End of an era in Carnatic music

C.V. Narasimhan, former Under-Secretary General, United Nations, writes:

The passing of Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer marks the end of an era in Carnatic music. The last century saw a great flowering of our musical culture. Among male vocalists, names like Ariyakkudi, Musiri, Maharajapuram, Chembai, GNB and Madurai Mani come to mind along with Semmangudi. They bestrode the world of Carnatic music like colossi. Semmangudi was the last of the Titans — he outlived them all into the present century and came to be recognised as the Bhishma of Carnatic music.

Semmangudi was born in a musical family. His maternal uncle was the legendary Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, who is credited with having brought about the acceptance of a Western instrument, the violin, as a concert instrument of Carnatic music. Today, a concert without the violin as a solo or accompaniment is unthinkable. His senior cousin was another well-known violinist Semmangudi Narayanaswami Iyer, who may be said to be his first guru. His tutelage included stints under another great instrumentalist Gottuvadyam Sakharama Rao, and later Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer.

Semmangudi emerged in the 1930s as a full-fledged vidwan in his own right, and as a much-sought-after concert artist.

Like the other great vidwans I have recalled earlier, each of whom had his unique style, Semmangudi developed and, over the years perfected a style of his own. His voice was capable of producing a cascade of swaras, sangatis or brigas in alapana, and responded to every demand made by his fertile musical imagination. He was a master of laya, and his swara prastharas were usually rendered in the sarvalaghu pattern.

One of the turning points in Semmangudi's life was his appointment as the Principal of the Swathi Tirunal Music Academy in Thiruvananthapuram. Due to his efforts, the royal composer came to be recognised as a great vaggeyakara, next only to the Trinity in the quality and variety of his compositions. Semmangudi's special services were recognised by the conferment on him of the title of Rajya Seva Nirata.

In the musical field, honours galore came his way; he was, if I recall rightly, the youngest vidwan to receive the accolade of Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy in 1947, when he was only 39 years old.

During the last couple of decades, Semmangudi was much sought after as the chief guest at practically every musical function. He had a fantastic memory of past events, and a felicity of speech. He never said an unkind or unwise word. His mind and intellect were clear to the end.

It was a serendipitous coincidence that, on the morning of his passing, Doordarshan broadcast a seven-year-old, hour-long concert by Semmangudi, ending with his incomparable rendering of the Sankarabharanam masterpiece of Dikshitar, addressed to Sri Dakshina Murte.

Although he lived up to be 95, and died full of years and honours, his passing is a personal loss to oldsters like me, who had known him so well and for so long. May his soul rest in peace!

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