The Music Season of 1985 was in full swing and the Music Academy’s annual conference had begun on the 20th of December. The Governor of Tamil Nadu, SL Khurana was inaugurating the conference and Dr S Ramanathan, the eminent musician’s musician was presiding over it. The Hindu of the 20th also carried an interesting news item. Under the caption Shyama Sastri stamp, it stated that such a postage stamp would be released by the Governor at the Music Academy on the 21st. There followed the usual text whenever a stamp is released stating that special first day covers would be made available at various locations etc.

On the 21st, accordingly, a day after he had been at the same venue for inaugurating the conference, the Governor reappeared, this time to release the postage stamp. In his speech, probably written by a knowledgeable assistant, he called upon musicians to “undertake intensified research to discover the numerous Tamil compositions of Shyama Sastri, believed to have been lost”. Thankfully this piece of advice has not been taken up seriously. We have enough trouble with suspected spurious kritis attributed to Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitar!

Shyama Sastri’s portrait had been commissioned when he was alive. The artiste, unfortunately unknown, had only completed the face when the composer passed away. The rest of the portrait was finished later and it still survives, in the puja of Shyama Sastri’s descendants. When the Music Academy commissioned the then upcoming artiste, musician and film star S Rajam to paint the portraits of the Trinity in 1940, he used the surviving portrait for reference among other sources. Rajam’s portraits of the Trinity to which set he added Purandara Dasa and Swati Tirunal (over which his brother Balachander would raise a controversy over forty years later), grace the Music Academy auditorium even now. Now and then, a demand is raised for the inclusion of Papanasam Sivan as well, but nothing has come of it.

To get back to the postage stamp story… The Government of India and the Department of Posts were honouring themselves by releasing a stamp on the great composer. A stamp on Tyagaraja had been released as early as in 1961 and that on Dikshitar had come out in 1975. And now ten years later, it was a stamp on the remaining Trinitarian. It was duly released by the Governor and was received by Dr S Ramanathan, the Sangita Kalanidhi designate and also S Raja, the descendant of Shyama Sastri. PS Raghavachari, Member (Operations), Postal Board said that though stamps on the Trinity and Purandara Dasa had been brought out, the Department of Posts would not stop with them, but continue identifying suitable subjects for stamps. This is a promise that the Department has fulfilled in subsequent years. There have been stamps on Ariyakkudi, Musiri, Dwaram, Chembai, MS and others.

Less than two kilometres away from where the release took place, S Rajam, the man who had done the painting of Shyama Sastri lived. He had been informed of the decision to use his painting as the basis for the stamp a couple of days before the release. But for some reason, the powers that be chose not to honour him on the occasion. In fact not even an invite was sent! It was a faux-pas of the first order, for Rajam was a member of the Experts Committee of the Music Academy and was attending the morning sessions of the Conference every day and could have easily been given an invite. How this was overlooked remains a mystery till date.

Rajam in characteristic fashion chose to brush this aside but that was not acceptable to N Pattabhiraman, the editor of Sruti, who immediately decided that the cover design for the next issue of the magazine had to include the stamp. The design was executed by S Rajam himself and featured a full sheet of the stamps with a cut-out in the centre that which featured a line drawing by Rajam of Shyama Sastri.

Today, Rajam is 90 and when reminded of this incident, simply smiles. He is happy that his portraits of the Trinity grace so many music-loving homes. He remembers with gratitude men like Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, ‘Tiger’ Varadachariar and K Chandrashekharan (the son of eminent lawyer V Krishnaswami Iyer and a man of letters and artistic temperament) who felt that he was capable of executing the portraits of the Trinity when he was just twenty. To Rajam that has been reward enough. To Carnatic music lovers of the subsequent generation, Rajam’s portraits became the archetypes for the Trinity and it sometimes amusing to read accounts of how the Trinity looked, all written based on these portraits!