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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1588

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer passes away: the end of an era

By Ranjani Rao: Indo-Asian News Service

Chennai, Nov. 01, (IANS): He spent almost eight decades mesmerising thousands with his music.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, that giant among Carnatic classical vocalists, is no more but his music will ring in their hearts forever, said sorrowful music lovers.

The great master died here Friday after a brief illness at the age of 95.

"It is the end of an era," said N. Balasubramanian, in his 60s, an ardent follower of classical music and a fan of the musician, popularly known by the name of the Tamil Nadu village he hailed from: Semmangudi.

"His was grand, wholesome, chaste classical music but it appealed to the masses as well. He could move you to tears with his singing," Balasubramaniam, whose daughters Ranjani and Gayatri are popular duet vocalists, violinists and fans of the maestro, told IANS.

Born in 1908, Semmangudi's rise up the musical ladder was meteoric. He entered the league of "top" vocalists Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer barely six to seven years after he gave his first concert in 1927.

Semmangudi went on to receive the prestigious title "Sangita Kalanidhi", the musical treasure, conferred by the Madras Music Academy at the young age of 39. "Music Academy", as the institution is popularly known here, awards the title to senior musicians for a lifetime of dedicated service to the art form.

He was awarded the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan by the government of India and the Kalidasa Samman by the Madhya Pradesh government.

Semmangudi is known for his research on the compositions of Swati Thirunal(1813-1847), the composer king of Travancore. He had served as the court musician in the kingdom and Principal of the Swati Thirunal Academy of Music in Thiruvananthapuram between 1941 and 1963.

His extensive knowledge of the theory of music also made him a popular guru.

"He was a great teacher," said V. Subrahmaniam, a leading vocalist in Chennai, a disciple of the maestro since 1946.

Semmangudi's list of disciples is long and star- studded. Probably the most famous among them is diva M.S. Subbulakshmi, also a Sangeeta Kalanidhi and a Bharat Ratna (the highest civilian award in India).

Others include violinist T.N. Krishnan and vocalist T.M. Thiagarajan, both Sangita Kalanidhis, P. S. Narayanaswamy a senior musician, Kallidakurichi S. Harihara Iyer, Parasala Ponnammal, K. Omanakutty, Neyyatinkara Vasudevan and T.M. Krishna among others.

"He never charged a penny from me. Students earning the Government of India Scholarship for classical music had to pay him. He saved all that money in separate accounts and returned it to the student after the scholarship period was over," Subrahmaniam added.

The maestro has been lauded for having female violinists as co-artistes, a bold step at a time when male chauvinism was the order of the day.

"I was lucky to have performed with him," acknowledged noted violinist T. Rukmini. "I have played for many leading musicians but accompanying him required a special skill. I improved a lot under his guidance. His music would stimulate mine and he said mine stimulated his."

Known as the "Pitamaha" or grandsire of Carnatic music, Semmangudi was also supportive of female vocalists carving a niche for themselves.

"It is a tremendous step forward, this emergence of women as equals of men in this male-dominated field. Women musicians initially did not attempt much improvisation and avoided the challenge of difficult aspects of music. With the advantage of naturally sweet voices, they are now overtaking men in every way," he once told a leading daily.

To him the secret of enduring music was devotion. "Musicians should be charged with bhakti. That enlivens one's music and ensures that it endures."

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