Award was anathema to him

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DIVINE INSTRUMENT: Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer with his heirloom.
DIVINE INSTRUMENT: Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer with his heirloom.

To him, performing on the veena, an art that had been in the family for more than seven generations, was reward enough.

In March 1952, the Government of India announced that the President's Award (later renamed the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award) was being instituted to honour outstanding artistes in four disciplines, Carnatic vocal and instrumental and Hindustani vocal and instrumental. Reading about it in the papers, veteran vainika Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer (1888-1958) jokingly remarked to his companion, Sethuraman that he was least likely to be remembered for selection. This was no mere self-deprecation, for Sambasiva Iyer was known to reject all awards that came his way. To him, performing on the veena, an art that had been in the family for more than seven generations spanning two-and-a-half centuries was reward enough.On March 26, under the heading, "Award to Karaikkudi Sambasiva Aiyar," The Hindu reported: "The Government of India's award for the distinguished musician of the year in Carnatic music (instrumental), it is understood, is to be bestowed on Sri Karaikkudi Sambasiva Aiyar, the talented veena vidwan of South India." The report added that Iyer who received an invitation from the Government the previous day had left for Delhi by train. Many musicians and music lovers were present at the Central station to see him off.Behind the simple report lay an entire story by itself. For, Iyer on receiving information about the award had instructed Sethuraman to telegraph his refusal immediately. But the latter had demurred and was wondering what was to be done, when G.T.Sastri, Station Director of AIR, Tiruchi, whom Iyer was very close to, came by. Between them, Sastri and Sethuraman managed to convince Iyer to accept the award, but the two-day train journey to Delhi was a major deterrent for that would interfere with Iyer's puja schedules.Arrangements were made for Iyer to break his journey at Vijayawada and Nagpur, and perform his puja at the residences of admirers there. Iyer's entourage included his brother-in-law and mridangam accompanist Karaikkudi Muthu Iyer.

Award ceremony

On March 29, 1952, the awards ceremony took place at Rashtrapati Bhavan with Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Mushtaque Hussain Khan and Allauddin Khan being fellow recipients, all of whom received a citation and Rs.1,000 in cash.Among those who attended the function were Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Dr. Humayun Kabir, Pt. Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin. The President of India, Babu Rajendra Prasad gave away the awards. Sambasiva Iyer struck up a great rapport with the President and admired his simplicity and in the way his many grandchildren ran about the imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan, presidential protocol notwithstanding. Reporting on the event, the Delhi correspondent of The Hindu wrote: "frail looking Karaikkudi Sambasiva Aiyar kept the audience spellbound with his performance on the veena of Sarasiruha in Nata raga. He also rendered Purvikalyani and Kannada ragas." The report said, "Ariyakkudi sang Ninu Kori, a composition of his master Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar. He followed it up with the alapana of purvi kalyani and sang the Tyagaraja composition Gnanamosagaradha. He was applauded for his singing of the swara in the piece." During his stay in Delhi, Sambasiva Iyer gave AIR the permission to record his music. He had generally been averse to recording it and this was a breakthrough of sorts and was reported in The Hindu of April 2. Titled "Music of Vidwan Sambasiva Aiyar Recorded For The First Time," the article stated that when the recording was played back to him, Iyer "sat back to listen ... with eyes closed and face wreathed in smiles." Interviewed by PTI after the recording, Iyer was to state that "to play the compositions of the three great maestros of Karnatic music — Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri — in the way they ought to be played required not only great practice but also Divine grace. Time was when he used to revel in playing these compositions for whole nights, but now age was telling on him." The interview which was quoted in the above article in The Hindu also had Iyer stating the fundamental philosophy of his life — "that it was easy to obtain recognition and money but it was difficult for one to satisfy one's own soul." The report concluded by stating that Iyer "insists of carrying the Veena himself and will not entrust it to anybody." That was not surprising, for to him it was a divine instrument, an heirloom of his family that had come down seven generations. Today, the Karaikkudi bhani is carried forward by his disciples Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, Rajeswari Padmanabhan and Karaikkudi Subramanian. The last two are descendants of Sambasiva Iyer's elder brother Subbarama Iyer with whom he used to pair up as the Karaikkudi Brothers till the latter's demise.(The author can be contacted at



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