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An unequalled music

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer set songs in tune for MS Subbulakshmi that are now the building blocks of modern Carnatic music. But he was so much more, writes Renuka Narayanan.

books Updated: Mar 21, 2009 23:24 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer: Life & Music
V Subrahmaniam and Sriram V
east west | Rs 790 | Pp 142

I grew up being dragged to the seasonal Carnatic vocal concerts of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer in New Delhi, grumbling that I’d rather be home listening to Pink Floyd. “You can do both!” was the uncompromising answer.

Today, needless to say, I’m grateful beyond words. Of course, it wasn’t bad then either. An aura of sanctity shone around those grand old Carnatic musicians of yesteryear, the whole ensemble clad in spotless white. (Today’s Carnatic male musicians look like they’re auditioning as extras for Jodha-Akbar, shimmering in revolting kurtas). And ‘Semmangudi Mama’ sang with great force and imagination, catching and keeping even rebellious me spellbound once he got going. His accompanists, too, were maestros in mridangam and violin, ghatam and kanjira.

Conveying that era, this biography, brought out to mark Semmangudi’s centenary (he died in 2003), is an excellent piece of research and documentation by the two authors. The CD of nine songs/slokas in MP3 format tucked inside the back cover is a good idea, too, upholding the Semmangudi credo: “Audiences take nothing back home with them beyond a sense of satisfaction…and this is what a musician must provide.”

Semmangudi had a satisfying life, himself. He was happily married to Thayu Ammal and had five children. He wouldn’t let any of them become a musician, because he wanted them to have a more secure profession. There are no thrilling scandals to report here, no secret cache of love letters, like in one of poor M.S. Subbulakshmi’s bios. (The Carnatic omerta usually assures selective amnesia). So was this a boring Tambrahm life, easily told between the first course of sambar on the banana leaf and the last course of curd-rice? No.

Semmangudi, or ‘Seenu’ as he began life in the tiny village of Semmangudi in the music-rich Kaveri Delta, had incredible
luck, great diplomatic skills and also took a stand when needed. He always wore khaddar, had five great gurus (luck indeed), a royal patron in the queen of Travancore, the exciting task of putting the beautiful compositions of Maharaja Swati Thirunal of Travancore on the music map, the challenge of setting up and running a first-class music college at Tripunithura in Kerala, good luck in both love and cards, in fame and fortune, the affection and esteem of everybody who was anybody in music, politics and bureaucracy.

He set songs in tune for M.S. Subbulakshmi that are now the building blocks of modern Carnatic music, so anybody who learns
or listens to Carnatic music will always receive something by Semmangudi.

Also, his country gave him a Padma Vib-hushan in the days these awards had 24-carat value. He refused to side with Brah-
minical music factions and supported the Tamil Isai movement that raged in Madras 40 years ago, which sought to remove ‘Telugu domination’ of Carnatic lyrics (as if Telugu were a stranger).

But ‘into each life, some rain must fall’. Semmangudi lost his voice repeatedly: professional and soul death. Only his cussedness made him sing and sing and literally kick his voice back into gear. Net-net, a grand old Indian life, worth sharing. The authors have done that much better than the usual Indian hagiography and their photo research is the best I’ve seen so far in a Carnatic book. If the tone gets too gushy-mushy, well, that's how they seem to write biographies in India: either canonise or cut up with knives.

I’d buy this one for the home or institutional library and as a nice gift for someone who likes music. There’s the CD with it!