Written by Shalini Saxena on 26 April 2019
Walking down the crowded streets of Thanjavur today, one can still find a measure of peace at the Bangaru Kamakshi temple, home to Goddess Kamakshi. Along with being a place of worship to the throngs of devotees and visitors, the Kamakshi temple is also home to one of the Trinities of Carnatic Music (Sangita Trimurti) - the musical genius and composer Shyama Shastri.
Born to Visvanatha Iyer and Vengalakshmi in a Tamil Brahmin family at Tiruvarur on April 26, 1762, Venkata Subrahmanya popularly known as Shyama Shastri was the eldest of the three jewels of Carnatic music - the distinguished trio of composer-musicians of Carnatic music including Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shyama Shastri himself.
Shyama Shastri came from a family of priests, worshipers of the Goddess Kamakshi. Following political turmoil and fearing the threat of destruction of the temples and idols, Shayma Shastri’s ancestors travelled along with the Kamakshi idol from place to place until they finally settled in the temple town of Thiruvarur.
Here, Shyama Shastri was born in the month of “Chaitra” on “Krithika Nakshatra” in 1763 as predicted by a wise man. Born in a family of scholars and priests, he received thorough education in Sanskrit and Telugu.
At a very young age, Shyama Shastri showed great musical ability. Discovering his interest in music, his mother requested her brother to initiate his music education and teach him the fundamentals of music. Shyama Shastri’s earliest gurus were his father who taught him devotional songs and his uncle who taught him the basics of music. However, his was a well-to-do family of priests and felt that Shyama would not be able to earn a living as a musician.
During an evening of worship at the temple, Shyama once sang beautiful songs in praise of the Goddess Kamakshi. His listeners were enthralled and as a token of their appreciation, gifted the boy with a beautiful shawl. Shyama went home and showed it to his uncle, who, angered by his musical pursuits, ended up shredding his music book to pieces. This was hardly a deterrent for the little boy, who believed that the Goddess Kamakshi would continue to inspire and guide his music.
Shyama Shastri’s family moved on to settle in Thanjavur (then Tanjore). A chance encounter with Sanyasi Sangita Swami, a mendicant and musical exponent from Kasi who was passing through Thanjavur, breathed new life into Shayma Shastri’s music education.
During Sangita Swami’s short stay of four months at Thanjavur, he taught Shyama Shastri all the intricate details of Raga, Tala and Swara Prastharas (improvisation with musical notes). Impressed by his melodious voice, keen intellect and grasping power, the Sanyasi directed his student to approach Paccimiriyam Adiyappayya, a prominent court musician in Tanjore. The influence of Adiyappayya can be seen in the ‘Svarajati - Kamakshi' in Bhairavi raga that Shyama Shastri would go on to compose and popularise.
Shyama Shastri was a Devi Bhakt (devotee of the Goddess) and Archak (priest) at the temple of Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi, where his forefathers were priests for several years. Most of his compositions are paeans of Devi Kamakshi.
Shyama Shastri was not interested in worldly pursuits. During his lifetime, the arts were flourishing due to the patronization of the kings, but Shastri would not show any interest in being a court musician. Over his lifetime, Shyama Shastri would go on to compose nearly 300 krithis in praise of the Goddess. He also created Navaratnamalika which is a set of nine compositions praising the Goddess Meenakshi of the famed Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. He would go on pilgrimage tours and create compositions on deities of the temples he visited. He wrote compositions praising Tiruvaiyaru Dharmasamvardini, Nagapattinam Neelayadakshi, Thiruvanaikaval Akhilandeswari, one Tana Varnam on Kanchi Varadaraja and one krithi on Vaidheeswarankovil Muthukkumaraswamy.
Shyama Shastri adopted common as well as rare ragas for his compositions. Though his compositions were in three languages -Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit - he preferred Telugu as the medium of expression. He is the only one among the ‘Trinity’ to have composed in Tamil. "Ratnatrayam" is the name given to his popular set of three Swarajati(s) - Kamakṣhi Anudinamu in Raga Bhairavi, Kamakṣhi Padayugame in Yadukula Kambhoji, and Rave Himagiri Kumari in Raga Todi. Shyama Shastri has composed masterpieces in Ragas like Anandhabhairavi (said to be one of his favorites) and Saveri.
Shastri lived in Thanjavur at a time when the music and arts were flourishing due to the patronization of many kings. He was a contemporary of Saint Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshithar. Tyagaraja and Shastri would spend a lot of time discussing music together. A lot of musicians of his time would go around holding musical “challenges” where they would challenge another singer to a competition. The stakes of such contests was usually the musician’s renown, though in some cases, the party suffering defeat would be asked to leave the lands or accept the superiority of the other musician.
In one such contest, Shyama Shastri won against Bobbili Kesavayya, a prominent musician, who had defeated all the musicians in the court of the king Sarabhoji of Thanjavur. The king then requested Shyama Shastri to represent Thanjavur. Shastri won the challenge by performing a composition in the Sarabhananda Tala for the first time ever in recorded history of music.
Another legendary contest was with Appukutti Nattuvanar, who challenged Shyama Shastri to leave Thanjavur if defeated. Shyama Shastri not only defeated Appukutti but also turned him into an admirer. Appukutti went on to popularise Shastri’s compositions in Mysore.
Shyama Shastri signed his compositions - Kritis, Varṇam(s) and Swarajati(s) with his Mudra (Signature) ‘Shyama Krishna’.
Most of his compositions were scholarly in nature. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not have many disciples and yet his compositions have been propagated, popularized and admired over the centuries.
On February 6, 1827, he at the age of 65, this great Kamakshi devotee breathed his last.