Five Songs for the Week — 10

B. Rajam Iyer, Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Hyderabad Brothers and Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer

Vishnu Vasudev
6 min readMay 18, 2024

This post is long overdue. The inspiration for reviving this series is my singing lesson from a few weeks ago. On that morning, my teacher was teaching me three songs, and for some reason, more so than any other week, the lesson felt magical. I felt part of an event that I had little to do with — I was witnessing and being enveloped in something special, but not something I could fully comprehend or control. And so we begin this offering with those three songs. [As an aside, the list of songs that my teacher is in the midst of teaching me is exceedingly long — and that is entirely down to me!]

B. Rajam Iyer — Soundararajam — Brindavana Saranga — Muthuswami Dikshitar

I first discovered and featured this rendition in my post on the many ways in which Dikshitar describes Vishnu as the father of Kama. Unlike the more famous composition in the raga by the same composer — Rangapura Vihara — this composition begins in the lower end of the octave. While it quickly moves up, it maintains is meditative, Dhrupad-like steadfast feel and gait through out. This feeling (for some reason the analogy of excavation, a studied unearthing comes to mind) is accentuated by the deliberate use of the ‘r’ sound at regular intervals, especially in the pallavi and anupallavi.

P: saundara rAja mAshrayE gaja bRndAvana sAraHNga varada rAjam

A: nanda nandana rAjam nAga pattana rAjam sundari ramArAjam suravinutamahirAjam

mandasmita mukhAmbujam mandaradhara karAmbujam nandakara nayanAmbujam sundaratara padAmbujam

C: shambaravairi janakam sannuta shuka shaunakam ambarISAdi viditam anAdi guruguha muditam ambujAsanAdi nutam amarEshAdi sannutam ambudhi garva nigraham anRta jaDa duhkhApaham

kambu viDambana kaNTham khaNDIkRta dashakaNTham tumburu nuta shrIkaNTham duritApaha vaikuNTham

Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna— Eti Janmam Idi Ha — Varali — Thyagaraja

I was always familiar with this song, but everytime I heard it, I thought the singers were having trouble with the song and not enunciating it properly. I thought the ‘Ha’ was an extension of ‘janmamidi’, and would wonder about this strange ending to a word ‘-ha’, which didn’t seem to occur in any other Telugu song. It is only much later that I realized that ‘ha’ was a separate word, and not even an actual word. It is actually used as a sound of exasperation, something akin to an ‘Haai re’, or ‘aiyo’.

Which is completely apt for the utter desolation of the song. It is a song from the ‘opera’ Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam in which Prahalada asks in many different ways, and rhetorically ‘what sort of world is this, in which I cannot see / meet / speak with you…Oh Rama’?. It is natural then that in his utter despair, he is lost for words and has to resort to primordial sound like ‘Ha’. The loss of words is accentuated by the repetition of the pallavi line — ‘Eti Janmam Idi?’ as the anupallavi line, with a minor modification. [Some schools of music circle back to the last line of the anupallavi— ‘Entani Sairintu Ha, O Rama? (how much more should I suffer, O Rama?) at the end of every charanam before circling back to the pallavi line ‘Eti…’.]

Here is an excellent exposition of the song and raga by Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam — Ma Janaki — Kambhoji — Thyagaraja

Learning this song was a real eye-opener. Ma Janaki has always seemed like an innocuous, jaunty, slightly cheeky, relatively simple specimen among the popular kritis in the raga, unlike say ‘O Rangasayi’ or ‘Shri Subramanyaya Namaste’. It is only when I started learning it did I realise that it was no lightweight and can really pack a punch! You may be surprised to learn that the song is not actually addressed to Janaki (Sita), but to Rama. And it is a blunt message that is conveyed to him by Thyagaraja — he essentially attributes all of Rama’s greatness to Sita. In two ways — her centrality to the Ramayana, and because she actively desisted from destroying Ravana on her own, which she very well could have, instead choosing to let Rama make his way to Lanka and corner the glory. In this, he goes well beyond the homily — ‘behind every successful man is a woman’. No wonder the lightness of musical touch — perhaps this was the only way he could think of delivering the message to Rama and getting away with it!

Here is Sanjay Subrahmanyam circa 2005:

Sanjay Subrahmanyam (vocal); Guruvayur Dorai (mridangam); Kumbakionam MR Gopinath (violin); KV Gopalakrishnan (kanjira)

Hyderabad Brothers — Evarani — Devamruthavarshini — Thyagaraja

February brought the sad news of the passing of D. Seshachary of the Hyderabad Brothers duo. I first came across them early in my listening career and their career when they were featured as ‘Young Maestros’ by Music Today. Seshachary was know to have the ‘stronger voice’ of the brothers but over time even his voice lost some of its fullness. This in no way detracted from the musicality of their renditions though, and arguably their music became even more sensitive and refined over the years. I certainly found myself more and more attracted to their music after I rediscovered them over the last few years. This is a piece from perhaps one of the last concert recordings of the duo. The whole concert is superlative. But I was just absolutely captivated by their rendition of Evarani in particular. I will dearly miss their music and do hope Raghavachary continues to perform. The piece starts at the 00:22:37 mark. They are accompanied by B.V. Durgabhavani on the violin, Kotipalli Ramesh on the mridangam M. Haribabu on the ghatam.

Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer— Vara Narada Narayana— Vijayashri— Thyagaraja

This is a piece I have been meaning to share for a while now. I stumbled upon the music of Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer on Youtube quite by accident, and was taken completely by surprise, for many reasons. First, I thought Sambasiva Iyer was from the era of the early decades of the 20th century, so there would be no recordings of his. Second, I associated early and mid-20th century Carnatic music with speed — as the 3 1/2 minute records came into vogue, everyone sang super fast to squeeze in two songs on a plate. Third, for some reason, I associated the Karaikudi baani of veena playing with an aggressive style of playing (as opposed to say the Mysore, Andhra and Travancore baanis). I realized I was thoroughly mistaken on all three counts.

Sambasiva Iyer was indeed most active and famous in the early decades of the century as part of the famous ‘Karaikudi Brothers’ duo with his elder brother, Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer. But the elder brother passed away in 1934 and Sambasiva Iyer lived on to as late as 1958, passing away at the age of 70. He was very active in those last decades, mainly as a guru to stalwarts such as Ranganayaki Rajagopalan and Rajeshwari Padmanabhan, as well as his grand nephew / adopted son Karaikudi Subramanian.

There is nothing aggressive about the music about the music of Karaikudi Samabasiva Iyer or indeed of his two disciples — Ranganayaki Rajagopalan and Rajeshwari Padmandabhan. In fact, I found the music that I heard to be calm, intentful, unhurried and innovative. In this piece he gives the relatively minor raga Vijayashri (known largely by this song) expansive treatment, with a fully developed alapana for about five minutes and a tanam of about six minutes. The playing of tanam before kritis seems to be a regular feature of his method. The gait of the kriti itself is slower than most present day renditions. In all, it is a treat, despite the poor quality of the recording. The piece starts at 00:13:45.

Kariakudi Sambasiva Iyer (veena); Karaikudi Muthu Iyer (mridangam)



Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.