A tribute to my Guru in music – V Subrahmaniam

V Subrahmaniam

Last week saw the passing of one of the most faithful adherents to the Semmangudi school – his ardent disciple V Subrahmaniam. Referred to often as ‘Nirlon’ Subrahmaniam owing to his having worked in that eponymous Bombay-based company, he created a niche and identity for himself in the world of Carnatic music, albeit in the shadow of his Guru. And that is how he would have wanted to be remembered, for to him there was no greater music than that of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. I had the good fortune of having learnt music from him between 1996 and 2003.

Sir, as I referred to him, was born on 6th November 1934 at Trivandrum, to Vaidyanatha Iyer and Meenakshi. Theirs was one of the highly placed families of the erstwhile Princely State of Travancore. Grandfather VS Subramania Iyer had been Chief Justice and Dewan of the State and Sir’s father had been Secretary to the last Maharajah, Chitra Tirunal Balarama Varma. Several traits of an aristocratic and dignified lifestyle were ingrained in him and his music. He abhorred the cheap and the sensational. Gossiping about colleagues in the profession was anathema and if he felt something was wrong he rarely hesitated in speaking his mind though he always couched what he had to say in polished language.

Known as Rajamani in his immediate family circle, Sir it was said displayed the ability to identify ragas even at the age of three. He began training in music under S Sankara Iyer in 1951 and gave his first performance in 1953. In June 1956 he became a student of Semmangudi’s and remained one till the maestro’s passing in 2003.

Qualifying with a Masters in Economics from the Annamalai University, he opted for a corporate career but continued to give concert performances as and when the opportunity arose. He also provided vocal support to his Guru for almost five decades. Of the latter he often said that sitting behind Semmangudi and listening at close quarters to his performances had been the greatest blessing in his life. Devotion to Semmangudi was to see him as one of the active members of the Sri Semmangudi Srinivasier Golden Jubilee Trust, untiringly conducting a weeklong music festival each year in July. In 2008, he co-authored a book on the life of his Guru and this was released on the occasion of Semmangudi’s birth centenary by APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India. Another lifelong devotion was to the Jagadgurus of the Sringeri Sarada Peetham. He set to music the compositions of some of the pontiffs and these were brought out as albums as well.

Music was to remain a passion through life and this led to his learning padams and javalis from T Brinda. Many years later, as a Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, he was to work with T Mukta on a project concerning ragas and the traditional way of rendering them. Tradition to him was sacrosanct and he strove hard to impart its importance to all his disciples. Post his retirement from his corporate career, he devoted his time to teaching music to several students. A member of the Experts Committee of the Music Academy, he held teaching assignments at Kalakshetra and the Tamil Nadu Isai Kalluri. He also served as a Secretary of the Music Academy. In 2007, the Music Academy conferred on him the title of Sangita Kala Acharya.

Learning music from Sir was a fun-filled experience. Classes were held in a small cottage-like structure in the garden of his gracious home. He was particular about punctuality, regular attendance and practice. The lessons were however conducted in a relaxed atmosphere, with each taking from it according to his/her own capacity. Frequently a twinkle would appear in his eye and we would know that some error in rendition by a student had reminded him of a funny occurrence in the past. These anecdotes, never malicious, but greatly illustrative of the world of art, have gone sadly unrecorded. He became a true friend to all his disciples and this love, and that of his wife Kripa, was extended to those of us who had ceased learning from him as well. He was a mentor in every way and we could discuss anything under the sun with him.

Sir’s expectations from the world were minimal and he was happy just practising and teaching music. In his passing the world of Carnatic music has lost a respected Guru and a representative of tradition. When I went to pay my last respects, someone remarked that Sir’s life had just two cornerstones – Semmangudi and Sringeri. He would have been happy to have heard that.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Friday Features section on 22nd November 2013