Syama Sastry (1762-1827) is one of the great figures in Carnatic music history and is also a member of the hallowed Trinity, the other two being Tyagaraja (1767-1847) and Muttuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835). The facts about his life are well known. In brief, he was born into a family of hereditary archakas at the Bangaru Kamakshi temple in Tanjavur. Having displayed musical talents while young, he learnt from Sangita Swamin, a mystic and musician and Pachimiriyam Adiyappaiah, the creator of the immortal Viribhoni varnam. Abraham Pandither in his Karunamrithasagaram (1914) writes that Syama Sastry also learnt the veena and Bharata Sastra from Mahadeva Annavi, a veena artiste and dance master, who had migrated at around this time from Tirunelveli to Tanjavur. Syama Sastry in time became the chief priest to Bangaru Kamakshi and fashioned his worship in the form of music. He has left behind a small but exquisite corpus of songs, almost all of them dedicated to the Goddess. He had a small group of disciples amongst whom his son Subbaraya Sastry is perhaps best known.
The songs that Syama Sastry composed at various shrines that he travelled to are not discussed to the extent that those of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar are. There is a popular perception that he did not travel much. However, he appears to have travelled to Tiruvayyaru, Madurai, Kanchipuram, Pudukottai, Vaitheeswarankoil and Nagapattinam as evinced in his songs.
Kanchipuram held special significance for Syama Sastry. It was in that holy town that many centuries earlier, Adi Sankara had ordained a family that had migrated there from Cumbum in present day Andhra Pradesh, to perform the daily worship of Bangaru Kamakshi, a beautiful idol of the Goddess in standing posture. The icon had a large percentage of gold in its composition and hence the prefix Bangaru. The descendants of that family continued the worship for centuries and it was only when the Vijayanagar Empire fell in 1565 that they decided to move elsewhere along with the precious idol. The clan travelled far and wide over the next two hundred years or so, settling for brief periods in Gingee and Udayarpalayam before moving to Tiruvarur. It was here that Syama Sastry was born. Then in 1781, fearing an invasion by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the family moved into Tanjavur fort, where the ruler Tulaja welcomed them and constructed a shrine for the idol on West Main Street. The family gave up all ideas of moving back to Kanchipuram and settled in Tanjavur for good. However, given that the Goddess had come from Kanchipuram, Syama Sastry in many of his songs addresses her as Kanchi Kamakshi. “O Jagadamba” in Ananda Bhairavi is one such. “Brovavamma” in the rare raga Manji is yet another song on Goddess Kamakshi. Of course, several of Syama Sastry’s songs on Goddess Kamakshi could have been composed at Tanjavur itself and so it is difficult to identify which ones were composed in Kanchipuram and which at Tanjavur. However, there is also evidence that he visited Kanchipuram in a varnam “Sami ni rammanave”, in raga Ananda Bhairavi, dedicated to Lord Varadaraja of Kanchipuram. However, it must not be forgotten that there is also a Varadarajaswami temple in Tanjavur in praise of which Muttuswami Dikshitar composed a song. Interestingly, both Kamakshi and Varadaraja have received songs in their praise by each of the Trinity.
The Brhadiswara Temple of Tanjavur could hardly have failed to draw a song from the composer, as the entire town lived in that shrine’s shadow. In Syama Sastry’s time it must have been visible from practically every home. Being a devi upasaka, he chose not to compose on Brhadiswara but on His consort – Brhannayaki. “Dayajooda” in Raga Jaganmohini is one such piece.
Tiruvayyaru, the sylvan village of five rivers is a short distance from Tanjavur and in Syama Sastry’s time was home to Tyagaraja. It is not clear if the two composers ever met, but Syama Sastry’s son Subbaraya Sastry was a disciple of Tyagaraja too. In Tiruvayyaru stands the twin-shrine of Panchanadeeswara and Dharmasamvardhini. Syama Sastry gave us “Durusuga Krpajuchi” in Raga Saveri on the Goddess here. “Karunajudavamma” in Raga Varali, “Emani Migulavarnintu” in Raga Todi and “Palimpavamma” in Raga Mukhari are other songs on this shrine by Syama Sastry.
In Tiruvanaikka near Tiruchirapalli stands the temple of Jambukeshwaram dedicated to Shiva- Jambukeshwara who is worshipped here as the primordial element – Water. The Goddess here is Akhilandeshvari, well known for the Sri Chakra vested in Her enormous earrings by Adi Sankara. Syama Sastry composed his “Sankari Samkuru” in Raga Saveri on the Goddess here. There are four other songs by him dedicated to the Goddess – “Akhilandeshvari” in Karnataka Kapi, “Enneramum Un Namam” in Purvikalyani, “Enneramum Un Pada Kamala” in Punnagavarali and “Nannu Brova Rada” in Gaulipantu. It is strange that this set of five has not yet been declared a Pancharatnam!
Madurai appears to have exerted an enormous fascination on Syama Sastry. It is said that no less than nine of his songs, known as the Navaratnamalika were dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi. “Devi Ni Pada Sarasa” in Raga Kamboji is one of them. Books on Syama Sastry kritis list another seven – “Devi Minanetri” in Shankarabharanam, “Nannu Brovu Lalita” in Lalita, “Marivere Gati” in Ananda Bhairavi, “Mayamma” in Ahiri, “Minalochana” in Dhanyasi, “Rave Parvatarajakumari” in Kalyani and “Sarojadalanetri” in Shankarabharanam.
Nagapattinam is a pilgrim centre that is less well known compared to the shrines written about above. It has a magnificent temple for Shiva-Kayarohanesa and Goddess Nilayatakshi. It is famed as a Vishnavite kshetra for its Saundararaja Perumal Temple. It is a pilgrimage centre for Muslims for the Andavar Dargah in nearby Nagoor and for Christians for the Velankanni shrine. Syama Sastry’s tribute to Goddess Nilayatakshi is “Nilayatakshi Nive Jagat Sakshi” in Raga Mayamalavagaula. This is also sung in Raga Paraju. There are besides two others songs on the Goddess by him – “Nannu Brova Rada” in Raga Janaranjani and “Ninne Nammiti” in Raga Kedara Gaula.
Syama Sastry also appears to have visited Vaitheeswaran Koil. There is a song on Lord Muthukumaraswami set in Raga Begada. From his song “Karunanidhi Ialo” in raga Todi we see that he must have also visited Pudukottai, for the song is dedicated to Brhannayaki. The fact that it specifically mentions that She is the consort of Gokarneshvara lends credence to the belief that this was composed in Pudukottai. Some other songs on Brhannayaki/Brhadamba by Syama Sastry are also ascribed to this shrine but in the absence of any internal evidence, they could be on the Goddess in the Big Temple in Tanjavur also.