In the early 1900-s, some of the top-ranking Carnatic stars were known by titles unique to them.
Yet another music season is here. And with it, come the titles – a slew of them, with high-sounding Sanskrit and Tamil titles, accompanied by citation, garlands, shawl and cash. Awards also mean a felicitation function with identical speeches repeated ad-nauseam often by a chief guest who knows nothing about music or musicians.
To be fair to the Music Season, awards and titles did not emerge from it. They have been around since time immemorial. After all, Sarngadeva, the scholar to whom we trace the beginnings of musicology, referred to himself as Nissanka (one without doubt). That could have well been a title. Since then, we have carried on a tradition as befitting a classical art.
In the early days, titles often indicated something about the person to whom it was given. Thus we had ‘Murukku Meesai Jigi Bigi Ghana Naya Desya Rettai Pallavi Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer', which more or less gave all details about the man – his distinctive facial features, his areas of expertise in music and his home town. What more did you want! You also had ‘Sura Veera Veera Sura Khantamani Venu,' who challenged all and sundry to musical duels. He met his match in Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, another instance of an artist who was given a title – Maha.
In the 20th century, perhaps 'Tiger' Varadachariar was the only musician to have a title that truly reflected his personality.
In the previous century, there was a Kudirai Vaidyanatha Iyer but then the equine prefix was more to do with his being gifted a horse. He most certainly did not neigh!
Titles may have ceased being reflective of the personality in the 20th century, but in the early 1900s, some of the top-ranking stars were known by titles that were unique to them. Thus Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar was 'Gayaka Shikhamani' while 'Sangita Sastra Ratna' meant Mysore Vasudevachar. Chembai was referred to as 'Gayana Gandharva' and Madurai Mani Iyer was 'Gana Kaladhara', a title that still proudly prefixes his name on the plaque outside his residence. Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer was referred to as 'Sangita Bhupati'. He was known for his superb renditions of Mohanam with flourishes of the Hindustani style and so the prefix was often split as 'Sangita Bhup Pati'. And does Sangita Ratnakara not conjure up visions of Ariyakkudi?
Titles were more colourful when it came to nagaswaram and thavil performers. Woe betides anyone who forgot the prefixes while addressing T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai. His letterhead had them all and occupied half the page!
The longest name
His favourite was 'Akhila Ulaga Nagaswara Eka Chakradhipati'. Tiruvengadu Subramania Pillai received titles such as 'Isai Ulaga Swara Raga Nadha Thilagam', ‘Sangeetha Bhooshana Rathnakara Nadhaswara Raja' and 'Maha Maho Isai Nada Sarasara Mannar'. Among the Harikatha doyens, Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar had perhaps the longest name– he was 'Mahakathakakantirava Abhinava Bhatta Bana Brahmasri Chidambara Bhagavatar of Agaramangudi'. It befitted his gargantuan frame.
Women had their titles too. Bangalore Nagarathnamma was 'Vidyasundari' and was particular that it preceded her name in all official correspondence. C. Saraswathi Bai was 'Gayanapatu Kirtanapatu', the two titles having been bestowed on her by Pt. Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Before such prefixes became unfashionable, M.S. Subbulakshmi had them too. She was ‘Kokilagana' and ‘Isai Vani.'
The Music Academy really began the modern-day award/title tradition and contrary to what is often said, the Sangita Kalanidhi was not its first offering. As early as in 1935, the organisation resolved to confer titles on musicians. Sangita Sahitya Vallabha was conferred on Mysore Vasudevachar and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Sangita Kala Acharya on T.S. Sabhesa Iyer and K. Ponniah Pillai and Gayakasirobhushana on Tiger Varadachariar. Interestingly, none of them used these titles.
The 10-year wait
In 1943, the Music Academy instituted the Sangita Kalanidhi. A few years later came the Sangita Kalashikhamani from the rival organisation – the Indian Fine Arts Society. The music world had to wait 10 more years for the next award – Isai Perarignar from Tamil Isai Sangam. From the 1970s, the number of titles and awards burgeoned and went completely out of control.
Today, we have Nada Brahmams, Sangita Kala Nipunas, Sangita Mamanis, Vani Kala Sudhakaras, Sangita Kala Sarathys, Isai Perolis and many more. As a consequence, the uniqueness of each musician's title, and which often defined his/her status in the music world, is lost.
Perhaps, time has come for a rethink on whether titles are at all relevant today. But what cannot be questioned is the desire to honour a musician. It is after all a small gesture towards someone who gives many hours of joy through the art form.
(The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)