The days with my guru
Violin exponent V.V. Subramaniam, whose association with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer spanned nearly half-a-century, recalled that concert at Guntur in the early 1960s.
“That was when I realised how great a musician he was. I was 16 years old.” The afternoon coffee had arrived, fresh and piping hot, as he sat on the oonjal in our host’s house. He began to sing an alapana in Kaapi. I said, ‘Mama, kaapi, it will get cold.’
“He picked up the coffee and continued singing, switching the tumbler from one hand to the other. The kaapi went cold but the Kaapi did not stop. He went on for 45 minutes. I gently reminded him that we had to get ready for the concert, to which he said, ‘idhellam kutcherile varadhu da’ (this kind of music will not happen in a concert). And then, in a childlike manner asked, ‘How did I sing?’ I said: ‘What can I say? I felt as if I am in front of the magnificent Himalayas!’ To which he quipped, ‘I am not a rock!’”
You ask VVS, how different is an informal exposition of a raga from a formal concert?
He explains, “A concert has its own limiting factors — self imposed and otherwise. Semmangudi said on one occasion that he has crafted an alapana style that works for concerts. The music must build a rapport with listeners. If it does not, even great musicians cannot find popularity. Semmangudi was both a musicians’ musician and a people’s musician.
“In his singing both lakshana and lakshya sangeetam are realised in full measure.
“Before another concert at Kollangodu, the village of V.R. Krishnan, his senior disciple, when the afternoon coffee arrived, he asked, ‘Kaapi nyaabagam varado?’
I replied, ‘Well, actually Manjhi is on my mind — how does one keep it apart from Bhairavi?’ He demonstrated by contrasting the delivery of the same phrases in the two ragas. In Manjhi, the same phrase had a lingering, delicate swing to the madhyamam. Such astonishing artistry! At my request, he sang it at the concert that day, along with swara prastaram. I certainly did not want to follow it up with my own swara prastaram, but he goaded me to and I attempted it successfully.”
Once at M.S. Subbulakshmi’s house, he sang a spellbinding round of sarva laghu swara prastaram and asked VVS to play. In VVS’s words: “I put the violin down saying that it was not something one could just pick up on the fly and reproduce.
“He said that it certainly was not. He recounted that he himself had picked it from Rajamanickam Pillai when that maestro accompanied him at a concert. ‘His swara prastaram swept the audience off their feet and Pillaivaal took home the laurels that day. I practiced hard and at the next concert with him, I sang it. He was so moved that he placed his violin on my lap. So, yes, sarvalaghu swaram is not something that can just come..’ Semmangudi’s sarva laghu swarams were packed with raga bhavam. For him and for Carnatic music in general, madhyama kala is the key. He was the ‘king of madhyama kala’ singing.
“I once asked him how he crafted a style of his and his one word answer was — Iyengarvaal (Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar). At first I could not believe it because there is a world of difference between their music but he insisted. So I spent 10 days listening to recordings of Ariyakudi. Ariyakudi’s music is full of gamakas — every swaram uttered is enveloped in the body of gamaka. It was this feature that Semmangudi took, effecting due modifications to suit his musical sensibilities.”
On Gottuvadyam Sakha Rao’s advice, every morning Semmangudi practised alankaras in three speeds in akaaram, for an hour, standing waist-deep in water.
This readies the voice to bring out phrases in various rhythmic patterns so essential to Carnatic music even from the melodic point of view. It also grounds one in madhyama kalam.
So what is the Semmangudi bani?
VVS says: “It is a presentational style that gives equal importance to every aspect of Carnatic music — be it the various angas such as composition, alapana, swara prastara, neraval etc. or voice movements like rounded gamaka, fast and slow phrases, briga...
“I once asked Semmangudi why briga is associated with GNB, even though it is practised by others too. He said that GNB brought it into prominence. While their rivalry has been much spoken about, there is an incident which brings out their mutual regard.
“This was after M.S. Subbulakshmi presented ‘Sri Krishnam bhaja manasa’ (Thodi, Muthuswami Dikshitar) at The Music Academy. After hearing it over the radio, GNB called me and expressed his appreciation over how well the composition had been set up by Semmangudi and rendered by MS amma. He said that he wanted to learn it and asked me to get the notation from Semmangudi. When I went to ask Semmangudi for the notation, he said, ‘What? GNB wants to learn this song? I will personally teach him. He is a great man, an educated man.’
“GNB protested saying it was he who should come to learn from Semmangudi. But Semmangudi insisted I take him in a taxi to GNB’s house, where he taught GNB the song. I consider it my great fortune to have witnessed the rare sight of the two maestros singing together.”
Did he ever talk about where Carnatic music was heading?
“On one occasion, when I confided in him my dismay over some contemporary trends and what I see as a fall in standards, he agreed with me. But he went on to say that Carnatic music is like a banyan tree — if not here, it will strike roots elsewhere. He assured me that I would see that happen.
“A few years ago while at Chicago, I heard a few children there sing Suruti and I remembered his prediction. Certainly Carnatic music has struck roots in a big way among the diaspora and his banyan tree metaphor seems absolutely right.”
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