Subbaraya Sastri left us almost nothing, and left us everything

A very popular title for Carnatic music albums over the years, in the era in which albums were the financial mainstay of a musician, was Gems of the Trinity and its variants such as Gems of Thyagaraja. The Trinity was the composer trinity: Shyama Shastri, Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar. The gems referred to their most accomplished compositions. This was classic and clever marketing, signaling sure-shot repertoire and serious intent. The novice listener in me took these titles as an unsubtle challenge. They seemed to be saying “look, this is the very best, if you don’t get this, then maybe you are not up to the mark”.

But there is another kind of gem a composer of repute can deliver to the surface of the earth, perhaps more important than any one of their compositions. And this is a disciple. Without the disciple, an earnest, energetic one with many more disciples, all compositional genius is lost to posterity in a largely oral tradition like Carnatic music.

The history of Carnatic music is a history of lineages, of unbroken links. These links are less cold metal and more RNA and DNA, prone to the occasional mis-transcription and misreading, contributing to the to messy and glorious evolution of the art form. These disciples are remembered in gratitude largely for their industrious transmissions.

Some of these disciples however stand out for a second reason — their own discrete contributions to the Carnatic repertoire. Their compositions have not only passed the test of time, but shine singularly, even against the brilliant backdrop of the Trinity.

One, and perhaps the most exemplary such gem was Subbaraya Sastri. Subbaraya Sastri was the second son of the earliest among the Trinity — Shyama Sastri. His father was already over 40 years old when he was born in 1803. He was a disciple of his father, but also remarkably went on to become a disciple of Thyagaraja, and is also said to have learnt a few songs from Muthuswamy Dikshitar. He is the only one known to have studied under all three.

What I find awesome in all this, is that it was apparently Shyama Sastri’s idea to send his son to learn from Thyagaraja — it wasn’t as though young Subbaraya went to Thyagaraja only after his father’s passing in 1827. It takes a large heart and open mind to send your own son to learn your own art from a contemporary. Subbaraya Sastri used the mudra (signature phrase) Kumara in his compositions. Apparently this was because he was born in the Kritika / Karthigai month, associated with the god Muruga / Karthikeya / Kumara. But I’d like to think that it was in homage to his father and first guru (since kumara also means son).

A polished dozen will do

So what does the son of a genius, tutored by him and two other all-time greats do? How does he bear this legacy, this good fortune? Does he hew narrow lines, or does he break out on a completely different path? Does he get confused and overwhelmed in negotiating three different traditions, or is he able to bring it all together? Does he sink under the weight of expectation, or does he use it as ballast to set his own course? Does he propagate, or does he create? Is he prolific as a composer, like his teachers, or does he go into oblivion?

We don’t know his inner world, but his output does not seem to fit neatly into any of these binaries. He creates just a dozen compositions (as far as we know), each in a different raga — Dhanyasi, Mukhari, Shankarabharanam, Reethigowla, Darbar, Thodi, Yadukulakambhoji, Hameerkalyani, Shri, Kalyani, Begada, and DesiyaThodi.

Many of them are so complete and polished, that they arguably stand as among the best, if not the best specimens of the ragas in which they were created. Of course this is subjective, but to my mind, his Janani Ninnuvina and Venkatashaila Vihara are the finest compositions in the ragas Reethigowla and Hameerkalyani. And that his Ninnuvina (Kalyani) and and Sankari Neeve (Begada) are among the absolute finest in those ragas.

I do not have the wherewithal to dissect these compositions from a musicological perspective. [This detailed analysis -PDF download - by an unknown author may be of interest to you].But as a lay listener, the effect that these compositions have on me are two-fold. The first impression is that of an effortless balance and completeness. The compositions seem perfectly proportioned, with a high level of cogency. They seem precisely created to deliver the essence of the raga, not more or less. You don’t remember one phrase or one part more than the other — the joy is not in particular ‘highlights’, but in the whole. More often than not, when I think back on the composition, I don’t recall the specifics, I recall the feeling I had listening to the piece. The second, related, impression I am left with is that I have encountered a work of art that is highly polished, so highly polished as to look effortless, but in fact meticulously crafted.

