Ariyakkudi T Ramanuja Iyengar

“Iyengar” in Carnatic music has always meant Ariyakkudi. He was hailed in his times as the ‘golden mean’ of Carnatic music and as the senior most among all musicians. He stood for dignity and presented music that was brevity personified and yet had condensed in it all that was essential for a good performance. His was a rich voice, deep and with a tremolo that added to its timbre. A greatly respected guru, he left behind several disciples many of whom became popular musicians. He set Andal’s Tiruppavai to music, besides composing a few tillanas himself. He was in short an all rounder, a ‘compleat’ musician.

Ramanuja Iyengar was born on May 19th, 1890 to Tiruvengadam Iyengar and Chellammal at Ariyakkudi village. The father was an astrologer and from a reading of his son’s horoscope predicted that he would shine in music. He was initially apprenticed under Pudukottai Malayappa Iyer and later under Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar when the latter was residing in Srirangam. When he was around 16, Ramanujam heard the great star of the times, Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar perform at a concert and became his student. He did gurukulavasam and at the age of 23, at a wedding in a Chettiar family at Devakottai, had his debut concert. A concert opportunity at the Tiruvayyaru Tyagaraja Aradhana came in the following year and from then on there was no looking back. Ariyakkudi however never gave up learning. Legend has it that he practised the veena under the guidance of the Karaikkudi Brothers so that he could perfect his gamakas. He also learnt songs from Veena Dhanammal and many attributed his short but comprehensive alapanas to being influenced by her style.

Ariyakkudi created a concert style for himself which involved beginning with a varnam, singing many songs, short raga alapanas preceding some of them, niraval and swaras again within limits for many pieces, followed by the ragam tanam pallavi which again did not last more than half an hour at most. He followed the rtp with many small pieces from the Tiruppugazh and other Tamizh works. He also invariably sang tillanas composed by his guru at the end of the concert. This pattern soon became the rage and it was soon demanded from all other musicians as well and is followed religiously till date.

Ariyakkudi reached the top of his profession by the early 1930s. The stage at that time had emptied of stalwarts such as Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and his own guru Poochi Iyengar. Audiences loved his new style of singing, his winsome personality and his dignified humour and flocked to his concerts. Beginning from then, he remained at the top of his profession till his passing in 1967. By the 1930s, his busy concert schedules necessitated his leaving his family comprising wife Ponnammal and daughters Janaki and Lakshmi in his native village and migrating to Kumbhakonam then pretty much the centre for culture and music. By then a fairly large number of disciples had apprenticed themselves under him and they took care of his needs. In particular, three disciples of his B Rajam Iyer, KV Narayanaswami and Madurai N Krishnan were to become really famous. The household ran on the pattern of the traditional gurukula and most disciples involved themselves in daily chores in addition to learning music from the master.

A top ranking artiste such as he naturally got the best of accompanists, but over the years it was Papa KS Venkataramiah who played the violin most often for him, though Kumbhakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai, T Chowdiah and later TN Krishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman also accompanied him. As for mridangists, his choice was well known – after Pudukottai Dakshinamoorthy Pillai it was always Palghat Mani Iyer, unless an alternative was unavoidable. Mani Iyer and Ariyakkudi comprised an exclusive mutual admiration society and the association was to remain intact till Ariyakkudi’s death.

Ramanuja Iyengar was a man who believed in dignity and stood for by his principles. During the Tamizh Isai movement of the 1940s, he, despite being a voluntary and perhaps one of the earliest proponents of Tamizh songs, refused to bow to the diktat of the Tamizh Isai Sangam that all concerts in Madras Presidency ought to comprise Tamizh songs alone. This meant he stood aloof from the influential Sangam and several of its powerful members all of whom were his patrons. They relented in the 1950s and accepted that songs in other languages could also be sung during concerts organized by them and he then performed for them. He later became Principal of the Music College run by the Sangam. In later years he also had such stand offs with the Music Academy, the RR Sabha and the All India Radio. Ultimately he won on almost all counts; such was his personality and crowd pulling power.

Ariyakkudi was widely feted wherever he went. He received several prestigious titles such as the Sangita Ratnakara (1932, Vellore Sangeeta Sabha) and the Gayaka Shikhamani (1946, Mysore Maharajah). In 1938, he was invited to preside over the annual conference of the Music Academy, Madras and in 1942 when the Academy instituted the title of Sangita Kalanidhi, he, like all past presidents of the Annual Conference was invested with the same. In 1952, he and Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer, became the first musicians to receive the Govt. of India’s Presidents Award (now the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award). That year he was honoured in a different way by the Paramacharya of Kanchi. The seer expounded the inner meaning of the Muttuswami Dikshitar kriti – Shri Subramanyaya Namaste in a exclusive session lasting an hour and more. Ramanuja Iyengar, who was known for his rendition of the kriti, felt that this was the highest honour he could ever receive.

