Many illustrious names figure among the disciples of Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, who was an accomplished composer too.
Apart from being M.S. Subbulakshmi’s birthday, September 16 also has the honour of being the date of birth of another illustrious music personality who was many years her senior. Born in 1894 to Venkatarama Jatavallabhar and Parvatavardhini in Tiruvaiyaru, Alathur Venkatesa Iyer became well known as a teacher of music.
When he was eight, his parents shifted to Alathur near Tiruchi. Here he was trained in vocal music by Sentalai Govindasami Pillai, a nagaswaram vidwan. Venkatesa Iyer’s mother died a couple of years later and so the family moved back to Tiruvaiyaru. Here he was taught music by Dasavadyam Krishnaiah, singer and harmonist, who being a student of Tillaisthanam Panju Bhagavatar, belonged to the Tyagaraja sishya parampara. Krishnaiah was visually challenged and was therefore referred to as Guddi (meaning blind in Telugu). Venkatesa Iyer learnt to play the harmonium also from his guru.
Venkatesa Iyer married Lakshmi at a fairly young age and the couple shifted to Alathur once again, where the family held property. He also began teaching music in Tiruchi and its environs, but such was his reputation as a hard taskmaster that only the most diligent students could survive.
Venkatesa Iyer’s closest friends were Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai, percussionist and the veena duo, the Karaikkudi Brothers. Through the former, Venkatesa Iyer came to see the beauty of the Tiruppugazh and set several of its verses to music. He also composed tunes for the songs of Meesu Krishna Iyer, Gopalakrishna Bharati, Vedanayakam Pillai and Muthu Thandavar. Palani Muthiah Pillai, father of Palani Subramania Pillai was also a close friend of Venkatesa Iyer.
Venkatesa Iyer and Lakshmi lost their first child shortly after its birth. Their second son and only surviving child was Sivasubramaniam, who was born on July 7, 1916. He was trained in music by Venkatesa Iyer from a very early age. In 1922, a boy named Srinivasan was brought home. The son of Angarai Sankara Sroudigal, he was 11 years of age. Venkatesa Iyer decided to pair the boy with his own son and they became known as the Alathur Brothers.
Training under Venkatesa Iyer was tough. He would think nothing of waking up the two boys at 2 a.m. so that they could stand in the Rock Fort area listening to the strains of the violin that wafted from Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai’s house as he practised secretly. Dakshinamurthy Pillai too trained the boys and he and Venkatesa Iyer (on the harmonium) were their accompanists in the early years of their career. At a time when the Tamil Isai Movement was still in its infancy, the Alathur Brothers, thanks to Venkatesa Iyer, could present full concerts featuring the Tiruppugazh alone. In time many honours came to the Alathur Brothers including the Sangita Kalanidhi (successively in 1964 and 65).
Venkatesa Iyer was actively involved with the Chinna Katchi, one of the two groups that conducted Tyagaraja Ardhana in Tiruvaiyaru. He was a senior office-bearer in the Sri Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha that was formed to observe a united Aradhana in 1940. But by 1945 he left the Aradhana committee and formed the Sadguru Sangeetha Sabha in Tiruchi which conducted an Aradhana for Tyagaraja at the 100-pillar hall in the Rock Fort. This tradition continues even now. He also conducted an annual festival in memory of Sadasiva Brahmendra.
Venkatesa Iyer was passionately devoted to Muthuswami Dikshitar as well and purchased the ancestral house of the composer in Tiruvarur and looked after it. It was later donated to the Trinity Sabha from whom it was acquired by the Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetha Karnataka Sangeetha Seva Trust which built a mandapam on the site.
Among Venkatesa Iyer’s students was the matinee idol M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar. He was subjected to the same tortuous methods of learning as the other students and he stuck to it notwithstanding his star status. It is said that this is what lent sheen to his music and made him famous on stage and screen.
Thyagaraja Bhagavatar’s arrest in connection with the Lakshmikanthan murder case in the 1940s was one of the greatest shocks that Venkatesa Iyer sustained in his life. He remained close to his disciple and stuck to him through thick and thin. Bhagavatar’s come back film ‘Rajamukthi’ (1948) had one song set to music by Venkatesa Iyer’s son Sivasubramaniam.
Venkatesa Iyer had several disciples among whom were M.K. Govindaraja Bhagavatar (Thyagaraja Bhagavatar’s brother), the clarionet exponent and this year’s Sangita Kalanidhi designate AKC Natarajan, Chingleput Ranganathan and J. Venkataraman. When he died in 1958, Venkatesa Iyer had the satisfaction of seeing his students becoming well respected performing artists. Truly his was a life spent in teaching and propagating music.
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