Semmangudi, the consummate performer

On the eve of his birth anniversary, a look at what made Semmangudi and his music so popular

One of the travails that present Carnatic musicians face is the strong competition from musicians who have passed a long time ago. Blame it on the recordings or the proliferation of YouTube releases, but the artistes of yesteryear continue to remain in our minds, sometimes much more than current performers. Semmangudi is definitely one such artiste. Like other top-ranking performers who remained in the limelight for much of their lives, he understood the need for audiences and the necessity to remain relevant.

How much this mattered to him I realised when, in the final years of his life, I happened to call on him in the company of my guru, V. Subrahmaniam. The Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer Golden Jubilee Trust had been set up by the maestro’s disciples when he completed 50 years as a performing artiste. My guru being one of Semmangudi’s prime disciples was at the forefront of celebrating his birthday each year and we visited him to formally invite him to the event. “Will there be an audience,” was his first and only question. Not for Semmangudi the pretence that he did not need audiences and sang only for his inner satisfaction. On the day of the event, Semmangudi arrived at the venue well before time. He had had a cataract surgery and was wearing dark glasses. After coming in, he peered through those glasses and was visibly upset to see many empty rows. “Kootame illiye (there is no crowd),” he said. VS sir assured him that it was not yet time and more people would come in soon.

And sure enough they did, filling all the seats by the time Semmangudi took to the stage. He was delighted. And he spoke for 20 minutes, giving the audience plenty to ponder over and laugh at. “Carnatic music is not something tangible like a soap,” he said. “Audiences come, sacrificing other avenues of entertainment, and when they leave, all they have with them is a sense of happiness. It is the duty of the artiste to ensure they get that.” This was a statement he often made and he repeated it on this occasion too. Coming from him it was a homily. Many management books have been written on this dictum, but with far less effect.

To me, he was the ultimate professional, who would have succeeded in any field. It was music that he chose and in it he shone. The story of Semmangudi is one of grit and determination. True, he came from a hallowed family — his uncle and cousin were famed violinists — but that did not in any way make it easy for him. Indeed, his damaged vocal cords were more a deterrent than an asset and the legendary Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai is said to have remarked that the boy may be better off training as a violinist. But nothing would stop Semmangudi. He had the talent and he was going to express it vocally, come what may. And he did succeed, to the extent that to many diehard fans that nasal twang, the high decibel rendition of ‘Amba!’, and those rasping breaths were as much a part of the music as the sonorous alapanas, the cascade of swaras, the exquisite shlokas, and the delectable ragam tanam pallavis.

Networking is today a fashionable term, especially when it comes to professional success, but Semmangudi was a past master at it. He had his pockets of influence — cabinet ministers, royalty, well-heeled patrons in Shencotta, Kallidaikurichi and Madras. He had senior musicians too in this select coterie — Musiri Subramania Iyer probably being the most well-known of them. Having M.S. Subbulakshmi as a student mattered as well. It is just that all of the networking was done from a position of strength. This was no whingeing supplicant. It was considered an honour to be able to assist Semmangudi. His friends knew his worth as a musician and were happy to do their bit to forward his career and interests. And he did not hesitate to ask when it mattered. It must also be pointed out here that he was not a grabber of any opportunity that came along. It had to be in keeping with his stature and his principles. Thus, he never accepted an overseas invite, because he did not believe in crossing the black waters.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, her husband T. Sadasivam, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi at the Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Award function at the Rani Seethai Hall in Madras on December 28, 1989.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, her husband T. Sadasivam, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi at the Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan Award function at the Rani Seethai Hall in Madras on December 28, 1989.

Today, any conversation on Semmangudi unfortunately tends to drift to his involvement in controversies with Balamuralikrishna and Balachander and his influence at the Music Academy. But what is forgotten is that these happened at the fag end of a career replete with the best of music despite the most recalcitrant voice. While they did lessen the halo, they could not take away anything from his contribution to the art. His bani is still one of the most popular, passed on to younger generations by the several disciples he trained. His on- and off-stage witticisms still do the rounds, and his renditions remain reference points for any aspect of the art. That is perhaps his greatest contribution.

What then of appellations such as the Chanakya and the Cunningham of Carnatic Music? We often tend to forget that these are the very traits that are considered praiseworthy in other professions. Why then should classical music alone differ? Should the principles that Tyagaraja considered ideal be the standards by which every performing musician is judged?

Semmangudi would have disagreed. In a life spanning a century, he had seen Carnatic music change in everything, from presentation to patronage to technology. He survived it all. After all, we keep saying that adaptability is one of the chief traits for success. Surely it applies to Carnatic music as well.

The Chennai-based historian writes on music and culture.

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