On July 28, 1926, The Hindu reported briefly about the death of ‘Asthana Vidwan Vainika Shikhamani Veena Seshanna on Sunday last, after an illness lasting for over a month.’ In his passing, the paper noted, “the music world has lost a great master.” The maestro had passed away on July 25, bringing to an end a life that had been one of extraordinary achievements in music and spanning the reigns of three rulers of Mysore.
Seshanna came from a rich musical lineage stretching back to Pachimiriyam Adiyappaiah, the composer of the Viribhoni varnam and the guru of Syama Sastry. His father Chikkaramappa was the asthana vidwan of the Mysore Court during the reign of Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, which lasted from 1799 to 1868. At the age of seven, Seshanna demonstrated his prowess when responding to a challenge from a visiting musician -- he repeated the latter’s pallavi effortlessly. The Maharajah was greatly pleased and honoured the child.
Seshanna sadly lost his his father and guru at the age of 12. Thereafter, thanks to the protective care and encouragement of his sister Venkamma, he was able to pursue his passion for music by training under ‘Dodda’ Seshanna, a senior vidwan of the court and the father of another star, Veena Subbanna. Seshanna also trained under Mysore Sadasiva Rao, the composer who came from the Wallajahpet lineage of Tyagaraja’s disciples.
At the age of 25, Seshanna began giving performances outside Mysore. The first such was at Coimbatore. Shortly thereafter, he befriended Narayanaswamappa, the stellar mridangam vidwan from Thanjavur and was invited to give performances with the latter’s accompaniment. This, he was introduced to audiences of that southern cultural heartland and earned their appreciation. It was through him that audiences of Tamil-speaking regions came to understand the nuances and beauty of the Mysore style of veena playing.
Back home, he followed in his father’s footsteps and become a court musician. He also turned composer; one of the most often heard tillanas in Chenjurutti, was created in honour of Chamarajendra Wodeyar who reigned from 1868 to 1894. Seshanna, Subbanna and the prince had been classmates in music and this created a special bond among them. In course of time, Seshanna was to create several compositions with the mudra ‘Sesha’ in Kannada and Telugu, in various musical forms - kritis, varnams, jatiswarams and tillanas.
Seshanna, like several of his contemporaries, was adept at singing and playing several instruments. A letter from Swaragath Vidwan M.K. Mulhari Rao of Trichinopoly, published in The Hindu on August 3, 1926, states that he had heard Seshanna perform on the “piano, harmonium, jalatarangam, swaragath and violin.” It was said that Seshanna had mastered the jalatarangam in the course of one night, inspired by the performance of one Maula Baksh.
Seshanna’s position in Mysore enabled him to make it a music capital. He initiated the celebrations of Krishna Jayanthi as a music festival in that town. He also ensured that several musicians from Madras, Thanjavur and other places were invited to perform at court on occasions such as royal weddings and birthdays. His being elevated to the position of Sangita Bakshi during the reign of Nalwadi Krishnarajendra Wodeyar meant that he had music patronage under his control and used this privilege judiciously and well.
The degree of royal affection can be gauged from the fact that the first act of Krishnarajendra Wodeyar on becoming Maharajah was to honour Seshanna. Among the beneficiaries was Mulhari Rao himself, for he wrote in The Hindu that he had “had some rare opportunities to show my skills on the swaragath in the presence of His Highness the Maharajah of Mysore through the late Mr. Seshanna.”
As he grew older, Seshanna’s fame spread. In 1911, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda invited him and pleased with his performance, had him taken in procession on a palanquin all around the town. The same year, he also performed at the Coronation Durbar in Delhi in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary.
Years later, Veena Doraiswami Iyengar was to write in The Hindu of how when he was six, he was presented to Seshanna. He remembered a prominent nose, piercing eyes and the impression of a nadayogi.
On August 11, 1926, The Hindu reported that a condolence meeting for Seshanna had been held on August 9 at the Rangacharlu Memorial Hall. Among those who spoke was Mysore Vasudevachar. The meeting concluded with a resolution that a portrait of Seshanna’s ought to be unveiled at a public place in Mysore. It is not clear if this was done, but then a personality like Seshanna is immortal and needs no physical reminder of his greatness.
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