Growing up in the 1980s was not really a great experience — there were shortages of all kinds. But there was one joy that we had in abundance — listening to Maharajapuram Santhanam live. At a time when Carnatic music, like much else in India, was going through something of a decline, he was perhaps the most stellar among a handful of musicians who held the art aloft.
Santhanam was born in 1928 as the younger son of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Visalakshi. Being the son of a genius is not a passport to success. The father was known for his brilliance and being a true torchbearer of the Umayalpuram school but his career progress had been chequered at best. Santhanam had to carve a space for himself. In any case, it is never easy to scale the same heights as a parent in any profession, more so in the performing arts. While Santhanam began early enough with performances at Tiruvaiyyaru, the Music Academy and elsewhere, he did not make waves. In the 1950s, it was not easy for a young musician to make a name for there were enough stalwarts around.
But as was to be characteristic of him, he did something out of the ordinary — established a Sabha! He was keen that there should be one in the T. Nagar area, even though the Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha was already functioning. The Sri Krishna Gana Sabha came into existence in 1953 with Viswanatha Iyer as its president and Santhanam as the secretary. In later years, he passed on the running of the sabha to R. Yagnaraman, but continued to have a close relationship with the organisation right through his life.
The turning point came in 1959-60, when while on a concert tour of Sri Lanka, Viswanatha Iyer was requested to stay back and become the Head of the Department of Music at the Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan College of Music in Jaffna. He suggested his son be given the job. It was there that Santhanam truly evolved, teaching and introspecting on music for five years, between 1960 and 1965. It was still not easy to make a name upon return, and Santhanam dabbled in business. But by the early 1970s, his career had taken off and it would be another four or five years before he became the sensation that we recall.
The Santhanam style had many aspects that attracted audiences and made them adherents. His choice of songs was perhaps the first — while he included many of the weighty pieces from the Umayalpuram stable — he brought in a whole new repertoire that became associated with him. Some of these may not have been great compositions by themselves, but Santhanam gave them a polish that made them popular. He also included a few of his own compositions, which were known for their melody.
The audience connect
While adhering to the concert format, Santhanam gave the post-Pallavi elements due weightage. He knew that many in the audience came to listen to these lighter songs, but this was never at the cost of the main pieces, that were presented in all their grandeur. This approach drew him closer to rasikas. His was possibly the most pleasing male voice of the time. Santhanam eschewed harsh and loud renditions and when it came to the higher octave modulated his voice to the point where his critics, of whom there were plenty, accused him of crooning. But the audience loved it. I have seen men and women overcome with emotion during these moments in his performances. His raga alapanas and swaras were precise and well structured. And his niraval was an emotional experience for many. Gradually, Santhanam ensured he had a new set of rasikas, who came to listen to the tukkadas and began to enjoy the very format of classical music.
Another aspect of Santhanam’s music was the sheer joy that permeated the concert platform. The accompanists and audiences were made to feel part of a happy experience. Santhanam kept the humour flowing. When singing ‘Vilaiyada Idu Nerama’ he would look at his watch. In a tillana with the line ‘Kumara Vaa,’ he would beckon to his son. In one concert, where the requests kept pouring in through chits, he picked one and announced — ‘this person has asked me to sing Mangalam’. As a speaker he was excellent, and humour was his biggest strength. His father’s wit was as famous and when he brought out a commemorative volume on Viswanatha Iyer, he ensured that the pages, apart from laudatory articles, carried a collection of his non-Rabelaisian jokes. He also established a trust in his father’s name that still awards musicians.
At the Music Academy, where he received the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1989, it became customary to spread rugs in the car park so that the dozens who could not get into the auditorium were able to watch his concert on the CCTVs outside. As his career rose to great heights, Santhanam demanded and obtained fees that were commensurate with his star status. In this, he was doing a favour to the Carnatic world, which had long suffered (and still suffers) from low remuneration — compensations began to go up because of his intervention. This was attacked tooth and nail by critics, most notably by N. Pattabhiraman of Sruti magazine, who branded him ‘Mahamoney Vidwan’. To detractors such as these, it was a virtue for a Carnatic artiste to remain poor. Anyway, Santhanam was unperturbed. On one memorable occasion, when asked to sing longer, he announced in Tamil that time was up. He used the word ‘mani’ and made a counting gesture. Everyone burst into laughter.
“When he was a child, I have carried him around,” said Semmangudi at a felicitation function. Then, looking at Santhanam seated by his side, he said, “Now I cannot even imagine that.” There was laughter but none louder than Santhanam’s.
When he died in a car accident on June 24, 1992, it came as a shock to the Carnatic world. He is still missed.
The Chennai-based author, a historian, writes on music and culture.