That longing for Mother

The tone of Syama Sastri’s songs is that of a child and ‘Mayamma’ defies definition

Updated - September 28, 2017 02:27 pm IST

Published - September 28, 2017 02:26 pm IST

The potrait of Syama Sastri at his house in Tiruvarur.

The potrait of Syama Sastri at his house in Tiruvarur.

Among the composers of Devi kritis, Syama Sastri (1762-1827 AD), the eldest of the Musical Trinity is unique in many ways. He was not only a Devi Bhakta and Upasaka, but also a Pujaka of Bangaru Kamakshi Amman. It is said that the idol of Bangaru Kamakshi was made, installed and worshipped by Brahma himself at Kanchipuram. Later, Adi Sankara entrusted the Puja rights to the forefathers of Syama Sastri.

Around 1566 AD, due to the political situation then, the family of Viswanatha Sastry, left Kanchipuram with the sole aim of protecting Bangaru Kamakshi. They stayed under the protection of affluent patrons for over two centuries. At last, headed by Viswanatha Iyer, father of Syama Sastri, they found a safe place at Thanjavur, then ruled by Tulaja. The Maratha ruler arranged a shrine for Kamakshi at Mela Raja Veedi (West Main Street) and conducted its Kumabhishekham. The ruler also gifted an Agraharam, Sarvamanya lands and many other gifts to the family. After the demise of Viswanatha Iyer, his son Syama Sastri took over the Puja Kainkaryam of Kamakshi. Syama Sastri’s family had a comfortable living and they were above wants.

Though he was a great musician, Syama Sastri neither opted for a musical career nor a royal course. Before Syama Sastri, there were no musicians in the family. So much so that one did not even encourage music as a career back then. Despite this, Syama Sastri blossomed into a divine musician and composer. It is said that Syama Sastri used to sit before Kamakshi after finishing the day’s rituals, singing his compositions with tears rolling down his cheeks. The tone of all his compositions are that of an attention seeking child. Most of his available compositions are on Bangaru Kamakshi. There are also a few compositions in praise of Tiruvaiyaru Dharmasamvardini, Nagapattinam Neelayadakshi, Thiruvanaikaval Akhilandeswari and Madurai Meenakshi, one Tana Varnam on Kanchi Varadaraja and one kriti on Vaidheeswarankovil Muthukkumaraswamy. The places he travelled were either his personal visits or those where he was invited by his friends. His Madurai visit, however, was different.

Once when he was worshipping Brihadamba at Pudukottai, an elderly Brahmin approached him and asked him to go to Madurai and sing in praise of Meenakshi. The same person appeared in his dream and reminded his earlier request. After sometime, he went to Madurai and sang the Navaratnamalika — nine compositions in praise of Meenakshi. The temple authorities honoured him suitably. Of the nine compositions, seven have been traditionally handed down to us. This is the only group kriti of the Vaggeyakara. They are Sarojadalanetri, Devi Minanetri (Sankarabharanam- Adi), Mariveragati (Anandabhairavi-chapu), Nannu Brovu Lalitha (Lalitha-misra lagu), Mayamma (Ahiri-Adi), Devi Ni Padasaarasa (Khambodi-Adi) and Minalochana Brova (Dhanyasi-chapu). All of them are in Telugu and typical of Syama Sastri — straight and addressing Her directly. Like all his other compositions, they are simple and moving.

It is generally believed that if a Gayaka enters deep into mathematical calculations — Laya Vyavaharam — it will mar the Sukha Bhava of the rendition. Contradictory to this belief, though Syama Sastri was known for his rhythmical intricacies (even the sahitya has laya patterns), his compositions are subtle while enhancing the raga, Sahitya, Artha and Rasa bhavas. He refers/addresses Meenakshi as Minanetri, Meenakshamma and Meenakshi. While generally, three charanams are found in his compositions, the Lalitha raga composition has four and is also the only composition where Raga mudra is found. Sarojadalanetri starts majestically in Tarasthayi Shadjam and stays there.

But, Karunya rasa or the theme predominates the otherwise Gambeerya Sankarabharanam. Due to the presence of closely knit Sahitya, the kriti sounds to be a tad above Chowka Kala. Silence speaks volumes in drama — Syama Sastri uses pauses to reveal his helpless state of mind like the one in the Pallavi of Mariveragati. The Chittaiswara sahityam naturally blends with the kriti in raga, tala and sahitya.

The Ahiri raga kriti starts with ‘Mayamma,’ a word, which defies definition. It is not possible to explain or interpret the emotional bond that Syama Sastri shared with Devi. In the anupallavi, he asks Nyayama Meenakshi? (Is this justice, Meenakshi?). With tonal variation, the same word can be made to sound harsh. But here, The musical setting starts from Panchama and reaches Tara Shadja, the voice of which is desperate. Syama Sastri’s compositions have few sangatis and are simple. The same is the case with this group as well.

Repeating a particular word gives stress to the expression, for instance, nammithi in Mayamma and Mariveragati. Even the presence of gamakas like Jaru add emotional value. In short, the kritis in the Navaratnamalika group shine with rhythmical and melodical richness, swarakshara and praasa beauties, Raga-Artha-Rasa-Bhavas. Above all Syama Sastri’s inner mind longs for the close proximity of Mother Goddess — all of which go to make these compositions musical gems, which adorn Meenakshi, never losing their sheen.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.