Sangita Pitamaha Semmangudi R. Srinivasier
A Tribute by Kripa Subrahmaniam

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[Editor's Note: The author is a regular columnist and contributor on music to The Hindu and other publications. As the wife of Vidwan Sri. V. Subrahmaniam (senior disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasier), she has had the privilege of closely interacting with Semmangudi mAma for several years]

October 31st, 2003 saw the end of an era in Carnatic Music, in which many giants strode the arena. The tallest icon among them, the legendary Semmangudi Sri. R. Srinivasier went to rest eternally that day in the lap of “Mother Sangitam”. Semmangudi was born in a musical family, grew up in the midst of music, took music as an avocation and that same music became his very breath (prANa), his very dhyAna and ultimately made him a nAdOpAsaka. His whole life span of 95+ years was one long journey in pursuit of excellence in the field of music and excel he did!

Semmangudi, not endowed with a sweet voice, had to struggle in his early years to overcome this handicap. In fact, this was a challenge thrown to the young lad, so much so that once a senior vidwan even remarked about the rough voice and advised him to eschew vocal music. But that spurred him to overcome the handicap by indulging in rigorous sAdhakam and achieving felicity of voice, ultimately leading him to the pinnacle of musical glory.

Here was a vidwan who had a perfect blend of lakSaNa and lakSya to make his music memorable. Nowadays, as vINa Dhanammal used to say, “Music is being talked”. One may know, study, ruminate, discuss, argue or teach about lakSyas or the theory in books such as rAga lakSaNa, sampradAya pradaRshini, sangIta sArAm.Rta, sangIta makaranda. One may also talk for hours on end about shuddha madhyama or antara gAndhAra, all of which would lead you nowhere in actual singing. It is enough to simply listen to and assimilate the music of Semmangudi, to understand the essence and import of rAga lakSaNa!

The musical journey of Semmangudi’s life is a noteworthy example to be followed by serious students of music. Music can be cultivated to a certain extent, but for one to excel, one must be endowed with an innate gnAnam, a burning desire to learn under a competent guru for an extended period to understand the intricacies of our musical system. One must tirelessly work at it to gain proficiency and meticulously tread the path of the musical greats and thus make it a nAdOpAsana as Semmangudi did. He lived in an age when the gurukula system was in vogue and he rigorously underwent the punishing training schedule to perfect his music.

Music then was not taught in set hours, the ward had to slog in the guru’s household and the guru taught as and when it pleased him, thus the ward had to literally wait on the sidelines, biding his time to make an impression. Luckily, Semmangudi got his break at the right time and arrived on the music scene with a bang. Every music lover found his music compelling and many turned out to be ardent lifelong fans. His music encompassed all facets in its pristine glory. His manOdhaRma was unbridled and dynamic. At all times the rAgas, swarAs and neravals gushed forth like the mighty river Ganga.

He sang mainly time-tested rAgas such as kalyANi, kAmbhOji, shankarAbharaNam, mOhanam, kharaharapriya and so on. He rarely handled vivAdi rAgas, (which he referred to as “non-veg” rAgas!) not because he couldn’t do justice to them, but due to his belief that the vivAdis did not produce the harmonious, soothing sancAras inherent in the samvAdis that invoke peace and tranquility in one’s innermost recesses. One may dispute this, saying he often sang vivAdis such as varALi, nATTai and vAgadhIshvari. In such instances he made sure that his renditions were devoid of harsh notes and vivAdi dOshas. In singing every rAgam, his manOdharmam scaled new heights, always exploring new frontiers even while sticking to time-tested original sancAras.

His bhAva-filled saRvalaghu svara combinations filled the ear such that one could visualize the rAga dEvata herself dancing to his tunes! He had, to his credit, the compositions of svAti tirunAL, sadAshiva brahmEndra, nArAyaNa tIRthar’s k.RSNa lIla tarangiNi and tiruvempAvai set to tune. Even today his notated brahmEndra book is a sell-out. His renditions of songs like mArubalka, kSiNamai, kAmAkSi, O rangashAyi, navasiddhi petRAlum and bhAvayAmi raghurAmam, with the stamp of perfect classicism, innate elegance and beauty have been raved about for decades in the music field. The audience’s joy knew no bounds even when he sang these pieces repeatedly in his concerts, each rendition in a class by itself. This scribe has witnessed in many concerts, people literally sitting up and some happily singing along with him. Such was the magical quality of his music.

If he was a musical genius, he was an equally savvy administrator. He served the AIR as a producer for six years with distinction. His association with the Swati Tirunal Music College was a milestone in his career. His stint as the Principal of the music college gave an enormous fillip to the young learners. He regularly used to take classes for advanced students and many of the present senior vidwans of Kerala have had the privilege of learning under him. Being aware of the fact that all students cannot reach the concert platform and take it as a full-time profession, he approached the Government of Travancore and initiated a system of introducing music as a compulsory subject in the state’s schools, thereby generating job opportunities for the music diploma holders. Here was a visionary, who himself had a minimal academic education!

He was a very genial, easy-to-approach person, with no airs whatsoever. He could mingle with everyone with ease and aplomb and was equally comfortable in the presence of Royals and laymen. He was close to the Royal Family of Travancore and the late maharani sEtu pArvati bAyi always had a special place for “Semban”! In spite of his immense knowledge of music, he had the innate “vinayam” to accept all kinds of music and assimilate new information. He always said “nowadays all are singing well” and was optimistic that Carnatic music would thrive for generations to come. He knew and understood that this fine art would flow along with the times and endure even while undergoing changes in form and structure. Change, he said, was bound to happen and was willing to embrace the music in its entirety as it is today. Here was a man who was catholic in his attitude, that he accommodated and appreciated change in the contours of our music.

He had a sharp and incisive intellect and his sharp repartees are legendary. He was a sought-after speaker and chief guest. And his name regularly found a place in the daily engagement columns, either for singing or for inauguration of some event or the other. All prestigious awards that a musician can dream of came naturally to him. A disciplined man, Spartan in his lifestyle, he was a true Gandhian who wore only khAdi. He used to spin his own yarn on the chaRkha and was passionate about this national sentiment.

He was a teacher-par-excellence, having innumerable shiSyas. Some underwent gurukulavAsam with him, others had regular classes and others learnt a few pieces. Many had healthy discussions with him, had their doubts cleared and the music fraternity as a whole looked up to him for guidelines. He had several brilliant students but he never differentiated among his students. He taught everyone with the same passion, making sure that they grasped the nuances of the composition. He was never an intimidating teacher and was willing to teach a sangati any number of times. All good performers cannot be good teachers and good teachers are not good performers. Here was a man in whom the amalgam of teaching and performing was a perfect blend.

At the ripe old age of 95, he shed his mortal coils and the last of the giants faded into oblivion. When he died, many came to pay their last respects and everyone had a personal anecdote to remember and this sums up the doyen’s endearing, enduring traits. “Men may come and men may go”, but Semmangudi’s music will remain with us forever!

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