Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer

One of the chief travails that Carnatic musicians of present years face is the continued competition they face from musicians long dead and gone. Blame it on the recordings or the proliferation of YouTube releases but the artistes of yesteryear continue to remain in circulation, sometimes with more popularity than some present-day performers. Semmangudi would have smiled. Like other top-ranking artistes who had remained in the limelight for much of their lives, he understood the need for audiences and the necessity to remain current more than anyone else.

As to how much this mattered to him was made manifest to me when in the final years of his life, I happened to call on him in the company of my Guru, V Subrahmanyam. The Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer Golden Jubilee Trust had been set up by the maestro’s disciples when he had completed 50 years as a performing artiste. My Guru being one of Semmangudi’sprime disciples was in the forefront of celebrating the latter’s birthday each year and we were calling on him to formally invite him to grace the occasion. “Will there be an audience?” was his first and only question. Not for Semmangudi the pretense that he did not need audiences and sang/spoke only for his inner satisfaction. On the day of the event Semmangudi arrived at the venue well before time. He had had a cataract surgery and was wearing black glasses. On coming in he peered through these and was visibly upset to see many empty rows. “Kootame illiye,” he said. VS sir assured him that it was still not yet time and more people would come in.

And sure enough they did, filling all the seats by the time Semmangudi took to the stage. He was delighted by what he saw. And he spoke for 20 minutes, giving the audience plenty to ponder over and laugh at. “Carnatic music is not something tangible like a soap,” he said. “Audiences come, sacrificing other avenues of entertainment and when they leave, all they have with them is a sense of happiness. It is the duty of the artiste to ensure they get that.” This was a statement he often made and he repeated it on this occasion too. Coming from him it was a homily. I remember reflecting on how countless management books have been written on this same dictum, with far less effect. 

To me he was the ultimate professional who would have succeeded in any field that he took to. It was music that he chose and in it he shone. The story of Semmangudi is nothing if not one of grit and determination. True he did come from a hallowed family – his uncle and cousin were famed violinists but that did not in any way assure him of success in his chosen path. Indeed, his damaged vocal equipment was more a deterrent than an asset and the legendary PudukottaiDakshinamurthy Pillai is said to have remarked that the boy may be better off training as a violinist. But nothing would deter Semmangudi. He had the talent in him for music and he was going to express it vocally, come what may. And succeed he did, to the extent that to many diehard fans that nasal twang, the high decibel shouts of “Amba!” and those rasping breaths were as much part of the music as were the sonorous alapanas, the cascade of swaras, the exquisite shlokas and the delectable ragam tanam pallavis. 

Networking is today a fashionable term especially when it comes to professional success but here was a past master at it long, long ago. He had his pockets of influence where it mattered the most – cabinet ministers, royalty and well-heeled patrons in Shencotta, Kallidaikurichi and Madras. He had senior musicians too in this select coterie – Musiri Subramania Iyer probably being the most well-known. Having Subbulakshmi as a student mattered as well. It is just that all of the networking was done from a position of strength. This was no whingeing supplicant. It was considered an honour to be able to assist Semmangudi. His friends knew his worth as a musician and were happy to do their bit for forwarding his career and interests. And he did not hesitate to ask when it mattered. It must also be pointed out here that he was not a grabber of any opportunity that came along. It had to be in keeping with his stature and his principles. Thus, he never accepted an overseas invite – he did not believe in crossing the black waters.

Today, any conversation on Semmangudi unfortunately tends to drift to his involvement in controversies with Balamuralikrishna and Balachander and his influence at the Music Academy. But what is forgotten is that these happened at the fag end of a career replete with the best of music despite the most recalcitrant voice. While they did lessen the halo, they could not take away anything from his contribution to the art. Even today, his bhani is still one of the most popular, passed on to younger generations by several disciples he trained. His on and off-stage witticisms still do the rounds and his renditions remain reference points for any aspect of the art. That would perhaps be his greatest contribution. 

What then of apellations such as Chanakya and Cunningham of Carnatic Music? We often tend to forget that these are the very same traits that are considered praiseworthy in other professions. Why then should classical music alone differ? Should the principles that Tyagaraja considered ideal be the standards by which every performing musician ought to be judged? Semmangudi would have disagreed. In a life spanning a century he had seen Carnatic music change in everything, from presentations to patronage to technology. He survived it all. We do keep saying that adaptability is one of the chief traits required for success, don’t we? Why should this not apply to Carnatic music also?

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 23rd to commemorate his birthday which falls on the 25th. The Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer Golden Jubilee Trust this year features a concert by RK ShriramKumar (violin), Manoj Siva (mridangam) and S Karthik (ghatam) at 6.15 pm on the 25th. The link to view the same will be posted later.