Thanjavur Sankara Iyer — Adherence to classicism

In an airy room where the sunlight streams in, a sruti box sits on a table. A frail hand finds its way to the power button and the room echoes with sound. After aligning his feeble voice to the sruti, a grand old man gently delves into a brief Begada alapana followed by the familiar Begada varnam. His voice sparkles, although his advanced years make it difficult for him to manoeuvre smoothly through the octaves. He signals me to sing along, often repeating phrases for me, stressing on the unique madhyama of Begada. At 97, Thanjavur Sankara Iyer is still in pursuit of Nadopasana.

“If one learns to render each gamaka of Begada, Kalyani (Ata Tala) and Bhairavi (‘Viribhoni’ ) varnams, one can sing anything under the sky. That’s why I continue to sing them even today,” says one of the most revered musicians.

Thanjavur Sankara Iyer

Thanjavur Sankara Iyer  

Sankara Iyer is a a multi-faceted genius, who has composed several popular songs including ‘Natajanapalini’ and ‘Ranjanimala’. He is also a dedicated guru, veena player and an awe-inspiring performer.

Born in Togaimalai in Tiruchi district in 1924 on Pongal day, to Kuppalu Ammal and Venkatesa Iyer, Sankaran had his initial training under his maternal grandfather, Krishna Iyer, a well-known musician. After the death of his father, Sankaran moved to Thanjavur where he lived with his sister’s family. In their neighbourhood lived musical giants such as Palghat Mani Iyer, Papa Venkataramaiah, Mahalingam Pillai and T.K. Murthy. Young Sankaran benefitted immensely through his interactions with them.

The best of gurus

Sankara Iyer’s career took a turn when his brother-in-law made him train under Sattur Krishna Iyengar in Madras. When his guru joined Annamalai University as a professor, Sankaran too enrolled there for the ‘Sangita Bhushanam’ course. There, besides his guru, he was guided by the likes of Tiger Varadachariar, T.K. Rangachari, Tiruppambaram Swaminatha Pillai, and Thanjavur Ponnaiah Pillai in vocal.

He also learnt the veena under Gomathysankara Iyer and K.S. Narayanaswamy. After completing his course, he joined Devakottai Music School as a teacher and later, the Shanmukhananda Sabha Music School in Mumbai, where he worked for several years.

In 1992, he returned to his alma mater as guest faculty and stayed till 1995. In 1996, he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed, but it did not deter him from pursuing music. He continued performing till mid-2000.

In a journey that spans almost 85 years, Sankara Iyer has composed around 70 kritis in Tamil and Sanskrit, ranging from varnams to lakshana kirtanais, kritis to thillanas and javalis. His first kriti, ‘Ramanamame’ in Desh was composed when he was only 14.

Creative repertoire

His compositions such as ‘Mahadeva Sivasambho’ (Revati), ‘Muruga Tirumalmaruga’ (Harikhambodi) and ‘Paamalai’ (Shanmukhapriya) were popularised by legendary musicians such as D.K. Jayaraman and M.L. Vasanthakumari. His compositions are marked by a certain lyrical simplicity, but they project the grandeur of the raga.

His disciple and renowned nagaswaram vidwan Injikudi E.M. Subramaniam says that when Sankara Iyer composes, it is a natural continuation of his musical introspection and brings out a raga’s unexplored aspects. “Once, while discussing raga Nayaki, Sankara Iyer sang an array of compositions while describing how it had been handled in nagaswara, veena and vocal traditions. Then he sang his own composition, ‘Ranganayaki’, and said that he had composed it to approach the raga differently,” recollects Subramaniam.

Senior vocalist Neyveli Santhanagopalan points out that each of his compositions has a musical intention. ‘Natajanapalini’, for instance, projects the gandharam of Nalinakanti in its pallavi in contrast to Tyagaraja’s ‘Manavyala’ which stresses the madhyama.

Musician Dr. Sunder, who was also Iyer’s physiotherapy consultant, learnt several compositions from him. He says that Sankara Iyer exudes positivity in his lyrics, never using words that reflect personal suffering. “He composed ‘Shanti Alithidum Kanthimati Deviye’ (Chenjurutti) while undergoing physiotherapy. Nowhere in the kriti does he plead to the deity to end his sufferings.”

Student Valivalam Venkataraman recalls on how Sankara Iyer composed ‘Porutharulvai Bhoomi Thaye’ (Jayantasri) as a prayer following the 2001 Bhuj earthquake. He has also created several new ragas, such as Vishnupriya (‘Balasubrahmanyan balane’) and Hamsakalyani (‘Amba sri parameswari’).

Stickler for tradition

Iyer’s students, who include several leading musicians of this generation, describe him as a teacher with the knack to make tough concepts look simple. Subrmaniam says, “For getting a gamakam right, he would ask students to move their head in a particular manner.” He would even tell them exactly how one should open the mouth to make each gamakam sound perfect. A stickler for tradition, he insisted that sangathis not be distorted in the name of manodharma.

Alamelu Mani remembers Sankara Iyer as a perfectionist, who would prepare rigorously for several months before a concert. He would not just learn and present a kriti, but would keep singing it till he had internalised the connect between the sahithya and the raga as the composer would have envisioned it.

Extolled by D.K. Jayaraman as the ‘musician of the century,’ Sankara Iyer was hugely respected by his contemporaries, including stalwarts like Ramnad Krishnan and S. Balachander. Sankara Iyer was part of a musical forum called ‘Friends of Music’ that had as its members an august group of musicians and music lovers such as T. Brinda, Raghava Rao and critic N.M. Narayanan. They met frequently and exchanged ideas.

Thanjavur Sankara Iyer receiving an award from veteran violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman at the function organised by the International Foundation for Carnatic Music

Thanjavur Sankara Iyer receiving an award from veteran violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman at the function organised by the International Foundation for Carnatic Music  

Iyer has won several awards and honours including The Music Academy’s Sangita Kalacharya in 1996 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2011. He continues to guide his students whenever they visit him in Tirunelveli. When asked about composing, he said that he wanted to perfect all that he has learnt first. He, however, still longs to play the veena, which has always been an extension of his musical thought.

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 9:15:37 PM |

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