Nadha Yogi

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer in full flow at Sri Thiagaraja Sangeetha Vidwath Samajam, Chennai.  

THE END of an era, the curtain falls on a glorious resplendent saga, the passing away of a legend — all these worn-out expressions sound hollow and empty, not adequately reflecting the magnitude of the loss and the enormous void left by the demise of Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. The life and illustrious career of the vidwan have been well documented time and again through the years, but still bear repetition. Mama, as he was affectionately and respectfully known to all in the musical fraternity, the numerous rasikas, and to friends in so many spheres, was a sage who performed a musical yagna throughout his life with a rare, fierce commitment. Such was his passion for the art that three weeks ago when this writer called on him, he broke down and sobbed inconsolably because he was unable to remember the lyrics of even the songs that became extremely popular due to his inimitable musical expression.

Semmangudi was a maestro much before his time. In the days of yore when lakshya gained ascendancy over lakshana, Mama, recognising the value of both, stood like a beacon to determine a happy amalgam of the two and not sacrifice one for the other. Semmangudi perfected the skill of notation even in those times when it was considered secondary. He knew the value of notating the songs for future reference when it is natural for memory to get blurred with the passage of time.

Mama's song interpretations had a mesmerising quality and a spiritual potency. Time stood still when he sang "Kshinamai"(Mukhari) "Marubalga" (Sriranjini) "Chakkaniraja" "Navasidhi Petralum''(Kharaharapriya) "Chetasri'' (Divijavanti) "Maye"(Tharangini), the Navagraha and Navavarna kritis of Dikshitar, the peerless swarajatis of Shyama Shastri, et al.

While trying to analyse the phenomenal success in his vocation, several aspects of his art and persona flood one's mind. A mental toughness to overcome the odds, an evangelical zeal to perform at consistent levels, maintaining quality, practising restraint, a capacity to touch so many hearts, dignity and character ensconced in performances, a colossal repertoire and the lingering aftermath are some of the attributes that have contributed to make Semmangudi a household name.

Semmangudi's raga alapanas whether it was a major scale like Sankarabharanam, Todi, Kalyani, or Bhairavi, or an Upanga raga such as Yadukulakambhoji, Varali, Anandabhairavi and Natakuranji, were singular rakti essays with melody written all over. The vilamba kala swaras were precious gifts to the rasika. In today's scenario when sound and an ear punching technique seem to rule the roost, the bhava laden silken kizh kala swara passages were greeted with thumping applause and palpable appreciation. The dhwvita kala swara sequences firmly adhering to the sarva lagu mode with breathtaking intricate patterns left the audience in raptures. Semmangudi was no great advocate of mind-boggling laya permutations and combinations nor did he favour complicated mathematical calculations. He was quite happy with a simple korvai at the end of a gripping bout of sarva lagu swaras and how the audience rose to a man to salute the effort! He was a great votary of the time-tested compositions of divine poets, not for him the fly-by-night songs of all and sundry composers. Semmangudi gave life and soul to the musical creations of Sadasiva Brahmendra, the Tiruvembavai of Manickavachagar, the countless kritis of Swati Tirunal, the Gita Govindam of Jayadeva, the Krishna Leela Tharangini of Narayana Theertha and many others. On the concert platform, he maintained a perfect sense of decorum, affording due respect and courtesy to the accompanying artistes irrespective of their age.

An administrator of distinction having served AIR as producer and the Swati Tirunal College, Thiruvananthapuram as principal, Semmangudi was also an ideal Guru. His teaching methods, ingrained with absolute sincerity and devotion, left the student no choice but to perfect the lesson taught on that day before leaving the premises. He was also concerned about ensuring a secure future for his disciples and many of them, thanks to Mama are comfortably settled in respectable positions. He was very optimistic about the state of Carnatic Music and quite impressed with the way young artistes pursued the art with sustained interest and percentage commitment.

As a raconteur, he was nonpareil. His anecdotes about men and matters laced with wit and humour are treasures to cherish. This scribe was indeed privileged and honoured when Mama gladly agreed to sing the first episode for her Prasar Bharti archival project, "Dhakshina Gana Surabhi" in July 2000. He was then 92 years of age.

This article would not be complete without remembering Mami. The hackneyed clich� that there is a woman behind the success of every man assumes a special relevance when speaking of Semmangudi Mama's dharmapatni, Thayammal. Many of us would have seen the picture of Lord Rama with Sita, Lakshmana and Anjaneya, giving darshan to Tyagaraja in his puja room.

Tyagaraja's wife, displaying super human mental control, would with folded hands offer her prayers to the Lord without taking even a step outside of the kitchen. Mami was as self-effacing and disciplined, as she was kind and considerate, and an ideal housewife thrusting her preferences into the backburner to care for the welfare of her family, and to be always at the service of her Lord and Master.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer has stepped beyond the verge, but the thought that he was a Nadha Yogi who inhaled music through every breath of his, will be forever vividly etched in one's mindset.