This being the 29th year of this great singer’s passing, The Hindu asked me to write a tribute on him. It was carried in today’s paper.

That is me, garlanding Maharajapuram Santhanam at a family wedding in 1986. Pic courtesy S Subramaniam

Growing up in the 1980s was not really a great experience – there were shortages of all kinds. But there was one joy that we had in abundance – listening to Maharajapuram Santhanam live. At a time when Carnatic music, like much else in India, was going through something of a decline, he was perhaps the most stellar among a handful of musicians who held the art aloft. 

Santhanam was born in 1928 as the younger son of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Visalakshi. Being the son of a genius is not a passport to success. The father was known for his brilliance and being a true torchbearer of the Umayalpuram school but his career progress had been chequered at best. Santhanam had to carve a space for himself. In any case it is never easy to scale the same heights as a parent in any profession, more so in the fine arts. While Santhanam began early enough with performances at Tiruvaiyyaru, the Music Academy and elsewhere, he did not make waves. In the 1950s it was not easy to make a name for there were enough and more stalwarts of the earlier generation going strong. But as was to be characteristic of him, he did something out of the ordinary – found a Sabha! He was keen that there should be an organisation in the T Nagar area, even though the Tyagabrahma Gana Sabha was already functioning. The Sri Krishna Gana Sabha came into existence in 1953 with Viswanatha Iyer as its President and Santhanam as the Secretary. In later years he would pass on the running to R Yagnaraman but he did have a close relationship with the organisation right through life. 

The turning point came in 1959/60, when while on a concert tour of Sri Lanka, Viswanatha Iyer was invited to stay back and become the Head of the Department of Music at the Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan College of Music in Jaffna. He suggested his son be given the job. It was there that Santhanam truly evolved, teaching and introspecting on music for five years, between 1960 and 1965. It was still not easy to make a name on return and Santhanam dabbled in some businesses. But by the early 1970s his career had taken off though it would be another four or five years before he became the sensation that we recall. 

The Santhanam style had many great aspects that attracted audiences and made them adherents. His choice of songs was perhaps the first – while he included many of the weighty pieces from the Umayalpuram stable – he brought in a whole new repertoire that became completely associated with him. Some of these may not have been great compositions by themselves, but Santhanam gave them a polish that made them all great hits. He also included a few of his own compositions which were top of the charts when it came to melody. While adhering to the concert format, Santhanam gave the post Pallavi elements due weightage. He knew that many in the audience came to listen to these. But what is to be noted is that this was never at the cost of the main pieces. The heavy classical part for him had to be presented with all its grandeur before he moved on to the lighter songs. 

In this way he probably added more adherents to Carnatic music than ever before. People came just because they liked to listen to him. His was possibly the most pleasing male voice of its generation. Santhanam eschewed harsh and loud renditions and when it came to the higher octave modulated his voice to the point where his critics, of whom there were plenty, accused him of crooning. The audience loved it and wanted more. I have seen men and women break down during his performances at those precise moments. His raga alapanas and swaras, were precise and well structured. And his niraval was an emotional experience for many. Gradually, he ensured an entirely new set of listeners, who had come to listen to him sing the tukkada, began to love the very format of classical music. He made them connoisseurs. 

Another aspect of Santhanam was the sheer joy that permeated the concert platform. The accompanists and audiences were made to feel part of a happy experience. Santhanam kept the humour flowing. When singing Vilaiyada Idu Nerama he would look at his watch. In a tillana with the line Kumara Vaa he would beckon to his son. In one concert where the requests kept pouring in through chits, he picked one and announced – this person has asked me to sing Mangalam. As a speaker he was excellent, and humour was his biggest strength. His father’s wit was as famous and when he brought out a commemorative volume on Viswanatha Iyer he ensured that the pages, apart from laudatory articles, carried a collection of his non-Rabelaisian jokes. He also established a trust in his father’s name that still awards musicians. 

At the Music Academy, where he received the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1989, it was customary to spread rugs in the car park so that those who could not get into the auditorium were able to listen and watch his concerts on CC TVs. As his career rose to great heights, Santhanam demanded and obtained fees that were commensurate with his star status. In this he was doing a favour to the whole Carnatic world, which had long suffered (and still suffers) from low remunerations. Artiste compensations began to go up because of his intervention. This was attacked tooth and nail by critics, most notably by N Pattabhiraman of the Sruti magazine who branded him the Mahamoney Vidwan. To detractors such as these, it was a virtue for a Carnatic artiste to remain poor and feed on probably just air. Anyway, Santhanam could not care less. At one memorable occasion, when asked to sing longer, he announced in Tamil that time was up. He used the word mani and made a counting gesture. Everyone burst into laughter.

“When he was a child, I have carried him around,” said Semmangudi at a felicitation function. And then having gazed at Santhanam who was seated by his side, he said, “Now I cannot even imagine that.” There was laughter but none louder than Santhanam’s. He loved his food. 

He was larger than life. When his death happened in a cruel car accident on June 24, 1992, it came as a shock to the Carnatic world. He is still missed. Griffith Road, on which the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha stands, was renamed Maharajapuram Santhanam Road in his memory.