Posted by kovaiputhalvan on June 21, 2005
Even as a child, I was never a great fan of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. I found his singing extremely dry and insipid, and somehow came to have the mistaken notion that this was what most of Carnatic music sounded like. Unfortunately for me, this put me off Carnatic music for a good part of my life. Maybe I should say “Fortunately”, for it was during this period of my life that I tasted many different kinds of music, and came to love them all.
Back to Semmangudi. When I did come back to the fold, I found that Carnatic music was *not* about dry vocals with atrocious pronunciation, combined with wanton murder of the lyrics in the name of “neraval”. I was drawn back to Carnatic music by a violin concert at the Institute with tree-lined avenues where I studied. The performer was Dr. L. Subramaniam, and I was blown away by his music. From there it was but a hop, step and jump back into mainstream Carnatic music, and I experienced the pleasure of listening to the matchless performances of another Doctor, the one from Mangalampalli. I also came across more hidebound orthodoxy from people who considered both these Doctors (one medical, the other philosophical) to be iconoclasts who had polluted the pure tradition of Carnatic music with the filth of innovation. This served but to increase my already intense lack of respect for orthodoxy of any kind.
My lack of affection for Semmangudi grew further as I read about his various philophical remarks, especially the one that went “… instead of creating new Ragas, one is better off singing a better Kedara Gowla or Mukhari… “. Taken at face value, this is just the kind of advice that an Old Master would give an upstart young singer who was straying off the track. It so happened that the upstart in question was none other than Balamurali, whose singing happened to be far better than Semmangudi. Granted, Balamurali’s innovations were not always pleasing to the ear – that is the price of innovation – but Balamurali’s mastery of *any* raga, including Kedara Gowla and Mukhari, could never have been matched by Semmangudi, even during his heydays. Given that, the comment smacked of little else but professional jealousy. That Semmangudi was intolerant of praise when it did not come his way was evident from his other remarks. Musicians are human too, and it is but natural that they too experience jealousy and bitterness. I just found it a little surprising that someone who was hailed as the “Grand Old Man of Carnatic Music” should come across as someone so petty. After reading the works of Kalki and discovering that Semmangudi was one of the more vocal opponents of Tamil lyrics in Carnatic music, I was more than a little piqued that such a lot of praise was heaped on someone who had done precious little to deserve it.
Later, I came to know that Semmangudi was responsible for popularising some of the most beautiful pieces in all of Carnatic music, the compositions of Swathi Thirunal. That mellowed my anger towards Semmangudi, whom I still regarded as a blot on the fair name of Carnatic music, a little, but not much. I hated his singing as much as ever. I still saw him as a bitter, self-important old man who was past his prime and wasn’t willing to accept it. I still considered him to be a representative example of the ridiculous orthodoxy that sought to put everything under the sun under its dogmatic thumb.
Swathi Thirunal’s compositions were mainly in praise of his family deity, Padmanabha, whose name was reflected in that of the capital city of the Travancore dynasty. Swathi Thirunal was a child prodigy, and a scholar of repute in many languages. He composed in all the Indian languages he knew, but one – which unfortunately happens to be Tamil! There are stories that he hated the Tamil language, but why, I do not know :-). That aside, his compositions are a treat to listen – if sung well. The caveat about singing well is especially important, because one of the hallmarks of a Swathi Thirunal composition, especially in Sanskrit, is that the lyrics are devilishly difficult to sing. One that I particularly liked a lot was “Bhavayami Raghuramam”, a ragamalika that started in Saveri, and went on a whirlwind tour, stopping briefly at Nattai Kurinji, Dhanyasi, Mohanam, Mukhari, and Poorvi Kalyani, before concluding with a beautiful Madhyamavati. I marvelled often at the musical genius who had picked the flowers that were strung into the garland, which blended as harmoniously as they did. Imagine my surprise then, when I discovered that the object of my adulation was none other than the hated Semmangudi. Apparently, Swathi Thirunal had set the entire kriti in Saveri. For reasons that I do not know, Semmangudi chose to set each of the six charanams in a different raga, and made the song something much more than what it originally had been. I don’t know if “Bhavayami” would sound as wonderful as it does now, if it had been sung entirely in Saveri. Probably not, I think. The choice of the ragas in the ragamalika could only have been that of a genius possessed by the spirit of Carnatic music. What a surprise, though, that the genius was Semmangudi, whom I had always considered to be a petty old man.
I can’t say that my opinion of Semmangudi has changed radically, but I do understand now that he deserved at least some of the praise that he got, and maybe he wasn’t such a big blot on the horizon after all. It takes all sorts to make this world, and maybe the world of Carnatic music wouldn’t have been complete without the part that Semmangudi played in it. Am I growing mellow with age? Not likely, since I am not *that* old. Maybe it is just that I am learning now to be balanced in my views, and not take an instant like or dislike towards something, without examining it first.
Thanks go to Shencottah and The Phoenix; it was The Phoenix’s mention of another “Bhavayami” (this one by Annamacharya) in Shencottah’s blog that sent me hurrying to Google, which helped me find the story about Semmangudi’s rehashing Swathi Thirunal’s “Bhavayami”.
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