In 2003, I was asked by Sruti magazine and its editor KV Ramanathan to do a full profile of this great composer and singer. I wrote a detailed article then. Later I presented his life as a lecture at Tag Centre. More recently, I had the privilege to write an abridged article on his life as part of the Music Academy’s latest publication – the Melaragamalika of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan. I am featuring that article here. 

The era immediately following that of the Carnatic Trinity saw several great performing artistes emerging in the field. And among these, Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan is one of the most frequently written about and perhaps the one performer/composer of the post Tyagaraja era on whom we have a significant amount of authentic information, thanks to two of his biographers – U Ve Swaminatha Iyer and Vasudevanallur Subbiah Bhagavatar. For the sake of convenience, this article refers to him as Sivan throughout.

Born on May 26, 1844, as the third son of Vaiyyacheri Doraiswami (aka Panchanada) Iyer and Arundhati (aka Tayu) Ammal, he was of musical stock for his father was a renowned bhajan singer and his mother was a kinswoman of the Anai-Ayya brothers. A famed singing duo of the times, Sivagangai Periya and Chinna Vaidyanatha Iyers, were his cousins. He, along with his immediate elder sibling Ramaswami, was entrusted to Manambucchavadi Venkatasubba Iyer, a cousin and disciple of Tyagaraja, for his musical tutelage.  By the age of seven, Sivan had begun a concert career, in which his elder brother Ramaswami accompanied him. In later life, once he had become a star, this brother, who appears to have stopped singing by then, managed his career in entirety.

By the time he was in his teens, Sivan and his brother had made a round of almost all the princely states and principalities of South India and could count on the support of a whole host of patrons. These included the royal families of Mysore, Travancore, Thanjavur, Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Ettayapuram, besides several officials of the princely states and British India. He was also a clear favourite of the Saivite mutt of Thiruvavaduturai and it was at the behest of the junior pontiff of that monastery’s branch at Kallidaikurichi that he was conferred the prefix of Maha. Kodaganallur Sundara Swamigal was a sanyasin who became the singer’s personal guru and it was after receiving mantropadesam from him that the suffix Sivan was added to his name. The Sringeri Sarada Peetham was also one of the patrons of Sivan and His Holiness Sacchidananda Sivabhinava Nrsimha Bharati is said to have composed a couplet in Sanskrit specially praying for Sivan’s long life. All of this marks a clear departure from the Trinity era, when spurning patronage was de-rigueur. By the time of Sivan it was perfectly accepted practice for a musician to go from royal court to court, performing there and receiving awards, titles and accolades.

Sivan lived in a crucial era, which was at the cusp of technological innovations. The railway had come to be established and he made extensive use of it, which is why he was able to travel so often to various places. His fame therefore covered a wide geographic area. More significantly, he was perhaps the first musician to have his voice recorded. That was at the Mysore palace and towards the end of his life. His rendition of Dikshitar’s Chintaya Makanda Mulakandam was recorded on a wax cylinder, which was sadly destroyed later in a fire.  Sivan was photographed too, making him, along with his bitter rival Patnam Subramania Iyer, the first Carnatic musician whose appearance is recorded for posterity. Artificial amplification was of course a long way off but Sivan lived to see the proliferation of performing spaces that were removed from temples and royal palaces. In Madras city, where he was a frequent performer, Sivan sang at school buildings and halls belonging to monasteries.

A strange feature in Sivan’s life was the number of musical duels that he was directly or indirectly associated with. This indicates a highly competitive spirit, quite at odds with the saintly and docile man that he is sometimes portrayed to be. He jousted with all the well-known names of his time – Patnam Subramania Iyer, Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer, Coimbatore Raghava Iyer and his kinsmen the Sivagangai Vaidyanatha duo. Besides this, he had on occasion acted as judge during competitions involving his contemporaries. The outcome of these events was debatable – brother Ramaswami had it that Sivan won them all whereas others described the result differently. But there can be no denying that such ‘blood sports’ left behind a considerable amount of ill will in their wake. Sivan may have been a favourite among the listening public but was not so loved among his peers in the profession.

On the occasions that he scored over his rivals, it was due to an undoubtedly superior knowledge of ragas. That he was a firm adherent to the sampurna melaraga scheme is well known from his Melaragamalika, the subject of this book. He was one of the key people in making this system the standard for raga classification in Carnatic music. Even at a young age, on the occasion of his being conferred the title of Maha, he had been able to talk and demonstrate at length the difference between the raga Nattai and its less popular parent Chalanata. In later years, he would defeat ‘Suravira Virasura Kantamani’ Venu, in a bitter duel, by taking up the rare raga Narayana Gaula for detailed treatment.

Sivan and his brother Ramaswami composed jointly under the name of Guhadasa. It is difficult to identify today as to which of the songs was by whom and ‘Sangita Vaithi, Sahitya Ramaswami’ is the accepted explanation. There is another school of thought that has it that the lyrics of all the Tamil songs were by Ramaswami while the Sanskrit ones were by Sivan. But it cannot be denied that both brothers were equally proficient in Sanskrit and Telugu, and music. It is however accepted that the Periya Purana and Siva Purana kirtanais in Tamil are all by Ramaswami Sivan. His creating these works enabled Sivan to embark on a parallel career – that of a discourser. He was invariably booked for twin performances – a conventional concert on one day and a Sivakatha or Upanyasam on the second day. That Sivan was deeply enamoured of Kathakalakshepam and Upanyasam is evident from the great reverence he had for Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandan Charitam and also the admiration he professed for the performances of Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar, the father of the modern Harikatha. So much in awe was he of Pt Lakshmanachar’s knowledge of the puranas and the Bhagavatam that he voluntarily strummed the tambura and provided vocal accompaniment for the latter’s Kathakalakshepams.

