Nadodiyin Pulambal

A Wanderer Gripes


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”.

10 Responses to “Semmangudi”

  1. Anonymous said

    Awesome post !!

    I liked this line of yours

    >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.

    Maybe that is what raagamalika stands for !! Kurai ondrum illai is another awesome sung in raagamalika!

    - Morpheus

  2. Yes! I was first introduced to “Kurai Ondrum Illai” by Shencottah, and cannot thank him enough for it.

    MS’s rendition of “Kurai Ondrum Illai” is simply divine.

  3. A must-read on Semmangudi and Subbudu:

    Emergency at the Music Academy 1

    Emergency at the Music Academy 2

  4. shencottah said

    Provocative read…

    We might not have listened to stalwarts’ singing when they are at peak. Semmangudi voice suffered after two operations – to remove a block in the nose and tonsils. After that, his advice to other musicians is not to allow any doctor to tamper with vocal chords. Not everyone likes him.

    Two more things are also outlined – neraval and tradition-vs-innovation.

    Neraval, if properly done, creates great feeling around us though there are certain schools of thoughts which decry alapanai, neraval, and swaraprastharams. I just mention few of the neravals done which I like:

    1. MS – Samaganavinodhini in Sarojadala netri
    2. Madurai Mani Iyer – Yadavakula murali in Samajavaragamana
    3. S.Ramanathan – Matsa Kurma dasavathara prabhavam in Sree Satyanarayanam
    4. Semmangudi – Satvagunamum Jivadayaiyum in Tatvamariya tarama
    5. KVN – Devi brova samayamite

    Regarding the Tradition-vs-Innovation, it is ideal to have a balance. Both are needed. More to say on this. will write later. maybe one blog-post is needed!!!

  5. Very true, I have not listened to Semmangudi live – but I do remember listening to some (rare?) recordings of his from the `40′s at a friend’s place. Haven’t been able to get hold of them since :-(.

    Each vidwan has his own style of singing, and liking or not liking it is a matter of personal taste… but professional jealousy between vidwans leading to outrageous statements in public, and people politicking by making use of such statements – well, the less said about it, the better!

    Neraval, if done properly adds to the beauty of the music – I agree whole heartedly! The sad part is that there are *very* few people who do it well. I am not against Neraval, perish the thought!

    What I do dislike is bad singing – regardless of the garb it comes cloaked in.

    I am eagerly awaiting your post on Tradition vs. Innovation :-). Again, I am in total concordance with the fact that we need both, and we need a balance between both.

    All that I was trying to say was this – the people who speak out against innovation conveniently forget that the Trinity themselves were great innovators. If Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s father had rejected the violin as a “foreign instrument” when he heard it at Fort St. George, and Dikshitar himself had not composed practice pieces for his brother, where would the great tradition of the violin in Carnatic music that we have today be? It is a crime to shun innovation completely, just as it is a crime to shun tradition completely.

  6. shencottah said

    Leading vidwans issuing outrageous public comments is the most undesirable thing. When we evaluate music of an artist, I feel the framework from which we analyse must be very clear to us. The framework could be just the subjective feelings, sweetness of the voice, Sahitya bhava, Ragarupa, Imaginative swaraprastharams, serene rendition without any fireworks,etc. One can create more and more criteria to evaluate any art. I feel this is the reason for all differences of opinions. Not just differences of opinions. The reviewers will fight like warriors. I don’t think that will help the art or artist or rasikas. I have seen in some forums people using very strong words in critising artists they don’t like.

    What is important when we listen to a song? Does it transport us to a different world through its many synergetic shades of sahityam, raga, and way in which it is rendered?

    Innovation that is just for the heck of it without understanding what it violates is as harmful as Tradition that tries to exist without having an in-depth understanding of its significance.

    Note: I am not a great fan of Semmangudi but i do like some of his renditions. You have to listen to his Keeravani in a concert that goes by the name “airport concert” among private collectors. The violinist is MSG.

  7. Suraj said

    Do you know that Bhavayami Raghuramam, in its original form, was purely in Saveri? and what a co-incidence… the man you are *swearing* about, Semmangudi, ‘jammed’ it into its now-popular Ragamalika form. :)

    and btw, like someone else has mentioned here, Semmangudi’s nasal singing is not by choice but because of his own physical limitations. I think Ravikiran once mentioned in a lecture how Semmangudi took advantage of his ‘nasal limitation’ and created a new style that is now followed by folks who can actually sing non-nasally! (even Bombay Jayashree shows subtle Nasal singing traits!).

