Written by Shalini Saxena on 25 July 2019
"Musicians should be charged with devotion. There should be bhakti towards music. That would liven music and ensure that it endures."
-Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer
Shri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, popularly known as the Pitamaha of modern Carnatic music - an accolade he earned by devoting almost nine decades to music. His life holds many lessons and challenges which make him an inspiration for the younger generations.
He was born on 25th July 1908 at his maternal uncle - violin exponent Krishna Iyer’s house in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. When he was four, his uncle passed away and he moved to Semmangudi to live with his parents. He could not receive formal education as the nearest school was more than 10 km from his district and due to absence of any mode of transport, the only possible way to get there was by walking. His journey began at the age of 8 when he started receiving his musical training from his cousin Semmangudi Narayanaswamy Iyer who nurtured his musical talent. He also received training under Thiruvadaimaruthur Sakharama Rao, and learnt a lot of varnams and keerthanams from Narayanaswamy Iyer. Later, he took up a musical apprenticeship under Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer.
Known for his virtuosity and meticulous planning as a concert performer, Srinivasa performed his first musical concert at Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu in the year 1926.
Though Semmangudi is now known as a vocalist par excellence, his initial foray into the world of music was fraught with criticism. He had an uncharacteristically nasal voice which bothered him in his youth, but he turned this to his advantage and it became his identity. He used to accompany his brother for concerts and on one such occasion the leading Mridangam and Kanjira artist Dhakshinamurti Pillai asked him to sing. After listening to his voice, Pillai commented to his brother "His voice is as melodious as the noise created when a coconut shell is scraped on a rock. Don't bother to give him vocal training. Let him learn to play the violin." Thereon, Srinivasa practiced 8 hours everyday to prove his vocal skills and the rest is history.
The year 1927 was a turning point in the life of Semmangudi Iyer- a concert in the Madras session of Indian National Congress pushed him into the league of carnatic “Vidwans” of his time. Despite a recalcitrant voice and having gone through a throat surgery at the peak of his career, Semmangudi’s voice performed miracles and his inspiring music touched the hearts and minds of his listeners.
He got his next big break, when at the Gokhale Sastri Hall in Madras he went to listen to a concert by Viswanatha Iyer. Vishwanatha Iyer dropped out of the performance and the organisers, looking for a last minute replacement, asked Semmangudi to perform. Maharani Sethu Parvati Bai of Travancore (the Queen of Travancore) was also present at the concert. Impressed with his performance, the Maharani invited him to Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) to edit, publish and popularise Swati Tirunal's compositions. After a little thought, he accepted the offer and spent the next two decades there. He gave many concerts at the palace before the queen who was herself well-versed in music and loved to listen to Semmangudi’s voice unmarred by any accompanying musical instruments.
It was known through his concerts that he had a few favourite Raagas which included Raagas like Kalyani, Khamboji, Arabhi and Kharaharapriya. Because of his masterly presentation of especially the Raaga Kharaharapriya people also referred to him as ‘Kharaharapriya Srinivasa Iyer’.
Considered to be the "Sageetha Pitamaha (Grand Sire/Grandfather) of modern Carnatic Music”, he was affectionately called "Semmangudi Maama" (Semmangudi Uncle) by his disciples. Besides being the youngest recipient of the Sangeetha Kalanidhi (1947), Semmangudi has received many other awards from the government of India including the second highest and third highest civilian awards - Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan. He was also honoured with Sangeet Natak Academy award (1953), Isai Perarignar from Government of Tamil Nadu and Kalidas Samman from Government of Madhya Pradesh. He was also conferred with an honorary doctorate by the University of Kerala in 1979.
“Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was not only a titan on stage, but also an outstanding teacher.”
He was an exceptionally talented teacher who is known to have trained four generations of students. The list of his disciples comprises of many distinguished names including Sangeetha Kalanidhis - M.S. Subbulakshmi, T. M. Thyagarajan, Pala C K Ramachandran and violinist Prof. T. N. Krishnan. The Queen of Carnatic Music M. S. Subbulakshmi mastered the nuances and intricacies of her art under his tutelage.
Dr. Semmangudi passed away in 2003 but the legacy of his singing style lives on in his disciples who continue to impart Semmangudi Bani to the younger generations.