Patnam Subramanya Iyer and ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar

2x2 Series, Episode 1

Vishnu Vasudev
7 min readFeb 18, 2024

This is the first instalment of a long-planned series in which I share two compositions each of two non-Trinity Carnatic composers. The OG among these in my opinion is Subbaraya Sastri, of whom I have written earlier.

Patnam Subramanya Iyer

Patnam Subramanya Iyer is the reason that several musicians have been able to claim ‘direct’ musical lineage all the way back to Thyagaraja. Many of these unbroken lines have traversed the Patnam Subramanya Iyer junction. Iyer was born in 1845, a few years before Thyagaraja’s passing. One of his gurus was Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbaiyer, a disciple of Thyagaraja, making him a ‘grand disciple’ of Thyagaraja. In turn, Iyer had many disciples who went on to become stalwart musicians and composers themselves, including Mysore Vasudevacharya, ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar and ‘Tiger’ Varadacharya.

My favourite composition of Iyer’s is Abhimanamennadu Galgu Rama, in the raga Begada. Apparently, Iyer was known for his rendition of the raga, and was also known as ‘Begada’ Srinivasa Iyer. As I have featured the song in several blog posts already, I will leave it aside. I am also going to leave aside what is arguably his most famous composition - Raghuvamsa Sudha in the scale-based raga that he created — Kathakuthuhalam — I find the raga quite annoying. The two pieces I have selected are Valachi Vacchi, a varnam featuring nine ragas, and Rama Ika Nannu in the raga Sahana.

Many of of his 100+ compositions are well known and sung often. Among them are varnams in the ragas Todi (Era Napai), Abhogi (Evari Bodhana) and Saveri (Sarasuda), kritis such as Marivere (in Shanmukhapriya), Marivere again (in Latangi), Ninnu Juchi (in Saurasthram), Nijadasa Varada (in Kalyani), Varamulu Saki (in Kiravani), Garuda Gamana (in Nagaswaravali) and Samayamide Nannu Brova (in Kedaram), and javalis in Behag (Samayamide) and Khamas (Era Rara).

Valachi Vacchi (Navaragamalika)

I have a special affinity for this varnam, as this was the last varnam I had learned from the late, great Seetharama Sarma before setting off for college. In fact, I had not yet learned it fully, and when I was in college in Vermont, I was still listening to the tape that Sarma Sir had provided of about a dozen varnams, to fully memorise the notes. I quickly gained a reputation as a corridor and bathroom singer in my freshman dormitory — most of the time I was singing this varnam.

The nine ragas in order in this varnam are:

  1. Kedaram (pallavi, beginning at Valachi…)
  2. Shankarabharanam (anupallavi, beginning at Chelu…)
  3. Kalyani (mukhtayi swaras, beginning Dha Ni Sa Ri Ga…)
  4. Begada (mukhtayi swaras, beginning Ni Dha Pa Ma…)
  5. Kambhoji (Charanam, ‘Padasarojamula ne nammitini’)
  6. Yadukulakambhodi (1st Chittaswaram passage)
  7. Bilahari (2nd Chittaswaram passage)
  8. Mohanam (3rd Chittaswaram passage)
  9. Sri (4th and final Chittaswaram passage).

I most associate this varnam with ML Vasanthakumari, who seems to have sung it often. Here is a brisk, crisp rendition, as was her wont, from a 1966 LP recroding.

Here is another recording of hers from 1960 at the Madras Music Academy. Unfortunately, it is incomplete and begins with the mukhtayi swaras. However, that lapse is more than compensated for by the swarakalpana passage after the rendition of the varnam itself — Vasanthakumari cycles through all nine ragas in succession.

And finally, this brilliant arrangement by the Madras String Quartet. Comprising the instruments of the classical western string quartet (two violins, a viola and cello), the Madras String Quartet is one of the most successful experiments in melding two traditions, with high fidelity to both.

Early in my Carnatic journey, when I had not fully appreciated that ragas are much more than the scale on which they were based, I found it fascinating that in choosing the ragas for this varnam, Iyer had chosen ragas that were so ‘close’ to each other. For instance Shankarabharanam followed by Kalyani (technically only a difference of a note), Kambhoji and Yadukulakambhoji, and Bilahari and Mohanam. But in some ways, I suppose that was the whole point — to show with close juxtaposition how different they are, despite any technical alliedness. Another thrilling feature was the ‘swarakshara’ treatment of the charanam line — Pada Sarojamula. The notes corresponding to the first three syllables are Pa, Dha and Sa.

Also, in swaras in the final Sri raga passage includes Dha — which in line with the Venkatamakhin / Muthuswami Dikshitar conception of the raga rather than the Govinda / Thyagaraja conception of the raga which elides it. Its intriguing that Thyagaraja’s ‘grand-disciple’ included the note. It either shows a certain broad-mindedness on the part of Iyer, or perhaps the note was added in later by one or the musician and then became the norm.

[Some sources attribute Valachi Vacchi and other varnams like Sarasuda in Saveri raga to Kothavasal Venkatarama Iyer rather than to Patnam Subramania Iyer. Venkatarama Iyer was a guru of Subramania Iyer. The confusion presumably stems from both of them using ‘Venkatesha’ as their signature phrase, or mudra. Subramanya Iyer used other synonymous mudras as well such as Venkateshwara and Varada Venkateshwara.]

