A PORTRAIT OF THE PITAMAHA
A warm, worthy centenary tribute to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer shines a spotlight on the man and his music.
AUG 31, 2008 – IN THE WORDS OF THE AUTHORS V Subrahmaniam (responsible for the Music section of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer: Life, Music) and Sriram V (responsible for the Life section), their effort is a centenary tribute that “attempts to analyse what went into the making of Semmangudi, the man and the musician.” There are two ways to go about a project of such panoramic scope. The first is an interpretative appraisal of the pitamaha of Carnatic music – an entirely subjective look at who he was, what he did, what he meant, what he means. Subrahmaniam and Sriram choose the other route, which is to stick to the facts.
Sriram, with his typical meticulousness, lays out for us the biographical detail – beginning with the fact that the village that prefixed the singer’s name was really “Sempongudi,” and proceeding to chart a course through birth, musical education, ascent to stardom and laudatory effusions from the likes of Law, Home and Irrigation Minister of Kerala (1957 Communist Party Government) and later Justice of the Supreme Court of India, VR Krishna Iyer. (“Those sublime touches, those raga marvels, those gamaka wonders – jewels here, jewels there, jewels everywhere!”)
And then Subrahmaniam takes over – putting these jewels under the microscope and examining the cut, the colour, the clarity, the carat weight. “Then what was it that was in [Semmangudi’s] rendition of kritis that made them indelible in the minds of rasikas?” he wonders, and attempts an answer by analysing how the singer would shape a kriti for concert-readiness. The first step, we’re told, was seeking out a notation of the composition from a recognised source, after which Semmangudi would refine the piece, on the not entirely incorrect assumption that anomalies would have crept in as a result of the kriti being handed down through generations. “Even when he had chosen the notations from texts such as the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini, he… put them through this refining procedure.”
Linking both the Life and the Music sections of the volume are the scores of photographs – rare snapshots from a not-too-long-ago era where an all-star lineup (in a picture taken at the Music Academy) would consist of ML Vasanthakumari, T Brinda, DK Pattammal and MS Subbulakshmi, with KV Narayanaswami holding forth at the podium. Seated, at extreme right, is the boy known as Seenu, who grew up to be one of the brightest and the best of a group of musicians who etched the names of their villages on the musical map of India.
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