The Paramacharya had earlier initiated Ariyakkudi into an interesting project, that of setting Andal’s Tiruppavai to music. He began the activity in 1945 and completed it in 1950 and performed for two successive days at the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha in Triplicane and the concert bill of fare on both days comprised Tiruppavais alone. In the same year, his 60th birthday too came about and was celebrated with special felicitation programmes all over the country.

Ramanuja Iyengar moved base permanently to Madras city in the 1950s and his house on Devanathan Street, Mylapore was so famous that the bus halt there was referred to as Ariyakkudi by commuters and state transport employees alike. He was to live there for the rest of his life. In 1963, a grand function took place at the Rajaji Hall, Madras on his completing 50 years in the service of music. The Maharajah of Mysore presided over the function. Ramanuja Iyengar began suffering from ill health in 1966 and after a brief but painful illness passed away on 23rd January 1967 at his residence. It was as if a large tree that had sheltered Carnatic music under it, had suddenly been axed. The Ariyakkudi bhani however survived thanks to his numerous disciples and so has the concert style he created.

In 1990, when his birth centenary was observed, TS Balakrishna Sastrigal composed a ragamalika in his praise and this was made popular by Ariyakkudi’s disciple KV Narayanaswami. A postage stamp commemorating Ariyakkudi was later released. Today, this maestro lives on in our memories, thanks to numerous recordings of his that have survived. His continuing popularity shows that he was an artiste of the highest calibre and class. He was also a fine human being who in the process of living well, never wished ill of others.

This was a sleeve note written to accompany a 3 CD pack of the maestro released by Charsur Digital Workstation







20 responses to “Ariyakkudi T Ramanuja Iyengar”

  1. karadi Avatar

    Ariyakudi was in way a grandfather to my grandfather…I can do nothing but boast of being in his family tree… Nice to see a post on him here…

  2. Mahesh Avatar

    Fantastic write-up. You might also want to read / listen to this: since you’ve mentioned PMI above 🙂

  3. […] GNB’s room? Is this where Bhakta Prahlada was recorded with a child DKJ acting as Prahlada to Ariyakkudi‘s Vishnu (though I cant imagine the latter jumping out as a half-lion from a pillar)? Was […]

  4. […] that abound, there are at least three where the performance is pierced by a shrill whistle. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar must have clearly given instructions for a complete halt when that happens, for next we hear the […]

  5. […] that DKJ came into contact with several stalwarts and learnt from them – some of these including Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Harikesanallur L Muthiah Bhagavatar. But it was his tutelage under Papanasam Sivan, where he […]

  6. […] the RR Sabha itself continued to grow. A Music School was set up in 1940 with ten students in all. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar was made the first principal with Musiri and Semmangudi being vice principals. In course of time, […]

  7. […] henceforth invariably be a star performer and rarely a musicologist. In 1938, the honour went to Ariyakkudi T Ramanuja Iyengar, by then the most popular singer but who rarely bothered himself with debates and discussions on […]

  8. […] It was a coup of sorts for it not only matched the stature of the President of the conference, Ariyakkudi, who was by then numero uno in the world of music, but it also ensured that peace was made with T […]

  9. […] Station! The Music Academy’s annual conference in 1938 was held here under the leadership of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, which proved a strong advertisement for the hotel. It became the place where the glamorous stars […]

  10. […] born in 1895, was probably younger only to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar when it came to the leading performers of his generation. In terms of seniority on the concert […]

  11. Raja S. Nathan Avatar
    Raja S. Nathan

    I am Madurai Pushpavanam’s grandson and Rajam Pushpavanam’s eldest son. Glad to read about my grandfather here. Best regards

  12. […] Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar set the tiruppAvai to tune is well known. What is not known however is that he set some other works […]

  13. […] ongoing spat between Ilayaraja and SPB has a parallel dating to the 1940s when Papanasam Sivan and Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar sparred over an identical matter… Read here for […]

  14. […] been listening to the best of Carnatic music for over seven decades. He had heard them all – Ariyakkudi downwards. And yet he did not belong to that category that denounces all the music of today as […]

  15. […] been listening to the best of Carnatic music for over seven decades. He had heard them all – Ariyakkudi downwards. And yet he did not belong to that category that denounces all the music of today as […]

  16. […] with Janmashtami. Titled the Sri Jayanti series, it attracted the best performers in the field. Ariyakkudi, Chembai, Musiri, Semmangudi, M.S. Subbulakshmi… you name them and they had all sung for the […]

  17. […] a trained kanjira artiste. The Zamindar heard the boy out and gifted him with Rs 100. This was Ariyakkudi’s first earning, long before he had acquired any formal training! On the recommendation of Muthiah […]

  18. Kesha Srivatsan Avatar
    Kesha Srivatsan

    Thank you for this amazing writeup. Do any concerts of Shri Ariyakudi at the Music Academy survive today? I wonder if there is anyone who would have such a priceless recording.

    1. sriramv Avatar

      They are all up on youtube

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