The Master from Mudicondan

Mudicondan Venkatrama Iyer  

On September 14, 1975, The Hindu reported the passing of Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer. The report said that he had been ailing for some time and admitted on the afternoon of September 13 to the Royapettah Hospital, where the end came at 7 p.m. The musician's musician was 78.

Born on October 15, 1887, Mudicondan as he was to be known through life, was of musical stock. His maternal grandfather, Srivanchiyam Swaminatha Iyer was known for the lilt with which he rendered padams and javalis, leading to his being referred to as ‘talukku' Swaminatha Iyer. Mudicondan's father Chakrapani Iyer was respected for raga alapanas and singing of Thevaram hymns. It was therefore no surprise that young Venkataraman too evinced plenty of musical talent. But his father was very keen that the boy acquired English education and so he settled down to conventional schooling which lasted till the final year at school.

Chakrapani Iyer passed away that year and Venkataraman, then studying in Madras, had to give up formal education and return home. He then decided to learn music in the proper fashion. This he began under Vedaranyam Swaminatha Iyer, a man who was reputed to be able to impart swara gnana even to the stone-deaf.

Venkataraman then apprenticed, as The Hindu put it, “under Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Aiyar. Later Ammachatram Kandaswami Pillai, a tavil vidwan, initiated him into the intricacies of tala and Laya while Simizhi Sundaram Aiyar taught him the bhava aspect.” The last teacher was a unique combination of the lineages of Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar and this ensured that the disciple acquired a “seemingly inexhaustible repertoire.”

The debut concert happened at Cuddalore when he was 17 and in 1919, he first sang in Madras under the auspices of the Mylapore Sangita Sabha. The city was just then waking up to the wonders of musicology and this struck a ready chord in Mudicondan. Though he preferred living in his native village and teaching students there, he did often visit Madras and became a familiar face wherever discussions on music took place. To quote The Hindu, Mudicondan was “A great debater on the nuances of music and he used to explain in a remarkable way even obscure points.” And indeed it was in that area that he was to make a greater name for himself.

Expert on lakshana

From 1935, Mudicondan became a regular at the Music Academy's annual conferences. Being an expert on lakshana and lakshya aspects, he would expound the correct way of rendering niraval, ragam, tanam and pallavi. He wrote several erudite articles on music and character sketches of musicians of the past, a brief one on famed Devadasis in particular being a treasure-trove of information. The Academy, led by Dr. V. Raghavan was keen that he played a more continuous role in its affairs and in 1948, managed to convince him to move to Madras and become the Vice-Principal of the Teachers' College of Music. It also conferred the title of Sangita Kalanidhi on him in 1949.

The Academy's premises then housed the old bungalow Sweet Home and this is where the classes were held. Mudicondan lived in one of the numerous outhouses of Sweet Home. His presence brought a great degree of stability to the college which had seen a high turnover of teachers and principals. Within a year of his joining, the Inspector of Schools could see the improvement and wrote in his report that “The instruction given is very effective and efficient. All the pupils under training appear to be endowed with the gift of music.”

In 1956, Mudicondan became the Principal. He taught numerous students at the college and in private and the list of those who learnt from him included his son-in-law Mudicondan Krishnamurthi, Srivanchiyam Ramachandra Iyer, Ranganayaki Iyengar, B. Krishnamurthy and R. Vedavalli. He also helped in honing the pallavi-singing skills of M.L. Vasanthakumari whose father Ayyaswami Iyer had been a fellow-student under Simizhi Sundaram Iyer.

The Hindu noted that “his lecture demonstrations at the annual conferences of the Academy were a treat for scholars, students as well as professionals.” A presentation that was to make waves in the 1950s was that of a pallavi in Simhanandana Tala (128 aksharas). He repeated the same in 1971/72 and a recording is in existence. It was also in 1971 that the Indian Fine Arts Society conferred on him the Sangita Kala Shikhamani. Earlier in 1961, he had received the President's (Sangeet Natak Akademi) award. When he retired from the Teachers' College in 1972, a grateful Academy not only gave him an ex-gratia settlement but also retained him as an Honorary Professor, a function he fulfilled by teaching raga alapanas and swaras. Though physically of a diminutive stature, musically he was a giant.

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