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Of Music and Musicians

T.K. Venkatasubramanian

By V. Subramaniam and V. Sriram
Westland, Chennai, 2008, pp. 148, Rs. 750.00

By Sreeni Nambirajan*
Sreeni Nambirajan, Pune, 2006, Rs. 450.00


In the Karnatak music scenario four powerful personalities come through as exemplars representing an exploited caste’s yearning for dignity and women artistes’ struggle for equality with men. Good biographies on M.S. Subbulakshmi and Bangalore Nagarathnamma are already available and another on Veena Dhanammal is in the pipeline. Danseuse Balasaraswathi’s biography would be a good addition to this list. In strength of character, self-esteem and in scale of aesthetic attainment all the four stand out in the 20th century Karnatak firmament. These biographies are important as ‘metaphors for cultural transition’. Historians and biographers are yet to comprehend fully the phase of music’s historical past from the 19th to 20th century. In the 20th century, music and musicians move into the larger cultural public sphere from courts and temples. Music evolved into a high art form that occupied pride of place in the national imagination.   Few musicians’ careers have been such a success story as Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s has been. His success was based on hard toil, unremitting enthusiasm and a driving ambition to make good in a profession which tests the resolve of every apprentice. The Commemoration volume under review traces the fascinating trajectory of his life (part I) and music (part II). As a centenary tribute, this volume scripts the making of Semmangudi, the man and musician. In many ways, Semmangudi’s life was a mirror to the progress of Karnatak music through the 20th century. Semmangudi was an icon and Sangeeta Pitamaha in a true sense.   Chapter I describes his early life from 1908 to 1926. He was named after the Utsava Murthi of the Vishnu Varadaraja temple on the street in Sempongudi village. His maternal grandfather was a harikatha exponent and his maternal uncle was the successful Tiru-kodikaval Fiddle Krishna Iyer. He learnt music from his cousin Narayanaswamy, Sakarama Rao, Swaminatha Iyer and Viswanatha Iyer. The first music recital he rendered was in 1926. In his formative years he absorbed music from the reigning stalwarts Konerirajapuram Vaidhyanathier, Madurai Pushpavanam, the Karaikudi Veena brothers, Naina Pillai, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, flute Sanjeeva Rao and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.   Chapter II traces Semmangudi’s career graph from 1926 to 1940. He underwent the ordeal of two operations for a nasal block and tonsils during this period. He got the first opportunity to perform in the emerging Madras city in December 1927 during the All India Congress Session. Under the guidance of ...

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