S Rajam, who died a few weeks ago at the grand age of 90, was a man of many skills, all of them outsized. In his youth, with his chiselled features and soulful eyes, Rajam was a popular actor in mythological films. When, upon his wife’s insistence, he quit the cinema, he moved—like his younger brother, the prodigious veena player S. Balachander—into music. He had a supple, pleasant voice, and he had been taught by some of the greatest musicians of the early 20th century. His singing was effortless but deeply informed. But his most lasting contribution to the art—familiar even to the most infrequent Carnatic concert goers—is, oddly enough, one of his paintings.
In a long panel, the three chief composers of Carnatic music sit in a row: Muthuswami Dikshitar, slender and pale, playing a veena; Thyagaraja, turbaned and seemingly caught in mid-song; and Shyama Shastri, with a fierce stubble on his face and a box of paan by his feet. The figures are awkwardly posed and stylized, rather than realistic, painted in what is known as the Ajanta style (“art is in representing nature, not reproducing it,” Rajam once said, quoting Anand Coomaraswamy ). The painting is a product of Rajam’s imagination, yet it has become the only accepted depiction of these early 19th century composers.
Renaissance man: Rajam (above) acted, sang and painted. Sruti Magazine
The painting, in a sense, was a forensic feat. Rajam had seen—and hated—one sketch of a frail Thyagaraja, and no portraits of the other two existed at all. So he relied on what he could glean from texts. He read that Dikshitar often wore a green shawl about his torso, and that Shastri was fond of paan. He studied and rendered carefully the shapes of the instruments they used. He distilled the spirit of the composers’ work to give his portraits context, placing Thyagaraja, for example, below a mural of his beloved deity Ram. Thus working backwards, he constructed his images—which may well have looked completely different from their real life counterparts, but which were possibly truer to their subjects than faithful portraiture.
To the trinity, Rajam later added portraits of the composers Swati Tirunal and Purandaradasa (famously, he received a fee of Rs90 for the Swati Tirunal painting—when he had already spent Rs100 on a pair of shoes to wear to its unveiling). All five portraits now hang in the main auditorium of the Madras Music Academy, and the single-panel painting of the trinity has been reproduced endlessly in books and articles.
Rajam’s painting always reminds me of how we know so little about these pillars of Carnatic music that we must depend wholly upon a painter’s imagination to think of them. It is almost as if the entirety of their existence is now contained within the boundaries of their compositions—as if the compositions have created their composers, rather than the other way round. This may have made for an unusually “pure” music—of the sort that is rarely analysed for any authorial intent beyond the spiritual—but it has also introduced a regrettable creative anonymity. Rajam’s painting, for many of us, helps put faces to these hallowed names.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org