Sivan’s proficiency in Tamil was probably one of the reasons for his popularity as a performer. His concerts, as evinced in contemporary accounts, had something for everyone. There were Dikshitar kritis, a rarity then, verses from the Thevaram or Thiruvachakam, and the Tiruppugazh of Arunagiri, apart from Tyagaraja and Anai-Ayya compositions. For the cognoscenti there was the ragam tanam pallavi, undoubtedly the centrepiece, set invariably in talas of mind boggling complexity. There were some unique aspects to his concerts as well. He took a break of ten minutes in the middle of the performance to go and perform his sandhyavandanam. During this time, the musical atmosphere would remain intact thanks to a disciple strumming the tambura. When he sang, Sivan had his brother seated next to him, watching the audience and strumming the tambura, which was stretched across both their laps! Another interesting aspect was the lack of any individual displays by the sidemen. No tani avartanam was the norm! And contrary to popular belief that concerts in the olden times went on for days, Sivan rarely sang beyond an hour and a half!

A man of profound simplicity and orthodoxy to the point of self-abnegation, Sivan was known for his acts of charity. Temples in his native village of Vaiyyacheri, Thiruvaiyyaru, which became his home in the latter part of his life, Chidambaram and elsewhere benefited from his munificence. He funded weddings and sacred thread ceremonies and shared remuneration generously with accompanists. All of this was not necessarily to the liking of brother Ramaswami, who as manager of Sivan’s career and of the family’s well being felt the wealth could be better employed. Ramaswami was also the publicity manager for Sivan and often went beyond what was necessary, as is evident from the Maha Vaidyanatha Vijaya Sangraham, an elegy that he wrote and published on the death of his brother. It caused deep distress to Sivan’s competitors and for a while the Carnatic music world was convulsed in a welter of claims and counterclaims.

A performer of Sivan’s calibre naturally attracted several disciples. These did not find it easy to be students in residence, for Ramaswami saw to it that they were always gainfully employed in non-musical ways. But benefit they did. At least four became well-known names. Vasudevanallur Subbiah Bhagavatar was a pallavi expert and he wrote a detailed biography of Sivan. This was published later by Bhagavatar’s son, the scholarly vainika VS Gomathisankara Iyer in two volumes titled Isai Ulagil Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan. A second disciple was Pazhamarneri Swaminatha Iyer, an expert in the ashtapadi and padams. He was a voco-violinist, for he played the violin even as he sang. He received the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy in 1931. TS Sabhesa Iyer was a third student who became a performer known for his niraval skills.  He later turned pedagogue, teaching at the Annamalai University. It was Sabhesa Iyer who made Sivan’s Melaragamalika famous and also published it. He received the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy in 1934. A fourth disciple was the famed singer and Harikatha exponent Palakkad Anantharama Bhagavatar. It is interesting to note that the Sabhesa Iyer line is among the most represented in the Sangita Kalanidhi list – Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, Mani Krishnaswami, TK Govinda Rao, TN Seshagopalan and the Bombay Sisters, are all from this lineage. Sivan and his wife Kamakshi had two sons, Vedaranyam and Viswanathan. Of these, the latter is listed in Abraham Pandithar’s Karunamirtha Sagaram as someone who could sing as well as his father. But of his career we know nothing.

It is useless to speculate as to what more Sivan could have achieved had he lived longer. But he would have definitely made it to the gramophone age thereby enabling us to listen to his voice, said to have been high in pitch and capable of bhrigas at remarkable speed. That is our loss, for he died after a brief illness in 1893. But works such as the Melaragamalika speak of his undoubted abilities. His tambura, donated by Vidushi and scholar SAK Durga, is a treasured possession of the Music Academy, Madras.


Iyer, U Ve Swaminatha; Sangita Mummanigal; Swaminatha Iyer Nool Nilayam, Madras, 1987

Iyer, VS Gomathisankara; Isai Ulagil Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan; Gomathi Veliyeedu; Annamalai Nagar; 1971

Sambamurthy, P; Great Musicians; The Indian Music Publishing House; Chennai; 1996

Pandither, Abraham; Karunamirtha Sagaram; Karunanidhi Medical Hall; Tanjore; 1917

Krishnamurthy, S (ed); With Masters of Melody, the memoirs of Mysore Vasudevachar; Ananya GML; Bangalore; 1999

Pillai, T Lakshmana; My Musical Reminiscences; Journal of the Music Academy; Madras; 1931

Ramachandran, KV; Book Review; Journal of the Music Academy; Madras; 1936

Singaracharyulu, Tachur; Gayakasiddhanjanam;  Madras; 1905

Devnath, Lakshmi; Patnam Subramania Iyer; Sruti Issue 219

Sriram V; Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, A High Flyer’s Story; Sruti Issue 227