    Personally, A ‘sweet voice’ is the ‘last’ thing I look for in Carnatic Music. Carnatic is an excellent improvisation based system and when an artists exhibits mastery over improvisation _without_ bending / breaking the rules of the underlying raga, s/he is called a Master. I think Semmangudi rightly deserves his title for this very reason.

    All said, I think when one’s ‘ego’ comes into play, it tends to get dirty. A true artist is one who performs art for the art’s sake, without his/her ego in the picture. The only name that comes to my mind at this point is D.K.Pattammal.

  8. Welcome, Suraj!

    Me cursing Semmangudi? Interesting, I didn’t find a single curse in that post :) What is so sacrosanct about a musician that he cannot be subject to critical opinion by a listener?

    If you read the post again, you will find that it does mention Bhavayami Raghuramam, and Semmangudi’s amazing conversion of the song from Saveri kirtana to a dazzling ragamalika. Praise is due where it is deserved, and the same goes for criticism.

    Semmangudi was a master, yes – but he deserved that title IMO for his great teaching abilities and the service he rendered to Carnatic music by transcribing countless Swathi Thirunal compositions. Also because of his ability to bring out the beauty of a raga.

    As far as not breaking the rules of a Raga goes, I completely disagree! Semmangudi has often drifted from one Raga to a completely different one, and he definitely wasn’t indulging in Graha Bedam.

    I won’t comment on the other singers you’ve mentioned – I haven’t listened to them much.

    Speaking for myself, if a singer can’t maintain his voice, he shouldn’t be singing. Music isn’t just about exploring a raga without breaking its underlying rules – that is merely the technical aspect of the music. There are three things essential to a good recital: A good voice, A good exposition of the raga, *and* fidelity to the lyrics. Take out one of these three essences, and the recital has no soul. There are very, very few people who score well on all three counts. Semmangudi wasn’t one of them.If you are interested in an unbiased critical examination of Semmangudi, or any Carnatic musician between 1950 and the late 1990′s, I would suggest Subbudu’s reviews. He is perhaps the only honest critic of Carnatic music that I have come across.

    Artistes sans ego? There are/were many. Mani Krishnaswamy, one of the finest women singers to grace the Sabhas of Madras. Unfortunately her career was short. DKP as you’d mentioned, and DKJ. M.S. Subbulakshmi. The list, I am happy to say, is long – but I have no room here for more :)

  9. Anon said

    SEmmangudi may have an adangapdaari voice – but you only need to listen to his manodharma and teh swarasruthi to see how beautiful his singing his. His neravals and swaram singing is unparalleled – his mastery over ragas, however rare and unheard of they have been is wonderful. When it comes to manodharma, he is great. It is pointless to compare him with others. Everyone have their own style.

    Just listen to his 1968 Music Academy Todi Alapanai, tanam and pallavi (“srI rAma jaya rAma jaya jaya rAmA”). The ragamalika swaras and neraval throw you into a bliss. His bhairavi RTP (“dasaratha bAlA rAmachandrayyA”). His rendition of teliyaleru rama will bring tears to ones eyes; His akhilandeshwari will make you imagine Her in all splendour.

    ::::As far as not breaking the rules of a Raga goes, I completely disagree! Semmangudi has often drifted from one Raga to a completely different one, and he definitely wasn’t indulging in Graha Bedam.::::

    This is unsubstantiated. Unless he was in a ragamalika, Semmangudi is the one person who will NEVER stray from a ragam. Please point out ONE example. His voice is pleasing in tis own rough way; else his career spanning 80 years would not have happened to put it simply, in an era where GNB and MMI and ARI sang alongside.

    his enthusiasm while singing is unflagging. Carnatic music is not all about voice; a person with a sweet voice may not have the sruthi suddham and manodharma gnanam required for professionalism (Yesudas, for example, is a wonderful cinema singse – but not so great a carnatic singer). It is a fine balance between voice, manodharma and sahityam. Alter the balance – any performance falls flat on its face.


  10. I’m shutting down further comments on this post. Somehow the folks who do comment don’t take the trouble to a) read the post in its entirety and b) read the followup.

    I do not want this post to degenerate into a my-favourite-singer-better-than-yours-how-dare-you-criticise-the-other kind of slugfest. Which it already has, I think.


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