Personality Umayalpuram Sri Swaminatha Iyer's code of conduct for musicians was “master the text, melody and laya, and do not be a trader in music”.
On August 14, 1946, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer wrote in The Hindu that “in the passing away, on 8th instant, at his residence in Kumbakonam, of my guru, Sangita Kalanidhi Umayalpuram Sri Swaminatha Iyer, the music world has lost one more of the doyens of Carnatic music.” Today not much is remembered of this stalwart beyond that he presided over the Music Academy's ninth annual conference held in December 1936 and that he was guru to two great musicians – Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
Born on May 22, 1867, to Sivasambu Iyer, Swaminatha Iyer, according to a Music Academy citation prepared in 1942 on the occasion when he and other former presidents of the annual conferences were conferred the title of Sangita Kalanidhi, was first drawn to music by observing an elder brother who was learning to sing.
In his presidential address at the Music Academy in 1936, Swaminatha Iyer stated that his gurus were “Umayalpuram Krishna Bhagavatar, the direct disciple of Sri Tyaga Brahmam, Sundara Bhagavatar and Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan.” He, therefore, belonged to the direct lineage of Tyagaraja. According to the Academy citation, he also trained under the vainika Tiruvalangadu Tyagaraja Dikshitar and Kekkarai Muthu Iyer.
Swaminatha Iyer's repertoire was vast by the standards of those days. Kayar C. Adivarahachari, an admirer, wrote in The Hindu dated August 16, 1946, that “a pious devotee of Sri Rama, he was a master of Sri Tyagabrahmam's kritis, ashtapadis, Ramadas kirtanas, abhangas and other devotional compositions.” The inclusion of abhangs is interesting in today's context given their revival as popular concert pieces. It was perhaps to benefit from this storehouse that Viswanatha Iyer apprenticed under him. He recollected his years of training by writing that “about 35 years ago, I had the good fortune to undergo gurukulavasa under this giant and what I know of music today is only due to the affectionate care with which he imparted some of his knowledge to me. His disciples found in him a kind parent and a strict taskmaster. I have spent sleepless nights trying to master rare sangatis taught by him.”
Swaminatha Iyer became famous as a teacher rather than a performer perhaps because as Semmangudi was to say in an interview in the 1980s, “his voice was thin though it was rich in melody.” According to Semmangudi, he hated ‘adattal' i.e. singing in an aggressive fashion. He also appears to have been a staunch traditionalist for, according to Viswanatha Iyer, he once “refused even to listen to the kirtana ‘Mokshamu Galada' unless it was sung in the original tune with the Chatusruti Daivatam.” In his speech at the Music Academy, Swaminatha Iyer gave further evidence of his strong views. He strongly decried the tendency among Carnatic musicians to give currency to fake kritis. And then there was his prescribed code of conduct for musicians – “master the text, master melody, master laya and be a man of pure conduct and noble ideals, not a trader in music.”
Surprisingly, for a man of orthodox views, Swaminatha Iyer appears to have been unconventional in some ways. He was of the view that the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini and such similar texts have several conflicts inherent in them. He also felt that the importance of these works was limited to “full information on conventions and practices, which have been followed from time to time…but since their day great changes have taken place.” He, therefore, felt that new works on music ought to evolve. Swaminatha Iyer was also clear that “a strict adherence to the sastraic principles and laws of music is neither easy to achieve nor likely to be appreciated by all lovers of music.” He felt that musicians ought to popularise Tamil compositions though this could not have gone down well with those, then in charge of the Academy. He was emphatic on the subject, stating that the “stotras of Saiva saints and alwars ought to be set to pann tunes and sung by musicians.” In this, he was foreseeing the setting up of the Tamil Isai Sangam seven years later.
Swaminatha Iyer chose to live in Kumbakonam for most part of his life, but was a frequent visitor to Madras where musicians such as Kallidaikurichi Vedanata Bhagavatar learnt from him. He was asthana vidwan at the Tiruvavaduturai Math and the Paramacharya of Kanchi honoured him with the title ‘Nadanubhavasarajna' in 1940.
Swaminatha Iyer had two sons, Venkataraman and Rajagopalan, both of whom were violinists. The former served for a short while at the Teachers' College of Music, set up by the Music Academy. He also helped in propagating the Umayalpuram style of singing Tyagaraja kritis by publishing several compositions with notation in the Swadesamitran.
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