Praise the greenhorn but not at the cost of a veteran.
Music Season has begun. It is going to be awards galore in city sabhas and one should mind one's words while eulogising the awardees, as revealed by this anecdote. Mahamahopadyaya U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, or simply known as ‘Thamizh Thatha,' has written interesting articles about Carnatic musicians of his time and his book ‘Nallurai Kovai' contains a few of them. In one of them, he recalls an incident when Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar visited Kumbakonam as a young boy and performed in a packed hall and how the author got himself entangled in a controversy created by his speech on the occasion.
In this episode, it looks as if Thamizh Thatha learnt the hard way, how a chief guest speaking on kutcheri platforms should choose his words carefully. Over to U.Ve.Sa.
“The zamindar of Palavanatham, known for his love for Tamil and founder of Madurai Tamil Sangam, Sri Pandithurai Thevar visited Kumbakonam 45 years ago to have a darshan of Mouna Swamigal. The Sangeetha Vidwan of the Sethupathi Samasthanam, ‘Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar also accompanied him. The young vidwan was trained by Patnam Subramania Iyer and Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer. Pandithurai Thevar wanted his Asthana Vidwan to become famous after establishing his true credentials. He, therefore, left the young Srinivasa Iyengar in Kumbakonam and appealed to his friends there to encourage him with more opportunities and bring him to prominence.
“Sadhu Seshayyar, who was then a professor in the Kumbakonam College, and his colleagues including prominent persons had organised a concert of the young ‘Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar, in the Porter Town Hall. Many VIPs, musicians, and officials turned up for the concert.
“Accompanied by Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer on the violin, Srinivasa Iyengar sang spiritedly and received the approbation of the enlightened rasikas, many of whom invited him home for chamber concerts. After the concert was over, Sadhu Seshayyar invited me to speak a few words about the concert.
“And I took the mike and started my speech. It went thus: ‘After a taking a course of sumptuous food, is it possible to deliver a speech? It is well nigh impossible to speak after the soul filling concert of Srinivasa Iyengar. I am aware that all of you are in the same state. While this place is full of musicians of high calibre hailing from Chola Nadu, it greatly surprises me that a young vidwan from Pandi Nadu could come here and mesmerise the audience. I have no doubt that he would reach greater heights very soon.
“‘There was one Tsaugam Srinivasa Iyengar in this town some years ago. He was patronised by the Raja of Thanjavur. People used to refer to him only as Tsaugam Seenu Iyengar. He resided in Chakrapani Perumal Sannidhi Street and carried on his singing career. Perhaps there was going to be a honey-dripping music performance of another Srinivasa Iyengar later in this town that his name had already become small and shortened as Seenu Iyengar.'
“I then recited a poem I had composed for the occasion. ‘Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar got his remuneration and left Kumbakonam.
“There was one Gopala Iyer, a Tamil Vakil, in Bhaktapuri Agraharam in Kumbakonam. He was the grandson of the great Vidwan Pallavi Gopala Iyer who served the Thanjavur court. He was greatly interested in music and knew thousands of kritis of old vaggaeyakaras. He often used to sing many of them apart from the compositions of Pallavi Gopala Iyer and Tsaugam Seenu Iyengar. Vidwans coming to Kumbakonam used to visit him and spend some time with him, learning a few new urupadis while honing what they had already learnt.
“When the young ‘Poochi' came to Kumbakonam to perform, Gopala Iyer was past seventy. He did not pay a courtesy call on the senior and perhaps hurt, the latter did not attend his kutcheri. But someone had faithfully reported to him the event, including my speech, conveying the impression that I had ridiculed the great Seenu Iyengar.
“An irate Iyer picked up his walking stick and began to walk. He was already weak and was now trembling with rage. Oblivious of his angavastram slipping off his shoulder, he marched on with a few curious persons following him.
“I was then residing in the second house in Sakaji Naicker Street adjacent to the Bhakthapuri Agraharam. It was about nine in the morning. I had to go to the college and was taking bath drawing water from the well in the backyard. My paternal uncle was in the house. Gopala Iyer's vision was poor and he came close to my uncle and yelled, ‘Is your nephew in?' I heard his voice from the backyard. I rushed to the hall with the wet veshti and sought his pardon.
“‘Pardon you? Do you think if your father were alive today, he would have tolerated what you had said? What do you know of the greatness of Tsaugam Seenu Iyengar? If only he were in town, do you know how he would have reacted? How dare you speak so highly of a small boy, comparing him with a lion?
“I was dumbfounded and prostrated before him uttering ‘Please pardon me, pardon me please!'
“‘Do you know what a blunder you have committed?' thundered Gopala Iyer.
“‘You must pardon me. It was a casual speech, I admit. But don't you think that an up and coming musician should be encouraged like this? You should not take me amiss!'
“‘Take you amiss? What the hell are you talking? Sit there. Now listen to me sing Tsaugam Seenu Iyengar's kriti-s!' He squatted on the floor and began singing a few varnams of Seenu Iyengar and I sat listening to them without even changing the wet dhoti. He sang some other kritis, too. The voice was shaky, but had the force. When he could not reach the higher octave, he raised his hand and strained his voice to reach the high pitch. I was stunned listening to the old man's music.
“‘Now, what have you got to say? If only you had heard him sing, would you have uttered such nonsense yesterday? I hope, at least now, you know how great Tsaugam Seenu Iyengar was?' said Gopala Iyer.
“‘Why, I knew his prowess earlier, too. Now I am fully aware of his greatness. I have not spoken belittling Seenu Iyengar's music. His music is always great!' I submitted.
“‘Keep all that nonsense for your Tamil books. In the sabha, you should not have uttered such words without thinking. A mistake is a mistake,' said Gopala Iyer, as if passing a judgment and stomped out.”
The moral of the story is: It is improper to praise a young vidwan drawing comparison with a senior, in public. More important is the humility of a great man that comes across. U.Ve.Sa had the grace not only to accept his mistake but write about it for posterity.