By V Ramnarayan
Syama Sastri (1762 to 1827)
Syama Sastri was the oldest of the Trinity of Carnatic music. He never met Muttuswami Dikshitar, it seems from available records, though there are accounts of Syama Sastri and Tyagaraja singing together and their friendship. The least prolific of the triad of composers, Syama Sastri is best known for his three magnificent swarajatis—a form of song said to be derived from the jatiswaram of dance music—in the ragas Bhairavi, Todi and Yadukulakambhoji.
Unsurprisingly these three moving compositions, the very epitome of their ragas, are in praise of the goddess Kamakshi, for Syama Sastri was a hereditary priest in the Bangaru Kamakshi temple.
Born Venkatasubrahmanya, to Viswanatha Iyer and Vengalakshmi on April 26, 1762 in a Tamil brahmin family at the temple town of Tiruvarur, the child soon began to be called Syamakrishna, the signature he was to adopt as a composer.
Syama Sastri learnt devotional songs and Sanskrit and Telugu from his father and became proficient in these disciplines at a very early age. Showing an aptitude for music, he started informal lessons from members of the family who were musically inclined. He was well into his teens when he came under the tutelage of Paccimiriyam Adiyappayya, court musician in Tanjavur and composer of the Bhairavi ata tala varnam, Viriboni.
Over the years, Syama Sastri became a well-known musician, scholar and composer. Of the 300 or so kritis credited to him only about 50 have survived. He composed mainly in Telugu, but also in Sanskrit and Tamil. Most of his compositions are in well known ragas, though he is regarded as the creator of the raga Chintamani. His composition Devibrova samayamide is perhaps the only song ever composed in in the raga. Syama Sastri revelled in dotting his songs with swarakshara—solfa notes that coincide with the syllables of the lyrics, as in the word sari (sa-ri), which means right or yes.
Sastri also composed a few songs in rare ragas like Manji, Kalagada and Karnataka Kapi. A specialist in rakti ragas or ragas amenable to slow, elaborate exposition. His compositions in Saveri and Anandabhairavi are particularly evocative, soaked as they are equally in musicality and emotion. Sastri is said to be responsible for the evolution of the raga Anandabhairavi to its present shape.
Syama Sastri’s compositions were replete with rhythmic sophistication and five-syllable words corresponding to the rhythmic phrase ta din gi na tom. His kriti-s make abundant use of the tala Misra chapu, but some of them also feature dual rhythms. In this aspect of composition he was perhaps unique among the great composers of Carnatic music. He left behind manuscripts of complex rhythmic patterns.
Syama Sastri led a quiet priestly life. While one of his sons, Panju Sastri, is said to have carried on the hereditary tradition of priestly work, another son, Subbaraya Sastri, a disciple of Tyagaraja, followed in his father’s footsteps to become a composer of repute.