Kotiswara Aiyar (1869-1938)

Kotiswara Aiyar, the well-known composer, was of a scholarly and musical lineage. His maternal grandfather was Kavi Kunjara Bharati (1810-1896), the eminent composer whose works included Skanda Purana Kirtanaigal, the Azhagar Kuravanji and the Perinba Kirtanaigal. Aiyar’s ancestors on the father’s side were scholars in Sanskrit, Tamil and the Vedas and were originally settled in Tirunelveli. At the invitation of Hiranyagarbha Tirumalai Setupati of Ramnad, they shifted to Perungarai village of the Ramnad Estate. Aiyar’s father Nagarathnam Aiyar was appointed court musician to the estate of Sivaganga and it was at Nandanur village of that principality that Kotiswara Aiyar was born.

Having lost his parents while young, Kotiswara Aiyar was brought up by his scholarly maternal grandfather and from him he learnt Tamil and music. Later he formally apprenticed himself under Patnam Subramania Iyer and Ramanathapuram Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar. He also moved closely with Patnam’s two contemporaries, Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer and Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan and acquired knowledge of Sangita Shastras from them. Aiyar took his BA degree after undergoing his college course in Pudukottah and Tiruchirapalli. On graduation he was employed at the office of the Inspector General of Police in Madras and later as a translator at the Madras High Court. In between, he also served as English teacher in the Venkataramana Ayurveda Dispensary and the Sanskrit College.

It was only late in life that Kotiswara Aiyar’s talents as a composer flowered. It was also owing to the influence of what were then burning topics in the field of music. The first concerned the vivadi or dissonant scales, of which there are 40 in number in the melakarta system. While Tyagaraja had handled a few in his songs and Muttuswami Dikshitar had handled almost all of them as per the raganga raga scheme (which unlike the melakarta scheme did not have straight scales for all the 72 mother ragas), it was the considered view of many that the vivadis were not musical. Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai, the eminent nagswaram artiste even penned a treatise titled Poorvika Sangita Unmai which denied the existence of the 40. It was also considered inauspicious to sing vivadi ragas. This was also the time when the absence of Tamil songs was being felt.

Kotiswara Aiyar decided to compose songs in all 72 melakartas, vivadi or not, all of them in Tamil. In the words of Professor Sambamurthy “the composer took upon himself a mighty task and achieved the ideal… To attempt pieces in unfamiliar ragas is a difficult task. He has to think out the new ragas, form a picture in his mind, determine its jeeva, nyasa swaras, raga ranjaka prayogas to put in his compositions. The music world will realise the amount of time and thought this illustrious composer must have bestowed in these kritis”. In his own way Aiyar was also paying tribute to his grandfather, for he used the mudra Kavikunjaradasa.

Beginning with Ma Madhura Sarasa in the raga Ganamurthy, Kotiswara Aiyar went on to compose songs in all the 72 ragas. The compilation of the shuddha madhyama raga songs was brought out as the Kandaganamudam in 1932. In its preface, the composer expressed the desire that just like Telugu, Tamil should be given importance in concerts. The work received praise from Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, ‘Kirtanacharya’ CR Srinivasa Iyengar, U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, TS Sabhesa Iyer, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Tiger Varadachariar and Papanasam Sivan. TL Venkatarama Iyer, reviewing it for The Hindu (12th October 1932) noted that Kotiswara Aiyar “had made the first comprehensive attempt to compose kirthanas in all melas. The scientific value of his kirthanas is of a high order and this publication is a landmark”.

The second volume, comprising the prati madhyama ragas was brought out in February 1938. On this occasion, an overwhelmed Parur Sundaram Iyer wrote that his eyes had been opened to the possibilities in the vivadi ragas. He praised Kotiswara Aiyar for making bold to attempt composing in these ragas with the vivadi or dissonant notes used in full. This was a marked departure from earlier composers who minimised the vivadi effect while using these ragas.

Living as he did at Mylapore’s Varahur Selva Vinayagar Koil Street, Aiyar was often found near the Kapaliswarar Temple, his lips moving silently. It is widely believed that he sang his songs from the Kandaganamudam to Singaravelar, the Subramanya Swami at the Kapaliswarar Temple. The collection is preceded by Varanamukha va in raga Hamsadhvani where Aiyar prays to Ganesha to give him the strength to compose. Besides the 72, Aiyar also composed songs in janya ragas on several deities.

It was as though Kotiswara Aiyar’s task on earth was done when the second volume of his works came out for he passed away the same year. On October 25th 1938, two lawyers N Ramakrishnan and K Rajagopalan in their tribute to Kotiswara Aiyar in The Hindu, wrote that “it behoves all lovers of our music to confer and devise means to perpetuate the memory of this great star composer”.

Kotiswara Aiyar’s kritis in vivadi ragas, despite the scholarly acclaim with which they were received, did not find popularity for long. It was almost three decades later that at the express desire of music historian T Sankaran that S Rajam and Vaidehi, both of them staff artistes at the All India Radio, began a programme to disseminate the songs. The exercise became a lifelong passion for Rajam who later had the Kandaganamudam republished. He also recorded all 72 songs and released them as cassettes. Later several popular artistes began incorporating the songs into their concert repertoire. Today, Kotiswara Aiyar’s songs are very popular and occupy the position they deserve.