Reminiscences: K Sambasiva Iyer and Mysore Vasudevachar
- Karaikudi S Subramanian, Chennai

March 18, 2008

It is a joy to reflect how you were and what you saw and experienced at the age of fourteen. I am not going to enter into a psychological analysis probing the minds of a boy of fourteen just as Tagore did. Prompted, and more precisely, commanded by my school teacher, whom everyone at my age in Kalakshetra called, affectionately or perhaps with reverence to 'terror,' Sundari teacher, I am writing this article under pressure, the pressure of love, the pressure of affection and the pressure over the rights of a teacher over her ward who is now entering the realms of senior citizens. What the readers can expect in this article is some narration, hopefully interesting enough at least, on a segment in the lives of two of the greatest maestros in the history of Carnatic music, at Kalakshetra. The two musicians were the gems of purest ray serene, the visionary Rukmini Arundale picked and adorned the altar of Kalakshetra in the fifties. They were the illustrious Mysore Vasudevachar, the well-known composer who was in the court of Mysore and Karaikudi Veenai Sambasiva Iyer, the first National Award winner, the seventh generation veena player, my grand uncle and adoptive father. This article is not meant to be exhaustive, neither the anecdotal narration balanced.

I was twelve when my parents, Veenai Lakshmi Ammal and Narayana Iyer, decided to give me in adoption to her uncle Sambasiva Iyer, who was concerned about the continuity of our tradition. I was the only male family member playing veena at that time among all of his grandnephews. So, perhaps I was his natural choice. But at the same time, he was also hesitant because he did not have any property for me to inherit. Whenever there was such a dilemma, it was his way to wait for the 'divine consent.' He would sit for hours before the altar after his regular pooja, waiting for some signal which he could interpret as 'yes' or 'no' to whatever was concerning him at that time. S Sethuraman, secretary of the Perambur Sangeetha Sabha writes in the Music Academy journal (1952): "Most of us know that because of his insouciance for his own popularity after the demise of his elder brother, (Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer) he refused to accept the repeated invitations of this Academy for many years and at last he agreed to preside only due to the 'divine command' he got from the idol of his daily worship." Also in this case, in the question of adopting me, he waited for such a signal from his deity. Only after such a 'spiritual command' did he approach my parents, who did not take too long a time to decide. It was an 'emotional ceremony' at Kalakshetra, in June 1957, when all of our relatives and friends gathered for the religious rites performed by my granduncle and me in becoming father and son.

Kalakshetra, in the 1950s, was situated in idyllic surroundings in the Theosophical Society premises in Adyar, near the beach. Sambasiva Iyer lived in a prototype of a village tiled house with piols in front with two shining teak benches on either side, where he would be found when he was not on his rounds or his pooja, with "betel leaf-nuts-tobacco-silver mortar" specially designed by him for his intermittent chewing. The students of Kalakshetra came there to learn.

Living there was like living in a hermitage. Though he was my adoptive father, there was not the kind of intimacy that exists between a father and son. A rather intense spiritual atmosphere prevailed there. The main hall was full of the things he needed for his daily pooja. It gave the feeling of the 'sanctum sanctorum' of a temple. He would be either involved in doing his pooja, teaching his students, or working on some composition. But he seldom talked to anyone except when there were important visitors.

Early every morning, he woke me up at 4.45am so I could go to the neighboring pooja hall to tune the veenas for students to practice, followed by my own practice. Opposite the pooja hall, the 'mirror cottage' (as it was called due to the huge wall size mirror for the dancers to observe themselves while practicing) would be scheduled for dance practice. It would have been a wonderful experience for anyone listening to the students of music practicing and the footwork of the dance students at such early hours. After an hour and a half of veena practice, my responsibility was to collect sweet smelling flowers 'worthy' to be offered to God, like paarijatham, magizhamboo, roses, arali and so on. Before starting to pick flowers, it was also my duty to carry a strip of paper with Vedic chants, especially sookthams and sandhyavandana mantras, to be memorized that day. That was the most enjoyable part of the day for me. He insisted that I learnt all mantras with proper svarasthanas, udhata, anudhata and svarita. He appointed a purohit to teach me. I had to perform sandhyavandanam, thrice a day, and samitadhanam, every morning and evening with the fallen twigs picked by me from the Theosophical Society's famous banyan tree. I was also at times asked to bring the "divine nectar-like water" from the well at the Brahma Samaj temple at the Theosophical Society for his pooja.

