Born with body, soul and bhajan

Papanasam Sivan. Photo: Special Arrangement  

“The place was Oothu parai, in Thiruva nantha-puram. A young boy had to work longs hours as a cook during Ramanavami celebrations just to support his mother and himself, his father having passed away when he was just seven. His duties included filling eight large water tanks twice a day, assisting in the cooking and serving all those thousands who turned up for lunch and dinner during the fest. But all the while, it was music that enthralled him.

After dinner, the little boy would run to listen to the harikatha performance which was held as part of the festival. It was here that he first heard Manamelkudi Venkatachala Bhagavatar, a harikatha exponent.

That was how Papanasam Sivan began his tryst with classical music, especially bhajan and harikatha.

Born on September 26, 1890, in Polakom, a small village in Thanjavur district, Sivan lived in Thiruvananthapuram between 1899 and 1910. After that, he returned to Tamil Nadu and stayed with his brother in Papanasam. It was around 1912 that he started listening to classical music.

From a ‘mere kirtana-driven devotee,’ Sivan slowly transformed himself into a classical composer. With no formal lessons whatsoever. For this, the world owes a debt of gratitude to the vidwan, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, who was a great inspiration to Sivan. My grandfather said he listened to about 50 concerts of Vaidyanatha Iyer, whose Thodi rendition was described by many vidwans in superlatives. So much so, Sivan composed about 20 kritis in the same raga, which were strongly influenced by Iyer’s Thodi.

I remember once my grandfather narrating the following incident to my mother, Rukmini Ramani, “Iyer was singing in Ammangudi once. That day, I was at my aunt’s place in Kumbakonam in connection with my father’s death anniversary. When I learnt that Iyer was singing, I wanted to go. It meant I had to walk seven miles to Ammankudi. By the time I reached the venue, the concert had already begun and I could not go near the stage. However, Iyer saw me and sent someone to bring me to the stage and made me sit with him. During the concert, I noticed two people near the stage talking intermittently. I was annoyed and asked them to remain silent. Iyer turned to them and said (pointing to me), ‘He is intelligent. Now, listen to this kriti of his.’ He then sang ‘Sikkal Meviya’, a kriti of mine in Khambodi.” Thatha said that though he was not destined to get the love and affection of a father, he received it in full measure from his guru.

When Sivan settled down in Madras in 1929, Rukmini Devi Arundale was among the first to recognise his genius. Sivan was closely associated with Kalakshetra, from 1934 to1939. During that time, Rukmini Devi was among his many students, which also included leading musicians such as S. Rajam. Perhaps, this tenure at Kalakshetra inspired Sivan to compose several padavarnams that are now part of the Bharatanatyam repertoire.

My grandfather’s involvement with the film world is well known. The first song he composed was for the film ‘Seetha Kalyanam,’ which was shot at Prabhath Studio, Pune. He made his acting debut in 1935 with ‘Kusela.’ He wrote Carnatic-based songs for more than 100 films and acted in quite a few such as ‘Kubera Kuchela’, ‘Kusela’ and ‘Thyaga Bhoomi.’ It is no exaggeration to say that my grandfather enjoyed divine grace in all his endeavours. Once after finishing a concert, he and his friends were returning to Mannargudi by bullock cart. It was pitch dark and the route they were taking was notorious for dacoits. And almost every member in the group had quite a bit of gold on their person. As luck would have it, a gang of dacoits with burning torches stopped the group. They were all petrified, to say the least. At once my grandfather began singing ‘Namarkum Kudiallom Namani Anjom’ loudly. Hearing the song, a few watchmen from nearby groves rushed to the spot and the robbers took to their heels. And the group continued its journey unharmed. Such instances, where help came from unexpected quarters, was proof that Sivan had divine protection all the time.

Ramnad Krishnan had visited my grandfather. When he heard Sivan sing Tyagaraja’s Navarasa Kannada kriti, ‘Ninnu Vina,’ he was spellbound. The following day, which was Sivaratri, he was leading a bhajan team when Krishnan requested him to render the Navarasa Kannada song. At once, my grandfather composed ‘Naan Oru Vilayattu Bommaiya’ in the same raga, and Krishnan fell at his feet to receive his blessings.

So overwhelmed was Sivan when he watched the Adhikara Nandi procession of Lord Kapali and other deities that he composed ‘Kaana Kann Kodi Vendum.’ He then went on to compose more than 100 kritis on Kapaleeswaraar and Karpagambal, which he taught to his disciples.

My grandfather will always be remembered for the bhajans he presented all over Tamil Nadu. (‘bhajan’ here refers to devotional music, not group singing.) At his Mylapore bhajans (during the month of Margazhi), one often saw stalwarts such as Dr. S. Ramanathan, D.K. Jayaraman and Ramnad Krishnan in attendance.

My grandfather would say, “People say body and soul are born together. But I was born with body, soul and bhajan. The moment I am unable to perform bhajan, I shall cease to exist.” He passed away in 1973, but left behind so many gems in the form of Carnatic kritis and bhajans.”

(The writer, a Carnatic vocalist, is the grandson of Papanasam Sivan.)

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Printable version | Apr 29, 2021 10:04:31 PM |

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