SRIRAM VENKATKRISHNAN

REWIND Felicitations always poured in on Semmangudi’s birthday during his life time. But one occasion stood out.

He was then Principal of the Swati Tirunal Academy.

Today marks Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s birth centenary. In keeping with his status as one of the greatest exponents of Carnatic Music, the celebrations will be grand. But even during his lifetime, he had had some memorable birthdays.

Semmangudi’s sashtiabdhapoorthi was held at Satya Graha (later the Hema Malini Kalyana Mandapam) on Lloyds Road in 1968 and witnessed the participation of several of his friends. The Maharajah of Travancore and his younger brother were present. There was a series of music performances including a vocal recital by his disciple V. Subrahmaniam, a veena recital by K.S. Narayanaswami and a group rendition of songs by his disciples. A concert by M.S. Subbulakshmi followed.

Massive participation

The sathabhishekam in 1989 was more of a private function, but there followed a series of felicitations by sabhas, the one at the Music Academy being presided over by M. Karunanidhi, Chief Minister of the State. Birthdays in his Nineties witnessed massive public participation, with a kanakabhishekam (shower of gold) being performed one year. The public adulation was overwhelming and he deserved every bit of it, for he had given his best in concert after concert throughout his long life.

But if at all any birthday of his was unforgettable, then it was his 39th. Semmangudi was then in the employ of the Travancore State, as Principal of the Swati Tirunal Academy. The year 1947 was observed as the death centenary year of the composer king and by a coincidence, the celebrations commenced on July 25, Semmangudi’s birthday. News items HEbegan appearing in The Hindu from April onwards. Almost every report had another by its side, which dealt with an issue of national importance — the question of Travancore acceding to the Indian Union when the country would become independent on August 15. The ruling family of Travancore, comprising the Maharajah Chitra Tirunal, his mother the Maharani and the brilliant Dewan, Sir C.P. Ramaswami Iyer were averse to accession.

The Swati Tirunal Centenary was to be a week-long celebration. The inaugural concert was to be by Semmangudi accompanied by Rajamanikkam Pillai on the violin, C.S. Murugabhoopathy on the mridangam and Umayalpuram Viswanatha Iyer on the ghatam. Several greats were scheduled to perform on the subsequent days, including Madurai Mani Iyer, Tiruvidaimarudur Veerusami Pillai, Musiri Subramania Iyer, K.S. Narayanaswami, T.K. Rangachari, Thanjavur K.P. Sivanandam, T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, the Alathur Brothers, M.A. Kalyana Krishna Bhagavatar, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and GNB.

On July 26, The Hindu reported that “the celebrations commenced that afternoon in a specially erected Shamiana at the Sri Swati Tirunal Academy of Music…Members of the Royal Family, the Dewan… a large number of State guests and distinguished visitors, high ranking police and military officers, non officials and large number of men filled the hall.” But this was relegated to the status of a minor news item. “Murderous attack on Dewan” screamed the headlines and this had happened even as Semmangudi was singing.

After the Maharajah had inaugurated the proceedings and left, Semmangudi commenced his concert. He must have excelled himself given the grandeur of the occasion. Shortly before the concert ended, Sir CP got up to leave. As he walked out, an assailant lying in wait attacked him with a sword-stick. The Dewan, a practitioner of yoga, was not an easy target and successfully parried most of the blows but suffered seven severe injuries on the face, the scalp and fingers.

The lights suddenly went out and in the darkness the assailant vanished. There was little to be done when the lights came on. Sir CP was rushed to hospital and treated. Not many noticed what had happened and the concert ended smoothly. In the days that followed, The Hindu reported on the progress in the Dewan’s health. The Swati Tirunal Centenary went on regardless. But the fire had gone out of the fight for an independent Travancore. The Maharajah informed the Viceroy of his intention to accede and Sir CP resigned from the post of Dewan on August 19, leaving Travancore for the relative peace of Ooty.

It was a watershed in many ways. It marked the end of a Royal House that was known for its patronage to music. Soon the rulers of Mysore and Cochin and several smaller states would follow.

The new patrons would be lawyers, judges, doctors, accountants and other professionals and the Government, comprising ministers and bureaucrats. And symbolic of their order was the Music Academy. It cushioned the blow, gave concert opportunities and conferred awards and titles. Musicians flocked to it. And when that year, Semmangudi was conferred Sangita Kalanidhi, becoming the youngest ever to receive the title, the transition from the palace to the egalitarian Sabha was complete. Carnatic music had found a new source for sustenance and would continue to grow.

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