompanists. “Ghatam Kothandarama Iyer watched over my music and my conduct,” he said. The venerable Dakshinamurthy Pillai gave him his blessings.
His progress thereafter was phenomenal. At 39, he was the youngest Carnatic musician in history to be crowned Sangita Kalanidhi.
Semmangudi attributed much of the emotional depth and comprehensive understanding of every raga he explored to the great nagaswaram music he heard in his formative years from such giants as Mannargudi Chinna Pakkiria Pillai, Kumbakonam Sivakozhundu, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, Veeruchami Pillai. (He related to an audience at Mylapore’s R.R. Sabha one day in the 1990s the story of how he as a young man used to cross the river to listen to the magical, mesmerising nagaswaram of Chinna Pakkiri—after the piper had imbibed more than the divine spirit. That evening, Semmangudi went on to decry the use of amplification for what was an instrumental ensemble designed for the open air processions of temple rituals. Mikes were his pet aversion.
Speaking to Gowri, he once recalled those nagaswara vidwans’ “mallari rhythms launching the night processions of the deity around the streets. Midnight in Terku Veedi would bring melodies divine—Todi, Bhairavi, Shanmukhapriya, Kedaragaula. Those nocturnal revelations stayed with him. They were to invest his music with depth, grandeur and incandescence.”
Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar was responsible for Semmangudi being invited to Travancore to help him edit, notate and publish the compositions of Swati Tirunal. Succeeding Bhagavatar as Principal of the Swati Tirunal College of Music, Semmangudi made a monumental impact on the Carnatic music scene in Kerala.
According to an obituary tribute in Frontline (21 November 2003):
Semmangudi was a generous teacher who trained three generations of sishya-s. Students who stayed at his home, remember his marvellous alapana-s alone at night, usually after a concert.
Such was Semmangudi’s veneration for the art he practised that everything he presented on the stage was gold—honed and burnished. Though his alapana and sloka singing showed he could do anything with raga-s, evoke any mood or effect he wanted, Semmangudi did not compose songs, or even set too many compositions to music. “A lifetime is not enough to explore what we have inherited from our ancestors,” he would say. There was little that he did not know about tala, but he thought indulging in showmanship for its own sake was in poor taste.
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.
Aside: (Late in his life, Semmangudi adopted the likes of TM Krishna and RK Shriram Kumar as his disciples. He sometimes called Krishna impatiently and asked, “Enna, Krishnamacharyal, when are you coming to learn the kriti you wanted me to teach you?” When Krishna chauffeured him around on occasion, he would playfully ask, “I hope this is air-con. I only travel by airconditioned cars.” He would then turn to Shriram Kumar and ask him, “When are you buying a car?” and proceed to dismiss his protests by saying, “Aren’t you accompanying the Bharat Ratna these days?”)
To quote Gowri Ramnarayan again,
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 exemplar of the kriti structure that his research and practise honed to perfection. In T.M. Thyagarajan 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. Narayanaswamy delivers enthralling sarvalaghu swara-s 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 Subrahmanyan and T.M. Krishna have adopted some of the veteran’s techniques, especially in swara singing.
Visitors to the Semmangudi home were touched by his extraordinary ability to remember their kin. For instance, by sheer coincidence, he happened to know both of this writer’s grandfathers, one a lawyer in Madras, and the other a retired schoolmaster in Trivandrum, as well as other relatives, all of them solid middle class citizens of good repute, but no celebrities. He never forgot them. “How is your Mama, the railway officer? Didn’t your Periappa teach music in Tenkasi? I know your Thatha contributed to the inaugural edition of the Tamil lexicon. I also knew your other grandfather who tutored our Maharaja in Trivandrum.” If all this was an effort to put you at ease, he did it subtly, weaving it in unobtrusively into the conversation.
In his final years, death was frequently the subject of his comment, though it was usually referred to with a pinch of humour. He was greatly saddened by the departure of many of his friends, colleagues, admirers and accomplices in rummy, the card game, leaving him ‘waitlisted’ as he used to say. That he made friends for life was well known. These friendships embraced not only the likes of his disciple M.S. Subbulakshmi and her husband T. Sadasivam, but less known individuals as well. When one such lifelong friend, much younger than he, died in 2001, Semmangudi insisted on climbing two flights of stairs to sit by him, lamenting the unfairness of his passing away, while he himself was still alive. At other times, he was not averse to taking a swipe at Yama Dharma Raja. “He came for me last night, but took away my neighbour instead, confused by the old number-new number muddle,” was one of his classics.
Semmangudi once took a young journalist through a walking tour of Tiruvaiyaru. In a rare confession to her, he said, “I have known heartbreak. 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.”
All through his life, and beyond it through the legacy he has left behind, Semmangudi has remained that beacon light for the world of Carnatic music and musicians. And his worthy disciples are keeping his bani alive, disseminating it with true devotion and uncompromising fidelity to his principles.
I congratulate the Golden Jubilee celebrations committee and Sri Subramaniam on commemorating Semmangudi’s anniversary in such an exemplary manner—now for the 37th year. My heartfelt felicitations to Smt Kalyani Sharma, by all accounts a role model carrying on her guru’s legacy and spreading Carnatic music with devotion in Mumbai for decades now. It has been a great honour to be here today and speak on the great Semmangudi Mama—it is the equal of an opportunity to speak on Sir Garfield Sobers or Sir Don Bradman. Thank you so much.