Carnatic Vidwan, his Life History

The Glorious Life Of Our Dearest.

Padma Vibhushan Rajya Seva Niratha Sri Semmangudi R. Srinivasa Iyer’s passion and true bhakti, which transports the listener beyond the worries of everyday life, has won him many generations of Carnatic music devotees. His vigor and vitality are the keys to his success.

This website is a tribute to Carnatic music’s pitāmaha (grandfather), and it includes a compilation of all of his performances that we believe can continue to inspire a new generation of musicians.

Birth

Srinivasa Iyer, the third son of Radhakrishna Iyer and Dharmambal, was born into a Vāthima Smārta Brahmin family. He was born on July 25, 1908, in the town of Semmangudi, in the Thanjavur District of South India, the heartland of Carnatic music. 

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First Encounter with Music

Semmangudi, as a young child exhibited an aptitude for and interest in music. His beloved mother’s brothers Tirukodikval Krishna Iyer, one of the earliest Carnatic violinists, and Narayanaswami Iyer, both renowned musicians, prompted Radhakrishna Iyer to consider music as a suitable career path for his son. As a result, at the age of nine, Srinivasa Iyer began studying music. Semmangudi’s own sibling, Sri. Panchapakesa Iyer, tended after his financial and other needs during his time at the Gurukulam. 

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The Period of Learning

Semmangudi (as Srinivasa Iyer is known) had the opportunity to learn music with four exceptional musicians who were Thyagaraja’s direct disciples. He began his musical studies with his cousin, musician Semmangudi Narayanaswami Iyer, on the auspicious Vijayadasami day in 1917. He eventually studied music with Sakharama Rao, a renowned Gottuvadhyam performer, and vocalist Sangeetha Kalānidhi Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer. Lastly, Sangeetha Kalānidhi Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, a pupil of Swaminatha Iyer, taught Semmangudi vocal techniques. Semmangudi was able to provide vocal assistance for Viswanatha Iyer at several concerts as a result of this. Each of his gurus made it a point to follow the Gurukula tradition in order to provide our Legendary Semmangudi with the best possible learning environment.

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Semmangudi's Influences

Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidhyanatha Iyer, Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, and Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, the flute maestro  T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai and Karukurichi Arunachalam were among the famous artists who frequently performed at temple festivals influenced Semmangudi tremendously with their quality nāgaswara music.

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First Concert

Semmangudi’s voice had cracked in his teens, and he had lost the musical richness that hehad as child. Some advised him to switch to the violin, but Semmangudi was set on being a vocalist and adhered to a strict training regimen that included singing for several hours. His voice had softened by his eighteenth year, and he was granted the opportunity to do a solo concert at the Nāgeswaraswāmi temple in Kumbakonam in 1926 (the same year he married Thayammal). Although the audience was small, an auspicious torrent of rain began shortly after the music began.

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His Family

Providence was very favorable to him as his wife Smt. Thayyu Ammal stood like a Rock in Mid Ocean, giving him all the moral support for his music and managed the family effectively in such a manner, that Sri. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer could focus on his Musical Journey as his sole passion and aim. He was blessed with 3 Sons and 2 Daughters – Sri.S.Swaminathan, Sri S.Gopalaswamy, Sri.S.Radhakrishnan and Smt. Santha Kasy Iyer and Smt. Dharma Krishnamoorthy, all well settled and also ardent admirer of the music of Semmangudi. 

He was very affectionate towards his grandchildren who considered him fun-loving and singing Thatha.

Sri Semmangudi's Ascent To Fame

Semmangudi’s journey to recognition was rapid. He was considered one of the best vocalists of the time in the late 1930s, and the Music Academy of Madras bestowed the title Sangeetha Kalānidhi on him in 1947. At the age of 39, he was the youngest artist to receive the award, and he is still the youngest person to have earned this prestigious honour.

Semmangudi held a number of noteworthy roles over his successful career. In 1939, he was appointed Asthāna Vidwān (resident musician) of Kerala’s Travancore Palace, and in 1941, he joined the Swāti Tirunal Music Academy in Trivandrum. He quickly rose through the ranks to become the institution’s Principal, a position he held until 1963. He also served as Chief Producer of Carnatic Music at All India Music, Madras, from 1956 to 1959, while on sabbatical from the Academy.

At the Swāti Tirunal Academy, one of his responsibilities was to revive Maharāja Swāti Tirunal’s compositions. For several of the works, the text was available, but there was no indication of the tune. Semmangudi, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, and others were entrusted with the task of setting tune to the Maharāja’s words, after which Semmangudi released two books containing the notation for more than 200 of Swati Tirunal’s compositions. In addition, he endeavored to include at least two Swāti Tirunal songs in each of his concerts.

Some of the Maharāja’s compositions that he tuned and popularised are Déva Déva (Māyamālavagowla), Pankajalochana (Kalyāni), Vishwéshwara (Sindhu Bhairavi, and Bhavayāmi Raghurāmam (Rāgamalika). The latter, a description of the epic Rāmāyana, was initially written solely in Sāveri rāga, but Semmangudi rewrote it as a rāgamālika (beginning with Sāvéri) and added a dazzling set of chitta-swarams. Sadāsiva Brahmendra compositions such as Bhajare yadunātham (Pilu), Bruhi mukundeti (Kurinji), Gāyati Vanamāli (Misra Kāpi) and Sarvam brahmamayam (Senjurutti).