A few features of Subbaraya’s Sastri’s works is worth calling out. First, eight of the 12 compositions incorporate swara-sahitya. These are passages of notes sung first as solfa-syllables (Sa, Ri, Ga…) and then repeated with lyrics attached. His father Shyama Sastri’s compositions also often included swara-sahitya. These passages in the younger Sastri’s works are real gems — seemingly very simple, but beautifully encapsulating the whole raga. Second, the language seems simple, with familiar words and short syllables, but at least in some songs, there is both alliteration, and the more subtle use of syllable-placement (such as the same sound in the same place in the tala cyle), that adds a certain subtle poetry to the compositions. Third, he seems to experiment with tempo, both within and across songs, not sticking to a particular template.

For all the effortlessly meticulous polish of his compositions, Subbaraya Sastri’s life is full of stories of spontaneous composition. He is said to have sung Ninnuvina for the goddess Dharma Samvardhani when visiting her shrine in Tiruvaiyaru with Thyagaraja, Venkatashaila Vihara when at the Venkateshwara temple in Tirupati, Ninnu Sevinchina (YadukulaKambhoji) for the Parthasarathi deity in Triplicane, and Emani Ne (Mukhari) for the deity in Kanchipuram while visiting his in-laws. Whether apocryphal or true, these stories, and the relative sparseness of his canon, indicate that he carried his genius and legacy lightly and truly.

The perfect vehicle

Enough preamble. Let’s listen to these compositions. This whole post was triggered by my pondering one rendition of one song. There is a Charsur Digital Works album “Paddhatti”, featuring a concert by vocalist Voleti Venkateswarulu, accompanied by Karaikudi Mani on the mridangam and Lalgudi GJR Krishnan on the violin. He sang Janani Ninnuvina, and it left such an impact on me that I listened to this song again and again for months on end.

I realized later that many of my favourite renditions of Subbaraya Sastri’s compositions were by Voleti. This is not surrprising. If Sastri exemplifies balance, essence and polish in composition, then Voleti was the torchbearer or these same virtues in delivery. The overall sense of fluidity and effortlessness seeps through. This is as close to art for art’s sake as music gets.

So here are links to nine Subbaraya Sastri compositions. Where I have been able to, I provide links to Voleti’s renditions of them. In addition, I’ve tried to provide links to an instrumental rendition, and of one other vocal rendition.

Happy listening!

1. Janani Ninnuvina (Reethigowla)

The more extensive Charsur Digital Works recording is not available freely online, but here is Voleti singing the song, accompanied by the violinist M.S. Gopalakrishnan (other accompanists unknown).

And here is M.S. Gopalakrishnan’s own rendition, from a 1978 concert at the NCPA, Mumbai. He is accompanied by Kutralam Viswanatha Iyer on the mridangam. He begins the piece with an alapana.

The classic Parur style of short bow strokes work beautifully to accentuate the languid phrases of the song. Note also that he plays the swara-sahitya in two speeds. I also love the non-intuitive mridangam accompaniment — surprisingly ‘packed’ but unobtrusive.

And here is an excerpt from a 2011 concert by Cherthalai Ranganatha Sarma (who is some uncanny ways resembles Voleti), accompanied by S. Varadarajan on the violin and J. Vaidhyanathan on the mridangam. Surprisingly, he jumps straight into an extensive passage of madhyama-kala (medium tempo) swara improvisation after the piece.

2. Venkatashaila Vihara (Hameerkalyani)

Voleti sings this Hameerkalyani piece towards the end of this concert: http://www.sangeethamshare.org/manjunath/Carnatic/Audio/UPLOADS-601-900/638-vOlEti_venkatEShwarulu-vocal/

To listen, you will have to go through a one-click login process using a Google or Yahoo id, and then click on link to the seventh piece. He is accompanied by Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin and Vellore Ramabhadran on the mridangam.

