The late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, whose birth centenary fell on 25 July, was a Carnatic musician of such august status that he was known as the pitamah of the art. As with the original pitamah , Bhishma in the Mahabharat, the moniker reflected the grand seniority that Semmangudi enjoyed, and the wisdom and intellect he brought to his music.
Those legacies were celebrated at special centenary concerts in Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai (and not, unfortunately for me, in New Delhi). But Semmangudi’s long and formidable career is, above all, a testament to the human spirit. He was the great singer who almost wasn’t.
Guru of improvisation: Semmangudi gave performances till he was 90. (Photograph by Samudri Archives--Sruti, Chennai)
When he was 16, a young singer on the threshold of immense promise, Semmangudi’s voice did not so much break as shatter. “His voice is as melodious as the noise created when a coconut shell is scraped on a rock,” his teacher’s brother is said to have remarked, adding, “Don’t bother to give him vocal training.”
Undaunted, Semmangudi moved into his own lodgings and, like a mahout with a wild elephant, began the laborious process of taming his voice. “The only way appeared to be to keep on singing till the voice was rid of its jagged edges,” writes Sriram V. in Carnatic Summer, his engaging collection of profiles of musicians. So, Semmangudi sang and sang, ignoring discouragement and mockery, until he regained control of his voice. It returned at a price—his vocal cords were, it is said, permanently damaged—but the result, however nasal and far from mellifluous, at least hit the right notes. Two years later, he gave his first public performance in Kumbakonam.
This is a remarkable story, as much for what it says about Semmangudi as for what it says about Carnatic music. In most classical singing of Western provenance, voice is not everything, but it is the most essential ingredient. Technique and passion and imagination can gild a fine voice, but they cannot substitute it.
Carnatic music, however, has a long history of successful musicians who moved their art into realms far beyond those of pure voice. One of Semmangudi’s own teachers, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, lost his voice and regained only a scratchy, husky facsimile of it. The voice of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, perhaps the leading male vocalist today, is similarly huskier than the dictates of orthodox beauty. But Maharajapuram, Semmangudi and Subrahmanyan could all add to those voices a vast repertoire of music, astonishingly creative improvisation, rigour and knowledge, and the skills to take their ragas into thrilling territory.
I didn’t know any of this when I first started listening to Semmangudi. He had already passed away by then, after a long and glorious twilight that included performances even at the age of 90. His music, of course, remained, and it was instantly appealing to a novice—clean lines, comprehensible diction, energetic and soulful singing, and more than anything else, strings and strings of improvised notes that would emerge with the ferocity and precision of machine-gun fire.
“Nobody but him could have made music with that voice,” the singer M.L. Vasanthakumari is said to have remarked about Semmangudi. It isn’t the making of music itself, but the making of such wilful, inspired music that we celebrate about Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com