Rama Ika Nannu (Sahana)

In theme and vocabulary, this composition, like most of Iyer’s kritis, mirrors a major theme of Thyagaraja’s works — ‘why have you not saved me yet, Rama? Why this lack of compassion?’. Iyer complains to Rama, presumably without any sense of irony, that unlike other devotees, he doesn’t even complain (‘parula vedanu’), so why the delay? A nice touch is the dramatic descent into the lower octave corresponding with the words ‘ghora paapumalanu’ (frightful sins).

This rendition by the Hyderabad Brothers is simple and moving, as is the preceding sketch of the raga. While listed as Hyderabad Brothers, I was able to detect only the voice of D. Seshachari.

‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar

Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar was 15 years younger than Patnam Subramaniam Iyer and one of his prime disciples. Apparently no one quite knows how he got his somewhat unfortunate appellative ‘poochi’, which means insect in Tamil. One theory is that Patnam Subramaniam bestowed these animal-based nicknames on his disciples (hence ‘Tiger’ Varadacharya), but Mysore Vasudevacharya seems to have escaped that fate. Another theory is that it is more to do with his manner and energy — presumably energetic and buzzing about.

As a composer, his range seems to be wider than that of his guru, especially prolific in javalis, tillanas and varnams. Some of his iconic compositions include varnams in Mohanam (Ninnukori, which is the first varnam every beginner begins with), Kalyani (Vanajakshiro) and Kaanada (Nera Nammiti), javalis in Khamas (Jaanaro) and Behag (Nirupamana), and tillanas in Paras and Poornachandrika. Well known kritis include Parthasarathi (in raga Madhyamavati), Neekela Nayeda (Devamanohari) and Parama Pavana (Poorvikalyani).

Iyengar had several disciples, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, credited with instituting the modern 20th century concert format, chief among them.

As with Patnam Subramaniam Iyer, my favourite composition of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar’s happens to be in the raga Begada — Anudinamunu Kavumayya. As I have discussed it previously in my post on the raga, I will leave you with two other songs — a kriti and a javali.

Saraguna Palimpa (Kedaragowla)

As I have noted in a previous post, I tend to think of Kedaragowla as a raga that is not easy to pinpoint — it is not obviously anything — cheerful, energetic, doleful, serious, wistful, romantic or calming. It is however gently and firmly engaging, once it has you in its grip.

Here is a recording of a younger TM Krishna with an expansive rendition of Saraguna Palimpa. The alapana is for about 15 minutes, and the rendition is followed by a tani-avartanam. As with many of Srinivasa Iyengar’s kritis, there is a passage of chittaswaras (composed notes to be rendered as solfa syllables) which TM Krishna renders in two speeds. He then expands the anupallavi line ‘Varaguna Seshadri Varada Venkateshwara’ in neraval, followed by kalpanaswara.

The theme of kriti is fairly typical of the Thyagaraja parampara — this is the time to save me — oh Lord of many great virtues — did you not save X,Y,Z when they asked — now is my turn. Hence references to Gajendra the elephant king (saved from a crocodile) and Prahlada (saved from Hiranyakashipu). Muthuswami Dikshitar’s compositions are noted for their use of very deliberate madhyama kala passages, in which the speed is doubled. Thyagaraja, and his disciple-descendants also play with meter and gait fairly often, perhaps not as explicitly, especially in the charanam passages. For instance, in Thyagaraja’s Edutha Nilachite (Shankarabharanam), the gait suddenly switches at ‘Tarana Dorakani Paraku Nayedanu’; similarly at the charanam line ‘Valayamuganu ranu’ in Rama Ninnu Nammina (Mohanam) and ‘Tamasa Guna Rahita’ in Dorakuna (Bilahari). There is similar treatment over here at the charanam line ‘Satadruthru Pujitha Gajaraajudu Moralidagaa Anugrahincha Leda?’. The effect of a feeling of change in gait is achieved by having more syllables of the lyrics in a given time frame as before. The fact that the note (in this case Ri) is repeated, gives it a nice pulse. Finally, after every fifth interval there is release with expansion of the syllables, giving a sense of syncopation — ‘Sa-ta-dhru-thru-Pu..ji-tha-ga-ja-Ra..ju-du. I love this catchy first line of the charanam, and have now started to annoy my family by repeating it at random moments.

Marulu Konnadira (Khamas)

I have written before of my real discovery of Carnatic music in Vermont, when I was at Middlebury College and the role the record label Nonesuch played. One of their LPs I listened to at the time was a recording of KV Narayanaswamy’s called ‘Dhyanam’. I really fell in love with the raga Khamas and the javali Marulu Konnadira when listening to KVN’s rendition. Javalis are songs that have a themes of love between a nayika and a nayaka, ususally in the voice of the former and addressed to the latter, often at times of involuntary separation or in the midst of a lovers’ tiff. There is always a poignancy attached to being at once besotted and annoyed or angry and forgiving. The genre was likely created for dance, or at any rate, was and continues to be a major part of the dance repertoire. KVN was close to the Veena Dhannammal family, the acknowledged masters of the genre, and is likely to have learnt this song from them.’

I have been unable to find a recording of that album on the net, but here is another rendition of KVN’s of the javali. From the tone of the violin, my guess is the violinist is V. Sethuramiah, disciple of T. Chowdiah, one of the few who continued to play the seven-stringed violin after Chowdiah’s passing.



Vishnu Vasudev

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