He made me practice veena between eight and ten hours daily. Sometimes he made me practice when I was supposed to go to school. (This was the reason why Sundari teacher, my geography teacher at Kalakshetra, invariably gave me zero for my exam paper!). Though my granduncle never told me, I knew he did not like my going to school; he rather preferred me to be just a performer. He particularly liked me to play veena while he was doing his pooja, which lasted for four hours. Apart from the initial exercises, he taught me five gitams of which the one in Nattai raga was the most complex. But he would not sit at his veena with me to teach; instead he would correct me by singing. As I learned the gitams, he made me practice all those I had learnt so far in four degrees of speed, with gamakas, without stopping anywhere in the middle. If I did stop after a mistake, I had to start from the beginning! It was arduous indeed! But in due course, that became a ritual for me.

The year after Sambasiva Iyer (aged 64 then) got his National Award (1952) along with Ariakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Allaudin Khan Sahib and Mustaq Hussein Khan Sahib from Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, he was invited by Rukmini Arundale to be the principal of Kalakshetra. I never saw Sambasiva Iyer go anywhere except for solitary walks in the morning and evening within the Kalakshetra campus. The only place he visited was when he wanted to have "darshan" of Mahaperiyaval, His Holiness Sri Sankaracharya of Kamakoti Pitam. He was blessed on one such visit with a golden shawl, sadhara. He cherished it as a priceless gift. He did not make visits to any other religious order and rarely even visited temples. Sambasiva Iyer rather chose where he would go for worship and where he would perform. He had immense faith in Sri Sankaracharya's teachings and his single-minded devotion to Kamakoti Pitam was exceptional. He invariably played on the veena as his offering to the Sankaracharya.

Mysore Vasudevachar (at the age of 90!) was invited to Kalakshetra to head the music department! He was later given the designation of Vice President. There was an unexpressed friendship between Sambasiva Iyer (KSI) and Vasudevachar (MV). MV visited him every now and then with the help of his grandson Rajaram, during his evening strolls. He used to sing his compositions for KSI. Both enjoyed such sessions. MV valued his comments. Both of them enjoyed the affection of the entire Kalakshetra community. MV was affectionately called "Pacha Thaathaa" (green grandfather!) while KSI was called "Sigappu Thaathaa" (red grandfather!) as they wore green and red silk togas (angavastram) respectively whenever they were officially dressed.

It was such a sight whenever great personalities such as Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Bhoodaloor Krishnamurthy Sastrigal, Ariakkudi Ramanuja Iyenger, GNB, G T Sastri, Mudikondan Venkatarama Iyer, S Balachander and so on visited him periodically. Within Kalakshetra, the visionary and founder, Rukmini Arundale, and the austere Sarada often visited him. The conversations between KSI and others were charged with respect, reverence and great vibrations. That would have been a great moment for anyone who happened to be present there.

Whenever Peria Sharada visited him she would talk about music and request his comments. If she asked KSI about the characteristics of a raga or about a raga sung in a concert, he would say: "Go and ask Vasudevachar." Sarada would reply, "I asked him, thatha, but I want your views on this." He would retort, "What did Vasudevachar say about it?" After hearing from Sarada about the views of Vasudevachar, KSI would respond with, "I cannot talk about such things. He is the right person. But let me tell you my way." He would instantly bring his veena and begin playing the raga and demonstrate the point. There would be no more questions after hearing him perform.

After listening to a concert, Sarada would go to him with questions to clear her doubts. Sarada recollects that KSI had always been generous minded. He would only highlight on what was good about the performance. If Sarada persisted in hearing his critical views on a mediocre performance, for example, KSI would contribute to the conversation saying how the performance ought to be, rather than how bad it was. KSI only added positive values to any observation, says Sarada with emphasis. "Sambasiva Iyer would not talk ill of other artistes, not at all."

