As a teacher, U.V. Swaminatha Iyer would sing Tamil verses in one raaga or other
For Tamil lovers, he was the grand old man — ‘Tamil Thathaa’ — who rescued palm leaf manuscripts containing ancient Tamil literature from the marauding army of hungry termites and published them. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer had another face. Formally trained in classical music, a family vocation, he even had the privilege of learning directly from Gopalakrishna Bharathiar, the author of Nandan Charithiram. He, however, had to quit learning music because his Tamil teacher Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai was against it.
As a Tamil teacher, he would sing verses in one raaga or other, before explaining them to students.
In fact, the first part of En Charithiram, his autobiography, Swaminatha Iyer talks more about music than Tamil. Besides, giving a lot of details of outstanding musicians of his time, he penned biographies of Ganam Krishna Iyer, his grandmother’s uncle, and Gopalakrishna Bharathiar. In his book, he eloquently describes the popularity of Nandan Charithiram.
His father Venkatasubramania Iyer and his younger brother Chinnasamy Iyer were accomplished musicians, eking out a livelihood by giving kathakalakshebam on the Ramayana across the State. Chinnasamy Iyer was a veena player.
Both Swaminatha Iyer and his father had learnt from Gopalakrishna Bharathiar and his father made it a point to sing Nandan Charithira Keerthanas in his kalakshebam. He had a copy of the book presented to him by Gopalakrishna Bharathiar and Swaminatha Iyer kept the book till his last days.
Incidentally, Ganam Krishna Iyer, famous for singing “ganam” and was the asthana vidwan of Thanjavur, Tiruvidai Maruthur and Udayarpalayam, had taught Gopalakrishna Bharathiar. Krishna Iyer composed a keerthana in atana raga “summa summa varumo sugam” on the advice of Saint Thiyagaraja.
Swaminatha Iyer’s father actually wanted him to pursue a career in music and was satisfied with his talent when he had a chance to listen to him singing a Nanda Charithira keerthana, “theeyil moozhginar thirunalay povar” in kaanada.
He also wanted him to learn Sanskrit and Telugu, a prerequisite of all musicians of his period. Iyer turned his back on Telugu.
Swaminatha Iyer’s first encounter with Gopalakrishna Bharathiar, who he saw walking with a bamboo stick for support, on the streets of Mayiladuthurai was vividly described in his autobiography.
“I was surprised by his unkempt figure. I wondered whether it was this man who penned Nandan Charithiram? Though his work was high in my estimation, his body structure did not appeal to me,” recalled Swaminatha Iyer, who was angry with Bharathiyar, for criticising Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai for not having an ear for music.
But his estimation of Bharathiar changed after he started learning under him.
“As I moved closer with him, I realised he was a genius. Since his voice was not good, he learnt the violin and used to play it when he was alone. I learnt many songs from him,” said Iyer.
Swaminatha Iyer also had the opportunity of listening to Mahavaidhyanatha Iyer and his brother Ramasamy Iyer.
His autobiography is a delight not just to a lover of Tamil, but also to music buffs. His love for Tamil music comes out clearly in the book.
“There are a lot of Tamil keerthanas penned by those whose expertise in music was matched by their talent for composing. But they disappeared for lack of patronage. Thousands of Tamil keerthanas existed in the county. They perfectly suited the Carnatic ragas. Now, people do not hesitate to say there are no keerthanas in Tamil. All this happened in a period of sixty years,” apparently referring to the trend created by the popularity of the songs of Carnatic Trinity.