Prof P Sambamurthi, who among many other things was one of the earliest archivists of published and written material concerning Carnatic Music, has left behind a treasure trove. These were all bequeathed to the Music Academy, Madras after his demise and work has now begun on a painstaking restoration and digitisation exercise in collaboration with the Roja Muthiah Research Library. Among these are several newspaper clippings of the 1920s, culled from various dailies, and all related to music. Going through them you find that the bulk of the writing those days was by Keertanacharya CR Srinivasa Iyengar.

One of these, dating to March 22, 1925 from the Khasa Subba Rao-edited Swarajya, is an account of how he met with Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar around 25 years earlier, and his impressions of the latter who was a direct disciple of Tyagaraja. Reading it you realise that in the absence of photography and audio recording, an account like this is the closest you are ever likely to get to one of Tyagaraja’s disciples. Another aspect that strikes you is that while there is a plethora of material, much of it unsubstantiated and still growing, on Tyagaraja, there is very little on his disciples. Even by way of pictorial record we have little -photographs of Umayalpuram Krishna and Sundara Bhagavatars and a portrait of Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar. It is in the light of this that a personal account of Tyagaraja’s disciple becomes valuable.

Srinivasa Iyengar writes that the meeting took place at the house of person from the Saurashtra community, in Kumbhakonam. The Walajahpet father and son duo of Venkataramana and Krishnaswami Bhagavatars, both disciples of Tyagaraja, were from the same ethnic sub-group. Srinivasa Iyengar was introduced to an elderly man of “the Biblical three score and ten milestones on the way of life (and) yet his splendid physique and thews and sinews would have done credit to an athlete of half his years.” From Sambamurthi’s account we know that Venkataramana Bhagavatar was well built and it is evident that his son inherited the same traits. There is more – “tall, of commanding presence, with a dome-like forehead and powerful mouth…the marks of a Vaishnava were very strongly painted on his broad massive face. He had an open and charming smile when he spoke to me that revealed two rows of perfectly preserved teeth. Heavy gold bracelets gleamed on his wrists.” The Bhagavatar was dressed in pure white and kept telling a rosary of Tulasi beads. On his lap was a tuned violin and on either side two disciples. For all this picture of vitality, it is evident that Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was blind by then, for Srinivasa Iyengar writes that his “bushy eyebrows, all white, looked like a penthouse from whose thatch there looked upon you two sightless orbs.”

The performance began after Krishnaswami Bhagavatar and disciples had prostrated before portraits of Rama and Tyagaraja and sung invocations on them, composed by Venkataramana Bhagavatar. Srinivasa Iyengar was swept off his feet by the “leonine voice, grand, majestic, sonorous and rich in overtone. Of great volume, faultless in timbre, it lent itself as easily to undulations (gamaka) as to greavers (rava).” But that was not all. Shortly thereafter, the Bhagavatar began playing on the violin and Srinivasa Iyengar states that “sang on the violin” was perhaps a more apt description. “His instrument was the alter-ego, the perfect echo of his voice.” The account does not mention what songs were sung or what ragas were delineated.

Historically, Krishnaswami Bhagavatar is of great significance. He, and his father, independent of each other, wrote biographies of Tyagaraja. He was a disciple in residence during the final phase of Tyagaraja’s life and more importantly, he was present to record the last moments of the great composer. It was through him and his family that the meagre physical possessions of Tyagaraja – his padukas and tambura, made their way to the safe custody of the Saurashtra Sabha in Madurai, where they are preserved along with Tyagaraja’s copy of the Pothana Bhagavatam and several songs of his in manuscript, documented by Venkataramana and Krishnaswami Bhagavatars.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was one of the few disciples of Tyagaraja still active and performing. It was to him that AM Chinnaswami Mudaliar turned for help when he hit upon the idea of notating in Western format some Carnatic songs. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar generously taught Chinnaswami Mudaliar several of these. The latter then notated them and had a western orchestra perform based on what he had written. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar listened to the pieces and gave his stamp of approval or made changes as appropriate. Thus it was that a long and arduous journey of notating Carnatic songs began, which would culminate in Subbarama Dikshitar’s magnum opus, the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated June 8, 2018. I was then alerted by my young friend Aravind Ranganathan that there is a sketch of Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar in the book by his son Ramaswami Bhagavatar. Sure enough, there it was, in the Music Academy library. I am appending that sketch which shows three generations of the Walajahpet Bhagavatars together.

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Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar
Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar
Tyagaraja 250, a compilation