Once, S Balachander visited KSI. They had a warm conversation. Later, Balachander gave a veena recital. After the performance, when Sarada asked KSI's comments on Balachander's performance, he remarked, "His fingers are capable of "speaking" anything he wishes. It is very rare to find such a person." Later Sundari, just for the fun of it, again asked for his comments on Balachander. But KSI, asked her with a smile, "Did you hear what I said from Sarada?" Then he would give exactly the same reply he gave Sarada, not a word different! Such was KSI's conviction about art and artists. He would not give different replies to different people! On any special function at Kalakshetra, he would carry his veena himself and offer to perform without any fuss. All the people in Kalakshetra would be present there to hear him perform. Such was the reverence in Kalakshetra for him.

There were visitors all the time to see him, some known and some not. He would meet them only after he knew about them thoroughly. Sometimes, there were reporters wanting to interview him. He would seldom talk, but if he chose to express his view, he ensured that his views were correctly reported. He had great respect for the administration. He was very humble and obeyed all the rules and regulations stipulated. As an administrative head, Sankara Menon used to visit him quite often to see that he was comfortable. Whenever, Sundari came to him as a follow up on Sankara Menon, with some administrative questions such as signing in the attendance register and so on, he would not show off as the boss of the School of Arts. He was most obliging.

But KSI's reverence was always for the erudite scholars and great performers. The day prior to his performance, he would have "discussed" (performed) the raga with Sarada. During his performance, he would look at Sarada with a communicative smile when he played that something special. One would be sure to find his eyes searching for two people in the audience! One was Sankara Menon and another was Peria Sharada, the great scholars of Kalakshetra! From the audience, Sankara Menon would nod in recognition of the special prayoga KSI performed. When KSI would be searching for Sarada, she would instantly stand up whenever she was in the audience, in response. KSI's mind was like a computer, says Sundari teacher. "He had everything stored in his mind and he could recall whenever it was needed."

MV had a child's heart when it came to music and students of music, but he had a certain protocol with the administration when any one wanted to interact with him. This was not noticeable to anyone but to the discerning. Although KSI was never used to a school atmosphere before coming to Kalakshetra, he seemed to have a flair for the students, irrespective of their musical background. Although he was not expected to, he would go on rounds to see whether a dance, vocal or instrumental class was being conducted properly. The teachers became alert when he made his rounds. Due to his age and his caliber as the foremost of artists in his field, he was not expected to supervise everyday. But he did it quite conscientiously and quite naturally too. In this respect, he was the most fitting principal in those times.

Whenever MV composed tunes to the dance dramas of Kalakshetra he preferred not to have anybody around him. But he respected Sarada's views, which went through Pasupathy or Rajaram who sang for Sarada to elicit her views. Sometimes MV would retune certain portions, taking the critical comments of Sarada. Both the maestros had great respect for Sarada as a scholar, and a great flair for teaching. But there was a difference. While MV would teach his compositions (even out of scheduled times) to first rate musicians such as Pasupathy, Mani Krishnaswamy, Raman, Lakshmanan, Rajeswari Padmanabhan and so on, KSI would teach even whose who showed very little signs of musicality. There is no parallel, says Sundari teacher, to KSI's passion for educating the "ordinary" and making them musical. He had taught many dance students who were very weak in laya and had little musicality. He gave hope to the hopeless. He believed in contributing to the needy. In this sense, it is appropriate to say that he was an artist for art sake.

It was an enlightening, learning experience for anyone to see how both the maestros moved with each other with such refinement and finesse. In normal circumstances, Rajaram would be walking his grandfather through the campus of Kalakshetra at the Theosophical Society. Sometimes KSI and Vasudevachar would have a stroll together. At such times, KSI would hold his hands and walk along with him. KSI would not sit when MV was standing.

There was a certain inborn dignity about both of them. The gait of KSI would be so majestic, his clothes, and his demeanor. Both of them also shared the austere values in religious life. Their uprightness, austerity, and great accomplishment in their arts gave them a natural dignity, whenever they were in the company of political greats like Atlee, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dalai Lama, Nasser, Radhakrishnan, Sriprakasha and other such luminaries of his times. On such occasions, their meetings had been a visual feast when they visited Kalakshetra.

Although KSI had a flair for teaching and took a position as the principal in Kalakshetra, he was against the examination system. He believed that there wouldn't be any mean between zero and hundred when it came to evaluation. "Can you give 90% just because the student fell short of the correct pitch and the correct laya only by a few degrees?" he queried the examiner with a chuckle. He used to say that music was like mathematics in this respect. He would credit the student for the effort, for the process in making the music and not the product. When it came to the evaluation of the product, he was very stringent. But he never discouraged anyone. Almost all the time, Sarada was witness to this drama of evaluation. But when it was insisted upon that he had to give marks for the student's performance, he would refer to Sarada's evaluation first and then add up to an average of the other examiners. Such was the trust and respect he had for Sarada's erudition.

