Portrait of Sangita Kalanidhi TL Venkatarama Iyer, donated to the Music Academy by Sangita Kalanidhi DK Pattammal

There have been many lawyers and judges who have taken an active interest in Carnatic Music. A few performers and music scholars have qualified in law as well. But in the history of Carnatic Music there has been only one Judge of the Supreme Court of India, who was a singer, a scholar, a music teacher and above all, a recipient of the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy. That was TL Venkatarama Iyer, whose fiftieth anniversary of death was on January 2, 2021.

Born on November 25, 1893, Venkatarama Iyer came of scholarly stock. His grandfather Muthusubba Iyer was an expert in Sanskrit and Tamil in Punalveli in the Tirunelveli district. His father Lakshmana Iyer was a renowned Sanskrit scholar who settled at Harikesanallur. While the father took care of the boy’s Sanskrit learning, it was cousin MuthiahBhagavatar who initiated him into music. This was not entirely to Lakshmana Iyer’s liking but lessons continuednevertheless. 

Lakshmana Iyer was successively employed as Sanskrit professor at the SPG College Thanjavur and the Pachayappa’sCollege, Madras. The suffix Suri was conferred on him by Sir K Seshadri Iyer, Dewan of Mysore in 1903 and he was awarded the title of Mahamahopadyaya by the Government in 1911. Young Venkataraman was admitted at the Pachayappa’s School and later at the Madras Christian College. He eventually qualified in law and set up practice at the High Court of Madras. His musical learning was not neglected, for he trained under Manathattai Doraiswami Iyer. It was however a meeting in 1931 at Kovilpatti with Ambi Dikshitar, a descendant of the Muthuswami Dikshitar family that proved the most important event in his life. His love for Sanskrit and music found common ground in the works of Muthuswami Dikshitar and he became a lifelong votary of the composer and his songs. He was instrumental in Ambi Dikshitar’s shift to Madras from Ettayapuram and even after the latter went back in 1933, continued to be his disciple till the Guru’s passing in 1936.

By then, he had emerged as an expert on Dikshitar’s works and was a much sought-after teacher, his residence on Sannidhi Street, Mylapore being the venue for lessons to artistes and lay students. He was also one of the early members of the Music Academy, where he soon became Vice President. At its annual conferences it was his voice, along with those of Cheranmahadevi Subramania Sastry and Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar, that staunchly highlighted the Dikshitar style of handling ragas, some of which were in sharp variance to the way they were sung by the Tyagaraja school. In 1944, the Music Academy invited him to preside over its annual conference and conferred on him the title of Sangita Kalanidhi.

Venkatarama Iyer was elevated to the bench, becoming Judge of the High Court of Madras, in 1951. Upon his reaching 60 in 1953, he was made Judge of the Supreme Court of India, and he carried his propagation of Dikshitar kritis to the national capital as well. It was here that DK Pattammal, at his request,sang Dikshitar’s Cheta Sri Balakrishnam (raga Dvijavanti) and moved Babu Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India, to tears. A few years later, when he was visiting Madras on a Janmashtami day, the President asked for “TLV’s disciple” to be invited to the Raj Bhavan. Pattammal sang Cheta Sri once more. 

Returning to Madras, TL Venkatarama Iyer persuaded the Sangeet Natak Akademi to give a grant to the Music Academy to enable the latter to embark on a five-volume Tamil translation of Subbarama Dikshitar’s magnum opus, the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini. In 1962, during the centenary celebrations of the High Court of Madras, at the invitation of S Ramachandra Iyer, the then Chief Justice, Venkatarama Iyer performed a full concert, the accompanists VP Raman (violin), N Srivatsamani (mridangam) and KC Rajappa (kanjira) all being lawyers! In 1965, with the then President of the Music Academy, KV Krishnaswami Iyer, passing away, TL Venkatarama Iyer took over. He was also simultaneously the President of the RR Sabha. Under him, the Music Academy finally took the decision to award the Sangita Kalanidhi to women, the first recipient being MS Subbulakshmi, in 1968. That was also the year when Venkatarama Iyer’s biography of Muthuswami Dikshitar was published by the National Book Trust.

Two years later, it was Venkatarama Iyer’s favourite disciple,DK Pattammal, who was selected for the Sangita Kalanidhi. While the proud Guru made it to the inauguration of the conference despite being terminally ill, he stayed away from the rest of the events. On January 1, 1971, Pattammal received the award and drove straight to Venkatarama Iyer’s residence on the then Mowbrays (now TTK ) Road.

The old man could not contain his joy. He died the next day.

This article appeared on Jan 8, 2021 in The Hindu. A talk by me, on TLV’s life, with an introduction by noted author Sivasankari can be seen on YouTube