Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Musiriyin Visiri

Dear Readers

I am writing this blog after a break as I was occupied with personal functions of both Grihapravesham and my elder son’s Upanayanam which was performed last month. It was a miraculous May. I happened to be at Kancheepuram on two occasions recently. One for getting the ashirvadams for my sons’ upanayanam from Kanchi Acharyas and the next trip was along with my friend. By his divine mercy I got the paduka of Mahaperiyava on the second visit and I feel blessed with that. Am writing this article only because of Guru’s mercy for which I am indebted forever.

During the December concert season 2009 I bought two volumes of Tyagaraja Kriti’s sung by different artists. In the first volume when I heard the song “Neevada Negana” in the raga ‘Saranga’ composed by Saint Tyagaraja I was thrilled and moved by the song. It was sung by the legend Musiri Subramania Iyer who was very famous for his Bhava laden singing which I came to know later.

I became the ‘Visiri’ (Fan) of ‘Musiri’ immediately after hearing this song and hence decided to share the life history of Musiri under the title “Musiriyin Visiri”.
Please read on to know more about Musiri!

Happy Reading

Warm Regards
A.V. Devan
Chennai – June 8th 2010

Musiriyin Visiri

Musiri Subramania Iyer (1899-1975) was a well known Carnatic vocalist who was popular in the first half of the 20th century. He was known for his bhava-laden renditions of many songs. Semmanagudi Srinivasa Iyer, the famous Carnatic vocalist and a contemporary of Musiri once heralded Musiri's dedication to bhava by saying "He used to be so lost in bhava that he never thought of evoking any response." Musiri, as he was universally known, is one of the giants of Carnatic music in this century. His audience got soaked in emotions and feelings that were at once human and divine."

Early Days

Musiri was born August 9,1899 in Bommalapalayam village in Trichy district of Tamil Nadu. He was the second son of the Sanskrit Scholar Sankara Sastry and Smt Seethalakshmi. He lost his mother early in life and was brought up by his paternal aunt at Musiri. He also lost his sister Rajathi when she was a child. His family was poor and musiri seldom spoke about those early years. He married Nagalakshmi when he was 14 years old. Musiri learned to fluently speak, read and write in English when he was 17. Musiri was strongly inspired by S.G. Kittappa who was the popular acting star of those days and he decided to become a musician. Like Kittappa Musiri had a strong vocal range in the higher octaves and could imitate the former’s hit songs with ease.


This admiration added to a musical disposition led him to begin learning music at the age of 17 from S. Narayanaswamy Iyer a music teacher in the princely state of Pudukottai. Three years later he apprenticed himself with Sangita Kalanidhi Karur Chinnaswami Iyah, the ace violinist of the Garbhapuri family and Guru to many stars in the carnatic music firmament. At Chinaswami Aiyah’s own suggestion he moved to Madras and sought the tutelage of Sangita Kalanidhi T.S. Sabhesa Iyer who lived in Purasawalkam. T.S. Sabhesa Iyer was disciple of Mahavaidyanatha Iyer a disciple of Saint Tyagara senior disciple Manambuchavadi Venkatasubba Iyer. Thus Musiri belongs to the fourth generation of Saint Tyagaraja’s Sishyaparampara. Musiri trained with T.S. Sabhesa Iyer for nine years in the guru shishya parampara learning his guru’s particular way of performing neraval that Musiri would later become famous for. When he made his debut in Chennai in 1920 his name was announced as Subramania Iyer of “Musiri” and the name stuck with him forever.

Musiri’s Style

Musiri had an extraordinary resonant voice which was a great asset for a performing musician in those mike-less days. The blending of Raga Bhava with Sahitya Bhava in a professional manner was a special feature of his style. In his career, the popularity of Musiri and his name reached every corner of India. His 78 rpm gramophone records were successful to the point that the audience would sometimes demand he sang songs in the exact way as heard on the record. Renowned for his high pitched voice and tonal purity (known in Carnatic music as sruti), Musiri was considered a great exponent of bhava, bringing out the full emotional content of each krithi that he sang. His patanthara of several krithis has his special stamp, which can be easily recognized when they are rendered by his disciples. He was a specialist in neraval singing and also vilamba sangitham, a slower tempo song designed to exude tranquility and bring out the full emotional content of the ragas and krithis that he rendered.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who was a contemporary of Musiri, said "Musiri brought gauravam (dignity) to our profession." He also heralded Musiri's dedication to bhava by saying "He used to be so lost in bhava that he never thought of evoking any response." "Bhava was the keynote of his music represented by a leisurely portrayal of the raga. While singing, he identified himself with the spirit of the composition. He was one of those musicians who could invest their music with emotional appeal."