I was in 11th or 12th standard, when Music Today came out with a whole array of Carnatic and Hindustani music albums. These tapes played a big role in getting me started as a listener, and this rendition of Venkatashaila Vihara by Doreswamy Iyengar as part of his “Maestro’s Choice” album was and remains one of my absolute favourite pieces of Carnatic music. He is accompanied by Vellore Ramabhadran on the mridangam, another favourite artiste of mine (except for the fact that he refused to accompany female artistes). There is something so clean and perfect about a single melodic instrument being accompanied by a single percussion instrument.

And finally, a live concert version by the Malladi brothers. Preceded and followed by alapana and kalpanaswaras.

3. Shankari Neeve / Shankari Neevani (Begada)

In my post on Begada, I had shared renditions of this song by M.L. Vasanthakumari (vocal) and N. Ramani. Here is Voleti, who absolutely excelled in Begada.

One of the early validations of M.S. Subbulakshmi’s talent is when Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer is said to have told the girl “you carry the veena in your throat”. But of course, she also played the veena. Here she is, with the great vainika K.S. Narayanaswamy playing Shankari Neeve. It doesn’t really sound like two veenas. Either their sangathis (variations of a line) matched to a tee or one was playing second-veena to the other. They are unaccompanied by percussion in this recording.

And here is S.Sowmya’s rendition:

4. Ninnuvina (Kalyani)

There are of course countless compositions in Kalyani, and many by the Trinity. And yet I find myself drawn to the simple openness of Subbaraya Sastri’s Ninnuvina. Here is Voleti with an expansive rendition, with a beautiful alapana:

Note that the first line of the swara-sahitya highlights the panchama-vajra (without Pa) prayoga, which is so characteristic of Kalyani.

And here is Jayanthi Kumaresh on the veena. She starts with a short alapana, but moves quickly into a tanam, before launching into Ninnuvina.

One singer who has made this his song over the years is Sanjay Subrahmanyam, having recorded it for different albums.

5. Meena Nayana Neevu (Darbar)

This is a rarely performed song of Subbaraya Sastri. I heard it for the first time (as far as I can recall) when researching this post. And I found a delightful, no nonsense rendition by Dr. Pinakapani. This is one of the four songs without swara-sahitya.

And here is a version by Rama Ravi.

6. Ninnu Sevinchina (Yadukulakambhoji)

Here is Sanjay Subrahmanyam again with Ninnu Sevinchina.

I was curious to see how a G.N. Balasubramaniam, known for his ‘fast’ virtuosity would have handled a leisurely song like this, and was not disappoined. The fast brighas (quick melodic movements, similar to fast taans in Hindustani music) are present, but the serenity of the piece is left intact.

And one final version, this time by S. Ramanathan:

7. Vanajasana Vinuta (Shri)

This seems to have been a favourite of M.D.Ramanathan — he has sung it multiple times, and equally, he seems to have been one of the only musicians to render this song! So here are two recordings — the first with a substantial alapana before the song, and one with a substantial kalpanaswara improvisation after the song.

8. Dalachina Varu (Dhanyasi) and 9. Emani Ne (Mukhari)

It would be fitting to leave you with a pair of songs by T. Brinda. Subbaraya Sastri taught the legendary dancer Kamakshi, who was the grandmother of the equally legendary musician Veena Dhanammal. After Dhanammal, arguably the foremost torchbearer of her school of music was her granddaughter T. Brinda (along with her sister T. Muktha). T. Brinda was also a disciple of Naina Pillai, who in turn was the son and nephew respectively of Kanchipuram Kamakshi and Kanchipuram Dhanakoti. Both sisters were disciples of Kachi Sastri, son-in-law and disciple of Subbaraya Sastri. So the musical legacy of Subbaraya Sastri, flowing through two distributaries, converged at T.Brinda. It would be safe to assume that many of the renditions above were influenced either directly or indirectly by T. Brinda’s music.

Here is her rendition of Dalachina Varu in Dhanyasi. The song is preceded by an alapana.

And the same song by Aishwarya Vidhya Raghunath:

And here is her rendition of Emani Ne Nee Mahima in Mukhari, rarely heard these days.

And finally, a rendition of the same song by the inimitable Balamuralikrishna. [Note that it is part of an album titled ‘Thyagaraja Krithis’, which tells you all you need to know about the attention to detail in music publishing, at least once upon a time in India].

Thanks for listening!

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