Once, a Russian ballet was organized under the auspices of Kalakshetra. Rukmini Devi was particular that KSI should attend the performance. It was arranged at the Museum Theatre. After his regular Sandhyavandanam he was brought to the Museum Theatre. He was there in the front row, very attentive to the performance. But for some reason, Sarada looked askance at him every now and then. She was curious to know how KSI reacted to the Western ballet. If someone else observed Sarada observing KSI, he would have found her smiling often. Whenever the dancers on stage lifted their feet off the ground, KSI would look down and not straight up! As usual, later Sarada did not hesitate to ask KSI how he felt about the ballet. He said in his inimitable style but with some coyness, "The dancers were pure and were absolutely accurate. They must have done tremendous practice for this perfect coordination. But…but…of course, there is nothing like our Bharatanatyam!" Seeing the embarrassment writ on his face, Sarada gave a satisfied smile as if she knew what he meant.

"He never cared for money," says Sundari teacher. "He was a worshipper of Devi and he led a life commensurate with his religious practice. There was no dichotomy between what he expressed and what he did".

He was a lover of animals and reptiles including serpents. In a sense, he was an environmentalist. He was against killing animals. He held Rukmini Devi in high esteem especially for her animal welfare scheme. The older premises of Kalakshetra - the Theosophical Society's space - was virtually a snake farm. Just as D H Lawrence enjoyed and was fascinated by the movement of a serpent, KSI would watch a snake move. But for him it was like a gamaka! He would ask Padmasani whether the vettiyan took care of the serpents and did not kill them for any silly reason.

I cannot forget the last phase of KSI's life. One evening in June 1958, after the usual visit to Dr. Gopalan (for he was suffering from throat cancer), he was sitting in the interior part of the house. He suddenly got up and went to the porch with a flashlight and seemed to be searching for something. He did not even tell his wife immediately what had happened. After some time, he quite casually informed his wife that there was a cobra lying beneath the bench on the porch, and he asked her to instruct the vettiyan there to leave it in the nearby woods. He insisted that they should not kill the cobra. But the vettiyan could not help killing it. When he came to know about it, he became perturbed and restless. He wanted to leave Kalakshetra premises. Sethurama Iyer offered his residence in Mylapore to move into. There he performed religious rites in penance for killing the cobra. He became conspicuously silent after the event.

One day be beckoned to me and asked me through sign language to bring his veena. I had never played his veena before. I had a peculiar feeling within me as I took it to him. He motioned me to sit and handed the veena to me saying, "From now on, this is yours." He was emotional. I was trembling inside. From then on, I practiced on his veena, which had become mine.

Probably he wanted to see his mission completed by having me perform a concert. But I was still in the initial stages of learning. My first 'concert' appearance happened this way. Once he played with my sister Rajeswari for the Kapali temple festival. That was the last concert he played. At the end of the concert, very much to my surprise, he instructed me to take his veena and perform the Vedic chant, Durga Suktham, he had taught me. That was symbolic of seeing me perform a concert, also telling me in silence that without the prayerful attitude, music is not worthy of performance. He seemed unusually calm and relaxed after that event. It was a feeling of fulfillment - he had passed on his tradition in the sanctity of the temple with the audience witnessing the ceremony! But he did not live long enough to hear me really perform. The grueling cancer took its toll. On August 5, 1958, he passed away while his disciple Ramaswamy Sastry and I played "Durga Suktham" on the veena. Many musicians in Madras had already assembled in front of his quarters in the Kalakshetra campus, hearing of his last moments. There were many articles about him in the national papers. During my short period with him, I never knew really how great he was. Only after his death did I realize how much he meant to the world of music!


Karaikudi S Subramanian is the director of Brhaddwani and an acclaimed musician.


An edited version of the above article is featured in NIRMALAM: THE GENIUS OF S SARADA published in Dec 2005 by Anita Ratnam for Arangham Trust in celebration of Kalakshetra guru S Sarada's 90th birthday.