A disciple of Veena Seshanna, Subramanya Sastri was well-versed in Dikshitar kritis.
Cheranmadevi L. Subramanya Sastri (Sastri) is one of the many unsung heroes that enriched Carnatic music. He had the rare privilege of coming under the direct tutelage of Ettayapuram’s Samasthana Vidwan, Subbarama Dikshitar, grandson of Baluswami Dikshitar, brother of Muthuswami Dikshitar and the author of ‘Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini.’ Sastri also learnt from Ambi Dikshitar. In fact, he taught Sastri some rare kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar and 20 Lakshana gitas on the veena. Earlier Sastri had learnt his lessons from Muthaiah Bhagavathar of Seithur Samasthanam at the tender age of seven.
Subbarama Dikshitar advised Sastri to take advanced lessons from the illustrious Veena Seshanna. “Seshanna studied the letter from Dikshithar, examined Sastri’s horoscope and then listened to the youngster as he sang a varnam in Atana perfectly in two kalams. He then accepted him as his student and treated Sastri as his son. Sastri’s first lesson it appears was in Thodi, a varnam of Gopala Iyer,” say Girija Mohanasundaram, a resident of Neyveli and Lakshmi Easwar, in chorus. They are Sastri’s grand-daughters. “This Gurukulavasam lasted for 10 years. Sastri also learnt Vyakarna Sastra at Maharaja Sanskrit College from Ramakrishna Sastri and Varanasi Subramanya Sastri.”
Sastri performed for nearly 50 years - a career that was distinguished more by quality than by quantity. He had also performed across the length and breadth of the country. It was common to see Sastri’s son Venkatraman perform with him and they came to be known as “Grand Doubles.” “Appa, Periappa (meaning Sastri’s two sons) and Thaatha were also known as the “Grand Trio,” his grand-daughters mention with pride. There was no attempt by Sastri to excel by way of acrobatics. They never played to the gallery. In the Kalaimagal issue of 1969 (Deepavali Malar) Balachander has said that by virtue of the fact that Sastri, a Sanskrit scholar, had learnt the grammar of music from men of eminence such as Subbarama Dikshitar, Ambi Dikshitar and Mysore’s Veena Seshanna put him on a high pedestal when it came to the handling of Dikshitar kritis, which he did in a chaste manner. Dr. Premila Gurumurthi, HOD, Department of Indian Music, University of Madras, in her piece entitled “Nellai Thandha Isaimanigal” observes: “Cheranmadevi Subramanya Sastri is one among the best veena vidwans of the 20th century. While playing the veena some perform with their fingers held together while some others follow the practice of spreading their fingers apart. Sastri belonged to the latter variety and played with grace and speed that had a unique sense of originality.” It was also held that the Thanam was his forte.
The rich repertoire of Dikshitar kritis and the fact that he was a student of Subbarama Dikshitar gave him the benefit of presenting many a lec-dem at various centres of excellence. He was so attached to Dikshitar that he had made a composition, “Dikshitendram” in Dharmavati, in praise of Muthuswami Dikshitar. Sastri occupied the chair as a member of the Experts Committee of the Music Academy, significantly contributing to the reinforcement to raga lakshanas and swara lakshanas with the aid of the traditions that were inherent in him. Sastri’s name has drawn specific mention in a citation of The Music Academy’s journal.
Sastri’s first concert happened in Bangalore in 1920 and the eventful day was November 21. The invitation carried with it a prophecy – “A concert by Subramanya Sastry - a prominent disciple and proposed successor of Vainika Sikhamani Seshanna.” Though he was primarily an instrumentalist his rendering of songs was as perfect as it could be with stress on proper diction, his proficiency in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil standing him in good stead. Sahitya mattered to him so much so that if a student did not know Telugu or Sanskrit, he used to provide him with a phonetic guide.
Sastri was honoured with Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1960 which he received from the then President, Babu Rajendra Prasad, Sangita Kala Sikhamani from Indian Fine Arts Society in (1961), Certificate of Merit from Music Academy, Madras (1960) besides the honours he received from Ettayapuram and Travancore Samastanams and Vainika Vidya Parangata from Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh.
Prof. Sambamurthy was in constant discussion with Sastri regarding many aspects relating to music theory which has been reflected in Sambamurthy’s guiding treatises on Carnatic music. T.L. Venkatrama Iyer benefited much from the many sessions he spent with Sastri.
Veena indeed became Sastri’s religion. It is a matter of rare coincidence that Dikshitar’s Mukti Day, Deepavali, is Sastri’s birthday and Sastri passed away on Dikshitar’s birthday. Sastri belonged to the Mulaganadu lineage, which traces his ancestors to that of Sadguru Tyagaraja.
Answering a questionnaire on his biographical information Sastri observed thus: “Knowledge of Sanskrit, Telugu and mother tongue and listening to musicians with a good grasp of lakshaya and lakshanas would make a great musician.
Sufficient education in the theory of music will improve matters. Youngsters of today would do well to acquire Lakshana Gnana sufficiently and put their knowledge of theory into practice.” Dictums worth adhering to!
Cheranmadevi Subramanya Sastri passed away in 1970 at the age of 77.
(This writer is greatly indebted to Girija Mohanasundaram and Mrs. Lakshmi Easwar and Sri Sankara Narayanan, grandson of Sastri, for the inputs provided. The article was prompted by a mention made by vainika R.S. Jayalakshmi in a lec-dem).