Seventy-five-year-old J. K. Sivan belongs to a hoary lineage of titans of Carnatic music. His maternal grandfather, Vasishta Bharathi, was well-versed in rendering the Ramayana and presenting discourses and his relative was Ghanam Krishna Iyer, who strode the world of Carnatic music like a colossus along with the Music Trinity, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and many other stalwarts. Incidentally, Ghanam Krishna Iyer was a close relative of U.Ve.Sa.
“My grandfather was so passionate about rendering the Ramayanam that even in his old age, when he had lost eyesight, he continued to present pravachanam at the Gangadheeswarar temple in Purasawalkam, Chennai,” said Sivan.
Foremost among the descendants of Ghanam Krishna Iyer was Seetharama Iyer, son of Ghanam Ganapathy Iyer. Seetharama Iyer had earned the sobriquet ‘Thodi’ or ‘Rettai Pallavi’ because he rendered the raga continuously for eight days. Besides his many other achievements, his association with saint Tyagaraja is something that cannot be ignored.
The bond between ‘Thodi’ Seetharama Iyer and Tyagaraja was as sweet as music. Whenever Seetharama Iyer went to Kargudi, a small village near Thanjavur, where his wife’s parents lived, he would never fail to visit Tyagaraja in Tiruvaiyaru. He would spend considerable time at the saint-composer’s house discussing various aspects of music.
An interesting anecdote
Tyagaraja, who also had a great respect for Seetharama Iyer, would render his songs. On one such occasion, when Tyagaraja rendered his kritis, Seetharama Iyer commented that they were worthy of being sung only by women and not by singers like him. A few days later, en route to Kargudi, Iyer passed by the saint’s house and stopped to listen to a divine flow of swaras. It was the pallavi and niraval for the kriti ‘Kanugontini’ in Bilahari, in chowka and madhyama kalam. Iyer rushed into the house only to see the saint singing in front of Lord Rama’s portrait. A moved Seetharama Iyer prostrated in front of him and said, “Forgive me for the sin I have committed, Guruji.” And he began learning Tyagaraja’s kritis. Soon Iyer made a deep impact with his musical skill and voice on listeners and earned the pet name ‘soldier’ from the British Collector, Montgomery.
A disciple of Veenai Kuppaiyer, Seetharama Iyer was patronised by Serfoji Maharaj of the Thanjavur palace. But when the Minister, Somnath, was put in charge of the financial affairs of the Thanjavur palace, he reduced the honorarium for Iyer, as part of austerity measures. A hurt Iyer refused to sing in the court on special days.
Struck by poverty, he sought refuge in Udayarpalayam, where his relative Ghanam Krishna Iyer lived. The latter introduced the musician to Yuvaranga Bhupathi, the zamindar of Udaiyarpalayam, who offered support but on the condition that Iyer should sing in the court and join the zameen.
A musician of self-respect, Seetharama Iyer offered to pledge one of his priceless treasures, Thodi ragam (refusing to sing it till he repaid the loan), in exchange for the money that the zamindar was ready to give. But destiny had it otherwise. The British Collector, who had been enamoured of Seetharama Iyer’s Thodi raga alapana, wanted him to sing at a function hosted by Serfoji Maharaj. The king had no option but to bring Iyer back to Thanjavur and also redeemed Thodi raga from the zamindar and got the musician freed.
A nostalgic Sivan said, “I got to know about the rich legacy only through Indunesan , a journal that was printed in the 1930s. It is a pity that there is nobody now in the family to carry on the mantle. His family and grandchildren, including myself, have not developed any interest or proficiency in the Ramanataka kirtanas of Arunachala Kavirayar and in presenting discourses. However, Seetharama Iyer has trained a few to perform discourses in Kamba Ramayanam, among whom is the legendary T.S. Balakrishna Sastrigal, who also lived in Purasa walkam.”