Srinivasa Iyer, elder of the Alathur Brothers, was known for his sharp and striking neraval skill.

This year (2012) is a year of Carnatic centenaries. One of these is that of Alathur Srinivasa Iyer, the elder among the two musicians who teamed up as the Alathur Brothers. His birth centenary happened to fall January 21, and perhaps it is entirely in keeping with his self-effacing personality that it passed unnoticed.

Srinivasa Iyer was born to Angarai Sankara Sroudigal and Lakshmi Ammal at Ariyalur village as one of 12 siblings. His younger brother A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer was to make his name in music too, as a teacher and publisher of numerous primers.

At a young age, Srinivasan was apprenticed under the multi-faceted and irascible Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, where he teamed up in training with the guru’s talented son, Sivasubramaniam (born 1916). In time, Srinivasan was to emerge as Venkatesa Iyer’s favourite disciple, by no means an easy task, for, his teaching standards were known to be exacting to put it mildly.

The famous male duo

As per the guru’s wishes, the two teamed up as the Alathur Brothers and became the most well-known male duo in Carnatic music, the distaff honours being taken by Brinda-Muktha. Of the two, Sivasubramaniam or Subbier was the more outgoing and effervescent personality. Celebrated for his acerbic tongue, stories abound about him -- his battle against establishmentarianism, his legendary friendship with some musicians, his run-ins with others and his up-down-and-up again relationship with Palani Subramania Pillai. It was Srinivasa Iyer who brought about balance and continuity in relationships.

Given their contrasting natures, it was a wonder that they performed together at all. But as veteran critic K.S. Mahadevan wrote, “The understanding between them was total.” On stage too, it was Subbier who dominated, as he had a more powerful voice. But such was the sense of proportion in the performances that Srinivasa Iyer stood out too. Perhaps the best analysis of his share of the music was penned by NMN, The Hindu’s critic, when Srinivasa Iyer passed away on October 9, 1980, in Tiruchi. Titled Assertive Vidwat with Small Voice, it was published on October 17. And here is what NMN had to say:

“The hefty voice of Subbu and the thin voice of Srinivasa Aiyar made a fine blend. Though small-voiced Srinivasa Aiyar was far from the junior partner and invariably took charge of ragas like Nayaki. Kannada and Devagandhari which call more for sensitivity in interpretation than strength while the virile-toned Subbu naturally took over ‘gana’ ragas like Thodi, Sankarabaranam and Khambodi. In technical exposition, Srinivasa Aiyar’s neraval skill was particularly sharp and striking…

In his music, Srinivasa Aiyar at times revealed how the small voice can even get thinner and acquire a new dimension of clarity and serene communicative force. This was possible on account of his deep involvement in the sruthi.

His repertoire was vast and comprised many compositions of the masters. His laya vyavahara discipline was ever well within the confines of the dignity of classical music. Many are the moments to remember that Srinivasa Aiyar has provided in the course of his illustrious concert career. An unforgettable alapana of Harikhambodi at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club and an excellent rendition of the less known Durbar kriti of Tyagaraja, ‘Endhunti Vedalithivo,’ sung at the Srinivasa Sastri Hall are pieces of music which this writer particularly cherishes.”

The passing away of Subbier in the prime of his life in 1965 was a great shock to Srinivasa Iyer and he refused all performance invitations for a considerable period of time. When he received the Sangita Kalanidhi from The Music Academy, he penned an article for the institution’s souvenir in which he expressed his sense of loss. It was left to close friend and another of the 2012 centenarians – Palghat Mani Iyer, to gradually convince him to return to the concert platform. It was at one of Srinivasa Iyer’s early solo concerts in Bombay that Mani Iyer famously launched into a tirade against mikes, espousing mike-less concerts thereafter. Though the ‘Brothers’ magic was absent, the talent of Srinivasa Iyer came to the fore in his solo performances. As K.S. Mahadevan wrote in his Musings on Music and Musicians, “…he maintained his reputation for shuddha patanthara of kritis as well as complex laya patterns in pallavi etc.”

It was left to Mani Iyer to add his voice to the chorus of tributes that came in when Srinivasa Iyer passed away. The end came a day or two before they were to perform together at the Navaratri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram. NMN was to remark that Mani Iyer would sorely miss Srinivasa Iyer.

Nine years later, an admirer was to recall in a letter to The Hindu that Srinivasa Iyer’s Natakurinji remained unsurpassed. Such is the stuff of great legends.

(The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com)

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