In the early 1930s his Gramophone records were released by the Columbia Company and these turned out to be big hits. To mention a few Nagumomu, Pahi Ramachandra Raghava, Viritta Senchadaiya, Tiruvadi Charanam, Ihaparam Tharum etc., Nagumomu was a song that, previous to Musiri, was only sung in the Abheri raga, as India's Trinity composer Tyagaraja is thought to have composed it in Abheri. However, Musiri felt that the song sounded more emotional in the Karnataka Devagandhari raga, (a similar but subtly different raga) and he sang and recorded Nagumomu with Karnataka Devagandhari. Carnatic music is an exacting music that places large importance on tradition. Therefore, Musiri's rendition of the song in a different raga than it was originally written caused outrage in many Carnatic musical purists. But Musiri stuck to his decision. Given that Musiri was a devotee of Tyagaraja, taking liberty with Tyagaraja's song was out of freedom of spontaneous expression and not out of irreverence. As a point of fact, Nagumomu sounded so suited to Karnataka Devagandhari raga that everyone began to perform it in the "Musiri way", by artists such as Bangalore Nagarathnammal, M. S. Subbulakshmi, and Bhanumathi Ramakrishna. Other songs that became popular and became recognizable through Musuri's signature touch were Enta vetukondu in Saraswathi Manohari raga, Enthu daginado in todi raga, Tiruvadi caranam in Kambhoji, Enraikki shiva kripai in Mukhari, and Vritta shenjadai ada, a raga mala.

He was so popular that people fixing a wedding would finalize the date of the marriage only after ascertaining Musiri’s availability for a performance. In those days arranging his concerts was considered as a prestige by the music lovers. Due to the demand, there had been occasions where he had to give three performances at different places one in the morning after the Mangalya Dharana, one in the evening and another after dinner. Also he drew the highest remuneration for a performance in those days. His admirers used to say that he is the first Sangita Vidwan who used to sing great Tamizh compositions as a major item in the concert. The immortal song of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s “THIRUVADI CHARANAM” and the neraval at “Aduthuvanda ennai tallalathu” is still soul stirring in the minds of those who have listened to it.

Musiri in Tinseldom

Central Studios Limited, Coimbatore, was established in 1937 by a group of mill-owners such as R. K. Ramakrishnan Chettiar (Sir R. K. Shanmugham Chetty’s brother), and a college fresher S. M. Sriramulu Naidu (later of Pakshiraja Films and Studio fame). After prolonged discussions, Chettiar, Naidu, the film director B. N. Rao and others decided to film the life of the famed patron saint of Maharashtra, Tukaram. Prabhat Studio of Poona had filmed the story with incredible success, which obviously had persuaded Rao and his producers to make it in Tamil and Telugu so that the project would be economically viable. Who would play the legendary saint, Tukaram? He had to sing well, be not too young and appear saintly and Musiri was selected to act in this film. Musiri did not like acting in the film, citing that acting with women, make up and bright lights made him uncomfortable. Musiri's guru also warned him against acting in the film, knowing that Musiri had struggled with lung illness in the past, and the damp climate in Coimbatore might affect his health. For financial reasons, Musiri accepted the acting part.

Tukaram had to sport a moustache and Musiri could not bear the itching caused by the gum in it. The spirit-gum, when dry, pulls at the skin and it could cause severe discomfort. Poor Musiri, unable to bear the torture, cried halt, and there was no option but to stop shooting and wait for the hero to grow his own facial hair! This was his first Tamil film and he was then not familiar with the language and the on-set communication between the director and the singer-hero was in King’s English. It triggered ‘Baby’ R. Balasaraswathi (later of ‘Malligai Poomalai Rojaa.’ song fame) who played Tukaram’s daughter to ask Musiri if the film was being made in English too! Tukaram was a success enough to keep its director on with Central Studios to make more films. Musiri, however, forgot all about films and continued his flourishing career in Carnatic music. Though the film is out of print, Musiri's songs in the film have stood the test of time. The exertions he underwent during the making of the film is thought to have resulted in life-long lung trouble for Musiri, forcing his early retirement from live performance in 1945 at 46 years of age.

Musiri in Malaya

Musiri undertook a fund raising tour to Malaya States to support the Ramakrishna Mission Students Home which was run by Rao Bahadur C. Ramanujachariar. It was a fairly courageous decision on the part of Musiri, for, while travelling to Rangoon (via Calcutta) and to Colombo (across the waters) was acceptable; going to Malaya was still taboo among the orthodox community which frowned on people crossing the black waters. Musiri convinced a team of accompanists which comprised Madras Balakrishna Iyer (violin), Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer (mridangam) and Palakkad Sacchidanandam Iyer (morsing) and the party duly set off. The Ramakrishna Mission Students Home was begun by C. Ramaswami Iyengar (Ramu), a clerk in the Public Works and Labour Secretariat of Madras in 1905, when he came across a group of poor students from Andhra Pradesh who had come to the big city hoping to find some sponsor for furthering their education. Ramu obtained the blessings of Swami Ramakrishnananda of the Ramakrishna Mutt and on February 17, the Home formally came into existence at Keshavaperumal South Mada Street, Mylapore. Thanks to the efforts of Ramu and other munificent patrons, the Home grew from strength to strength, and by 1917 acquired its own property on Sullivans Gardens Road, where it moved in 1921. Ramu was joined in the work of supporting the Home by C. Ramanujachariar, a cousin who, having joined as a clerk at the Madras Secretariat rose to the post of Under Secretary.

