Artist’s impression of Tyagaraja, courtesy The Hindu

Dr Rama Kausalya, my dear friend of Thillaisthanam sent me a message yesterday morning that Chellam aka Lakshminarayana Iyer, passed away on Monday. It marked the end of a full life, spanning almost/more than a century and so I will not say his death was a shock or something to be mourned. His memory is to be cherished and celebrated.

I got to know of him thanks to my friend Balu of the Karnatik Music Book Centre, while I was researching the life of Bangalore Nagarathnamma. I called on Chellam Iyer, who was then living in Madras, taking care of a younger but ailing brother. Both were bachelors. Chellam Iyer proved to be an authority on the Thiruvaiyyaru Tyagaraja Aradhana history. He was a veteran of the Chinna Katchi, one of the two factions that conducted the Tyagaraja Aradhana until Nagarathnamma arrived and began a third and women-only faction. They were all united in the 1940s but two of the three – the Chinna Katchi and Nagarathnamma retained some rights. The latter of course owned the property which even today vests with the Vidyasundari Bangalore Nagarathnamma Trust. The Aradhana itself is conducted by the body that emerged after the unification – a longish name that I now forget. The Chinna Katchi retained its right to do an abhishekam for Tyagaraja before the actual Aradhana and this went on for long before it was finally negated in an unfortunate litigation in which Chellam Iyer was a key figure.

He had with him several pamphlets of the Chinna Katchi dating to the early 1900s, soliciting donations.  He also had with him published accounts of this faction dating to the 1930s and 1940s. Chellam Iyer had of course met Nagarathnamma personally and while he was guarded in his views about her, I could sense that he did not entirely approve of all that she did. We agreed to disagree and became friends thereafter. He was a walking encyclopaedia on musicians of the past and had a fund of stories about each one of them. He would, till a couple of years back, call me once in a while to tell me some anecdote or the other.

Each year, till he became too old, Chellam Iyer would, on behalf of the erstwhile Chinna Katchi, conduct a shraddham for Tyagaraja in Thiruvaiyyaru on Aradhana day. Others have now taken on the responsibility. The honour of performing the actual ritual fell on RK Shriramkumar who, if I am not mistaken, still does it each year. It was the old man’s way of sticking to tradition and he would brook no obstacle in its conduct.

In his last years Chellam Iyer stayed with nephews and nieces and moved around the Thiruvaiyyaru/Thillaisthanam area. His mind was fixed on Tyagaraja and he naturally wanted to be close to the composer. Now he has become one with Tyagaraja.