For some reason, he is stuck in my head from this morning. Perhaps because I listened yesterday to his singing Dikshitar’s pAhi mAm ratnAchala (mukhAri)

I have therefore fished out this sleeve note I wrote long ago for Charsur:

Musiri Subramania Iyer

– The human face of bhava

It is not often the fortune of an artiste to draw tears from listeners’ eyes, even as he or she performs. But to endow even replays and recordings with such an ability, is almost an impossibility. Musiri Subramanya Iyer, or simply Musiri as he was called, had perfected this art to such an extent that till date his feats in bhava, especially in neraval, (an imaginative exposition of lyrics, within the limits set by Raga and Tala) have never been matched.

The voice was high for a man. In his youth, it was even higher (F Sharp) and as he aged, it did drop to D Sharp, but the high voice, in complete unison with the drone of the tanpura, created a mesmeric effect, often likened to a bee flitting about in garden of music in springtime. The body was often frail, but it scaled Himalayan heights when it came to musical tourneys. The combination spelt dignity, a dignity of art, of accomplishment and achievement, from which he never lowered himself. Ayyarval (respected one), he was called and he remained true to that name till the very end.

Subramanya Iyer was born on 9th April, 1899 to Sankara Sastry, a Sanskrit Pandit and his wife Seethalakshmi, at Bommalapalayam Village, Trichy District. Whether he had formal schooling in the three R’s is a matter of debate, but the fact remains that he was an erudite and scholarly speaker and writer in the English language, one of the earliest Carnatic Musicians to have that capability. An ardent admiration for Charles Dickens was his hallmark, amidst a variety of reading interests.

In music, he came under the spell of SG Kittappa, the singing stage star, like many of his generation. In fact his usage of a high pitch is attributed by many to this. This admiration, added to a musical disposition, led him to begin learning music at the age of 17 from S Narayanaswamy Iyer, a music teacher in the princely state of Pudukottah. Three years later he apprenticed himself with Sangita Kalanidhi Karur Chinnaswami Iyah, the ace violinist, of the Garbhapuri family and Guru to many stars in the Carnatic firmament. At Chinnaswami Iyah’s own suggestion, he moved to Madras and sought the tutelage of Sangita Kalanidhi TS Sabhesa Iyer, a vocalist par excellence and a disciple of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer himself. For nine years, Subramanya Iyer was to learn from Sabhesa Iyer, a period which saw him absorb his Guru’s greatest asset – an incomparable style of rendering neraval.

In 1920, Subramanya Iyer made his debut at a Sabha in Triplicane, Madras. It was then the practice for most artistes to prefix their village names to their own and the Sabha organizers, perhaps thinking that Bommalapalayam did not sound impressive, announced his name as Musiri Subramanya Iyer. And that was how he came to be known for the rest of his life. This is one of many similar versions, but the name stuck. His career took off in the right direction and he was soon famous. Crowds flocked to hear his emotion packed renditions of such songs as “Tiruvadi Charanam”, “ Nagumomu”, “Entavetukondu”, “Viritta senjadai” and “Pahi Ramachandra”. He left an indelible stamp on them, causing audiences to judge any other artistes rendition of these as inferior. His fame further grew with the introduction of 78 rpm gramophone records, for which industry he was a money spinner.

In 1932, he undertook a visit to the Federated Malay States (then including Singapore), Burma and Ceylon, for raising funds for the Sri Ramakrishna Mission. It was a brave decision in times when it was taboo to “cross the waters” and his impressions of that visit, as written by him are a touching memoir. In 1937, Musiri was invited to act as Tukaram in the film of the same name, produced by business magnates of Coimbatore. Though the film was not a commercial success, its songs were very well received and Musiri added some more emotion packed pieces to his repertoire. His health however received a setback at around this time and he was to remain a victim of lung trouble till his very end.

Till the mid forties, he was a busy concert artiste. The great concert Halls of Carnatic Music, such as the 100 pillared hall, Rockfort, Trichy, the Gokhale Hall, Armenian Street, Madras and the Nellai Sangeetha Sabha, echoed to his voice as thousands gathered to hear. It is said that when he rendered Taye Yashoda or Teyilai Tottatile , there would not be a dry eye in the audience. Packed with bhava, he alone amongst his peers had the magic of portraying multiple emotions in a single line of a song, while still remaining within the contours of a raga. Who could forget the way he interpreted the line beginning “gagana” in Nagumomu?

He was a pioneer in bringing dignity to music as a profession. He broke the superior patron – beseeching musician scheme of things and moved among his admirers as their social equal and not someone to be called and made to perform at will. Senior advocates, lawyers, judges, business magnates and ICS and IAS officers were all his friends, who sought his company for his art and also for the person he was. The former Under Secretary General of the United Nations, CV Narasimhan was his disciple. He was all for dignity as a performing musician. His social graces, his clean lifestyle, the high standard of his English all added to his image.

Many were the honours that came his way. In 1939, he became Sangita Kalanidhi, one of the youngest in terms of age, ever to have got the Music Academy’s prestigious title. In 1963, the Tamil Isai Sangam awarded him the title Isai Perarignar. In 1957, he was given the Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award and in 1968, its fellowship. From 1939, he involved himself in the Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha, one of the three bodies that govern the worship at Tyagaraja’s Samadhi in Tiruvayyaru. He was also Asthana Vidwan of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore.

In 1949, the Central College of Music, now located at Brodie’s Castle, Madras, was inaugurated and Musiri was appointed its first principal. He came into his own as a tutor and administrator and given his popularity in the field, used his good offices in recruiting some of the very best talent as part of the teaching faculty. With his felicity with language and his experience as a teacher, he was able to bring out the best in his students. Some of the lecture demonstrations that he has given, when heard on tape now, show that he had a sense of humour, that like him was dignified and yet pointed. His simple and lucid explanations on tricky aspects of Raga and Tala, are valuable treatises in today’s environment. Musiri retired from this assignment in 1965.

Musiri was married to Nagalakshmi at the age of 14. They were childless, but lavished their love on an extended family, that comprised near and distant relatives, fellow musicians, aspirants and sishyas. He led a contented and happy life, in the then sylvan surroundings of Oliver Road, Mylapore. He had bought a house there in the 1930s and this is where some of his students such as KS Venkataraman, Sangita Kalanidhis TK Govinda Rao and Mani Krishnaswamy, Smt Suguna Purushottaman and Smt Suguna Varadachari, came to be tutored by him till his demise. He passed away, after a lifetime of achievement, on 24th March, 1975. As a singular token of respect, the road where his house is located is now named after him. A fitting honour for a musician of superlative talent and rare class.