Ramanathapuram “Poochi” Srinivasa Iyengar

Srinivasa Iyengar or Poochi Iyengar as he was better known was one of the great performers and composers of the era immediately after the Trinity. Born on 16th August 1860 to Ananthanarayana Iyengar and Lakshmi in the estate of Ramnad (Ramanathapuram), he was sent to study at the local school where he formed a close friendship with a fellow classmate and future Zamindar of Palavanatham, Pandithurai Thevar. Thevar, was a kinsman of the ruling Sethupati of Ramnad and through him the latter got to know of the singing talents of Poochi Iyengar.

The ruler immediately made arrangements for the young boy to be sent to Tiruvayyaru to learn music under Patnam Subramania Iyer (1845-1902), the eminent composer and musician who through his own guru Manambucchavadi Venkatasubbayyar, traced his lineage to Tyagaraja (1767-1847). After many years of training, the first performance took place at the Darbar Hall, Ramnad, in the presence of the ruler and several notable musicians including Patnam Subramania Iyer. It was a successful debut and the pleased ruler gave Patnam Subramania Iyer a reward of Rs 10,000 which enabled him to buy a residence in Tiruvayyaru. Poochi Iyengar was showered with gold and made a court artiste.

Poochi Iyengar became a busy concert artiste thereafter travelling all over South India. According to Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar (1866-1943), Poochi Iyengar sang effortlessly and emphasised on melody rather than rhythm. He made his concerts attractive and enjoyable but was not very forthcoming in giving accompanists solo opportunities! As per Mysore Vasudevachar (1865-1961), he followed the style of Patnam Subramania Iyer faithfully and though his voice was pliant and rich in the middle and lower octaves, it sounded slightly harsh in the higher octave.

Poochi Iyengar became a versatile composer in the true Patnam tradition for he created tana varnams, a pada varnam, kritis, javalis, tillanas, kavadi chindus and at least one ragamalika. His tillanas are historically interesting for some of them are dedicated to the rulers of Mysore, Ramnad and Sivaganga. Besides these, for the Coronation Darbar of King George V in Delhi in 1911, he composed a song Satatamu Brovumayya in raga Todi as a prayer to Lord Rama to protect the new king and this was awarded a gold medal at the Muthialpet Sabha of Madras. While many of his songs are dedicated to Rama, there are some in praise of Lord Venkateswara of Tirumala of which one, Anudinamu (Begada) is presented here. His mudra being Srinivasa, it was perhaps very appropriate that several of his varnams were dedicated to Lord Vishnu as in the Ananda Bhairavi piece in this album. His Parthasarathy (raga Madhyamavati) is dedicated to the deity in Triplicane. Perhaps the most famous song of Poochi Iyengar is Saraguna Palimpa in raga Kedara Gaula. It is said he composed it as a prayer when he was afflicted by an injury in his leg.

Among his compositions there is a rare song in praise of Sita, the consort of Rama (Paripalayamam Padmasane in raga Harikamboji). He also composed a song, Sadguru Swamiki in raga Ritigaula in praise of Tyagaraja and his disciple Bangalore Nagarathnamma (1878-1952) would begin her Aradhana to Tyagaraja in Tiruvayyaru with this song.

Poochi Iyengar taught many disciples at home for he ran a proper gurukula in Ramnad. Mysore Vasudevachar (1865-1961) who was a later disciple of Patnam Subramania Iyer noted that apart from being a patient and dedicated teacher, he was a very affectionate guardian to all of them. One night he detected that the bed of his senior disciple Salem Doraiswami Iyengar was empty. After a frantic search he found the student on the banks of a nearby lake, eyes closed and singing the guru’s composition Paramapavana Rama in Poorvikalyani. He found the rendition to be perfect and having waited for the singing to be over, embraced his disciple and brought him home. The apple of Poochi Iyengar’s eye was undoubtedly Ariakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), who blazed a trail of over fifty years in Carnatic music. Ramanuja Iyengar who came rather late to train under Poochi Iyengar, was devoted to his guru and invariably began his performances with one of the latter’s varnams. This became a bone of contention during the Tamil Isai movement of the 1940s when Ramanuja Iyengar preferred foregoing concert opportunities at the Tamil Isai Sangam to giving up singing the Telugu varnams of his guru. He stuck to his guns and the Tamil Isai Sangam finally relented in 1956. Ramanuja Iyengar also married Ponnammal, one of Poochi Iyengar’s nieces. This naturally brought about a closer bond between guru and sishya.

While he may have been a disciple of Patnam’s, the music of the latter’s bitter rival, Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan (1844-1893) clearly influenced Poochi Iyengar. His tribute to Sivan is in the form of two tillanas in extremely complicated talas, an aspect of music in which Vaidyanatha Sivan excelled. Poochi Iyengar’s two tillanas, one in Kapi and the other in Kamavardhini (Pantuvarali) are respectively set in Lakshmisa (a tala of 108 beats to a cycle) and Ragavardhini (a tala of 72 beats). Vasudevachar also notes that Poochi Iyengar’s style of singing Kalpana Swarams was more akin to that of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan’s.

Poochi Iyengar was actively involved in the Tyagaraja Aradhana and was Vice President of the Tyagaraja Parabrahma Vaibhava Prakasa Sabha, also known as the Chinna Katchi which was one of the two factions that observed the Tyagaraja Aradhana till his disciple Bangalore Nagarathnamma arrived on the scene and finally succeeded, with the help of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and others in unifying the Aradhana in 1940.

Poochi Iyengar passed away in 1919. A compilation of his songs was published in 1982 by Salem Chellam Iyengar, the son of his disciple Salem Doraiswami Iyengar. Today, Poochi Iyengar’s songs live on and perpetuate his memory. And so does the mystery of the appellation Poochi. Over the years, many theories have sprung up. One says that as a child he was as mischievous as an insect and so his parents nicknamed him Poochi. Yet another claims that his fidelity to pitch was akin to the buzz of the bumblebee. A third states that he was given to applying (poochu in Tamil) sandal paste in copious quantities on himself after meals which according to Vasudevachar were also gargantuan. Whatever the reason, Poochi Iyengar he became and remains, yet another fascinating personality in Carnatic music.

This write-up was written for a CD comprising Poochi Iyengar’s songs, by Charsur and sung by Sumitra Vasudev