His musical characteristics

Semmangudi’s music has a unique captivating quality to it. Despite his nasal voice, it is his stirring music that draws listeners in.

It’s artistic, passionate, and engaging, yet it’s also sublime. ‘Semmangudi has no equal in bringing out the bhāva of a kriti.

 

He communicates the feeling and emotion of the sāhitya with an intensity that has the imprimatur of a personal faith.

That is why his music is not merely brilliant but devout and moving…,’ writes S. V. Seshadri.

 

He has mostly focused on krithi-s, neraval, and swaram singing in his concerts, rather than complicated rga lpana-s, which are generally crisp and concise. His distinctive technique includes energetic singing of adjacent swara-s in fast succession. V. Subrahmaniam, a pupil of his, observes, 

“His style is based on strict adherence to the sarvalaghu –basic rhythm. The swara-s that he renders in the slow tempo would abound in the bhāva of the rāga with all the nuances, gamaka-s and anuswaras. His fast tempo rendition of swaras would rush as the flow of the Ganga in Haridwar, the fastness in no way marring the melody of the bhava-laden rāga packing the fast tempo swara-s with speed, clarity, bhava and easy flow. Sri Semmangudi's kalpanaswara-s would never leave the listener weary. His lengthy fast tempo swara-s without even one elongated note (deergha swara) is unparalleled and it would be no exaggeration to state that Semmangudi is the only maestro to achieve this … Semmangudi always feels that swara singing should not be a mere rhythmic exercise which will tend to rob the music of bhāva. (V. Subrahmaniam, 2001b)”

Over 800 compositions were estimated to be in Semmangudi’s repertory. He has played varnams in his concerts on a few occasions, although he usually begins with a krithi in Mayamlavagowla or a Ganapathi krithi. His favourite rga-s were Kalyni, Kpi, Sri Ranjani, Kmbhoji, and Kharaharapriya. Amba Kamkshi (Bhairavi), Marubalka (Sri Ranjani), Kshinamai (Mukhri), Chetasree (Dwijawanti), Biranabrova (Klyni), Chakkani Rja, and Rma Nee Samnamevaru (both Kharaharapriya) are some of his most memorable performances. Near the end of his concert, one would eagerly await listeningto  his poignant rgamalika viruthams, the Kpi jvali, Parlannamta, and Sivan’s Sharavanabhava (Shanmukhapriya).

People began to refer to him as ‘Kharaharapriya Srinivasa Iyer’ because of his superb presentation of Kharaharapriya rga. In a 1933 concert review, the terms “dignity” and “depth” sum up his music qualities. He believed that listening and memorising compositions should be used to teach rga lpana. Semmangudi, according to a senior follower, was:

“.. against teaching rāga ālāpana to students by singing phrase after phrase and asking them to repeat them, as if making them learn it by heart. According to him, the students should listen to rāga ālāpana-s by the guru and the other stalwarts at concerts and absorb the concepts, which they should later assimilate and bring out on their own. The more kritis a student learns in a rāga, the wider his perspective, as each piece projects a different facet of the rāga. (V. Subrahmaniam, 2001b)”

Semmangudi was in high demand to inaugurate music festivals and festivities in his final years. His amusing yet compassionate Tamil words delighted both the audience and the organisers. People felt that the event would always be a success if he blessed it.

Semmangudi, in Krishnakumar and Ravikiran, 1998

"My advice to youngsters, especially male vocalists, is that you should come out and sing only after your voice matures. These days, young children are brought to the stage even before their voice breaks. It may be nice to hear children sing, but it is best to wait till the voice matures. There is today a lack of devotion. Musicians should be charged with devotion. There should be bhakti towards music. That would liven music and ensure that it endures.

Sri Semmangudi's Enduring Legacy

Semmangudi had a significant number of noteworthy followers, some of whom took part in gurukulavāsam, some whom he taught at the Swāti Tirunal Academy, and yet others who met with him on a more casual basis.

 

Prof. T. N. Krishnan (who accompanied him on violin in many concerts) and T. M. Thiagarajan are two of his most outstanding disciples, Sangeetha Kalānidhi’s. Harihara Iyer, the Principal of the Swāti Tirunal Academy also was friends with Semmangudi for a long period.

K.R. Kedaranathan was a senior disciple who went on to become a professor at Chembai Music College. Other prominent disciples include Palai C. K. Ramachandran, V. Subrahmaniam, Neyatinkara Vasudevan, Trivandram R. S. Mani, Vaigal Gnanaskandan, Parasala Ponnammal, and K. Omanakutty. M. S. Subbulakshmi and K. J. Yesudas were also students of Semmangudi. 

It’s worth noting that Semmangudi learned various pieces from prominent artists like Ariyakudi, T. Brinda, and G. N. Balasubramaniam later in his career. He had also picked up the veena, which has aided his understanding of gamaka-s and rāga lakshana. 

THE END OF AN ERA

Semmangudi died on October 31, 2003, at the age of 95, leaving behind three sons and two daughters. His music and style have had a significant influence on the Carnatic music we hear today.

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