In 1926, Ramu was afflicted with paralysis and it was Ramanujachariar who took on most of the work. Ramu died in 1932 and his cousin became the champion of the Home after that. Those were the years when Musiri Subramania Iyer was at the peak of his performing career. A fellow Mylaporean, he knew Ramanujachariar quite well and before long he had allowed himself to be persuaded to undertake a fund-raising tour of the Federated Malay States or Malaya as the place was then called.

The details of their tour do not appear in the popular press of the day, but Musiri, on his return, penned an article for the Ananda Vikatan Deepavali Malar of 1936 on the subject, laced with his characteristic humour. From that piece we get to know all. The party arrived in Colombo and gave a performance and the next day embarked on the French ship Aramis for Singapore. Travelling by ship was the main reason for which some of Musiri’s close relatives dissociated from him on his return, their claim being that he could not have performed his daily rituals on the vessel. Musiri observed in his article that unlike on land there were no distractions on board a ship and that was possibly the best place to perform one’s rituals and contemplate on God. And, he added, when the ocean was turbulent and the ship was tossed from side to side, one’s thoughts automatically turned to God and therefore it was the most divine spot on earth! Food was a problem on board the ship for the four vegetarians, but they had their own cook, Subramaniam, who went down to the ship’s kitchen and prepared their mid-day meal much to the amusement of the ship’s crew. A friendly stewardess who knew only French brought them bread, fruits and milk each evening and as Musiri wrote, it was a sight to see the team communicating with her through signs. One evening on the journey, the passengers on board the ship persuaded Musiri and Party to give a performance in the ship’s auditorium. The audience comprising several nationalities clapped and cheered probably out of courtesy, wrote Musiri, but the morsing stole the show and sent them into ecstasy. The cruise included a day’s outing on Nicobar Islands. Arriving in Singapore, Musiri and his friends went sight-seeing and wandered into the naval base where they were refused permission. But an officer from Madras on discovering that this was Musiri, obtained the necessary permits. The concert at Singapore’s Town Hall was a big success as were the performances in Ipoh, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and other cities of Malaya. The tour was a happy one, both for the team and the cause it espoused.

As a Guru

Though retired from the concert circuit, Musiri was active in many Carnatic music affairs throughout India. He was appointed as the first principal of the Central College of Carnatic Music, Chennai in 1949. During his tenure, he influenced a whole generation of musicians, retiring in 1965. He was also the Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of Sri Tyagaraja Brahma Mahotsava Sabha, and was responsible for organizing the Annual Aaradhana of Tyagaraja in Thiruvaiyaru. The annual celebration of Tyagaraja's music is the largest musical gathering in India, and continues to this day. Musiri is also credited for his key role in the unification of various factions associated with the Aradhana. Musiri was not only a respected musician but also a sought-after teacher. His special contribution is the number of disciples he trained in his own home, all of whom have attained distinction in their own right. In fact his shishya parampara is so well recognized, his style of rendering krithis has come to be known as the Musiri School. Well known disciples include Mani Krishnaswamy, T. K. Govinda Rao, K. S. Venkataraman, Suguna Purushothaman and Suguna Varadachari. The Bombay Sisters B. Saroja & B. Lalitha had their formative learning from Musiri.Musiri was known for his sharp and astute comments. His speech was like a continuation of any concert wrote Sri S.Y. Krishnamurthy I.C.S. in an article in The Hindu referring to his speeches often delivered after concerts held in the Music college. An audience often gathered just to hear his rare thoughts.

Awards and Recognition

Before the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award existed, the highest honor possible in 1939 was to be invited as the President of the Annual Conference by the Madras Music Academy. Musiri was invited to be President of the Annual Conference that year, and was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi by the Music Academy of Chennai as soon as the award came into being in 1942. Musiri remains the youngest person to ever receive the award at 39 years of age. In 1963 he was awarded the Isai Perarignar from the Tamizh Isai Sangam. The Indian Fine Arts gave him the Sangita Kala Shikhamani in 1966. In 1967, he was made a Fellow of the Sangit Natak Academy. The President honored him with the Padma Bhushan in 1971.

Musiri had a wide circle of friends. Among his fellow musicians, mention may be made of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and the Gottuvadyam vidwan Budalur Krishnamurthi Sastrigal. In fact, Srinivasa Iyer said “Musiri brought dignity to our profession.” Outside the field of music, Musiri had many friends such as T T Krishnamachari, Ramnath Goenka, Chitra Narayanaswamy and friends who pursue in various professions. He passed away, after a lifetime of achievement, on 24th March, 1975. As a singular token of respect, the road where his house is located is now named after him. Also the department of post brought out a stamp bearing his portrait. A fitting honour for a musician of superlative talent and rare class.

“Neevada Ne Gana .……….. still rings in our ears…………….


‘My gurunathar Musiri Subramania Iyear – A music maker’ by T.K. Govinda Rao
Wikipedia – Musiri Subramania Iyer
‘Carnatic Summer’ by V. Sriram

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