Few personalities have been increasingly synonymous with their birthplaces than the late Carnatic doyen Srinivasa Iyer has been with the hamlet in Tiruvarur district, Semmangudi. And for good reason too, for the contributions of the master musician have been nothing short of astonishing.
On the occasion of his 105th birth anniversary, if his career were to be shrunk to a bullet-box, it would read as follows – playing mentor to a host of musicians such as M S Subbulakshmi, T N Krishnan and Vikku Vinayakram; popularising some rare compositions and holding posts of academic eminence in a career that spanned over six decades; and being informally referred to as the Pitamaha (founding father) of Carnatic music.
However, it was his affable nature, and not his mastery over music, that people associated with him, rate as his hallmark. As noted historian V Sriram, who has co-authored a book on the musician, puts it – it was an inherent nature to network with others. “His network was phenomenal and most of his contemporaries were friendly with him. In fact, he would have succeeded in any profession that he chose. For he was practicing whatever we learn in modern management.”
He relates a personal incident in support of this view. “When I had gone to meet him for the first time, in 2002, he enquired about me, and all it took was me to mention a couple of my relative’s names. He instantly recollected some of the names of my other relatives, and some experiences.”
However, it was no bed of roses for this budding musician, who, barely in his teens, gave his first concert in 1926. Sriram says that the musician’s achievements were significant as he had to overcome a voice disorder early in his life. “He never took the audience for granted and none of his concerts were below-par. “His raga-alapanas and handling of swaras were immaculate.”
For Vikku Vinaykram, what stands out was his encouragement to junior artistes. When he accompanied the vocalist in a concert in the early 1960s, so impressed was Semmangudi with his prowess over the ghatam that he remarked, “From now on, you must accompany M S Subbulakshmi in her concerts.” Vinayakram performed at a concert alongside her at the Music Academy in 1966, to thundering ovation. “After this I got noticed, started travelling abroad, performed at the UN, and won Grammys. All this may not have been possible without his guidance.”