Famous Songs, Forgotten Composer


The Indian Express, September 26, 1994

Dr S. Padmanabhan

The songs Sambo Mahadeva Saranam (Boopalam); Ananda nadamaaduvaar Thillai ambalam thannil (Purvikalyani); Enraikku Sivakirupai varumo (Mukaari) Enna vanthalum naan unnai marapathillai (Kambodhi); ORu naal orupozhuthakilum Sivanai ucharikka venum (Kamas); Vaa vaa kalaimathi (Sankarabaranam); Oraru Mugane (Reethigaulai); Kadaikkan paaraiyya (Darbar); and Sivanai ninai- thu thuthi paadikkol maname (Kambodhi) are very popular songs in Tamil Nadu. But their author --Neelakanta Sivan -- is not so well known.

The composer hailed from old south Travancore, now known as Kanyakumari district. He attained samadhi in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in 1900 on pradosham day in the Tamil month of Aadi. 

Born in 1839 at Vadiveeswaram, a part of Nagercoil, he stayed at Padmanabhapuram, the capital of the old Venad kingdom. His father, Subramanya Iyer, was an official in Neelakantaswamy temple at Padmanabhapuram. His mother was Alagammal.

The parents considered their only male child the blessing of Neelakantaswamy and his consort Anandavalli and so called him Subramanya, after the Divine Couple's son. Subramanya learnt Thevaram, Thiruvasagam, the padams of Muthuthandavar and the Ramanaataka kirtanas of Arunachala Kavirayar in devotional and musical notation, very early in life.

Even as a school boy he used to organise bhajans. He also de- veloped a contemplative bent of mind and often spent long hours in the Neelakantaswamy temple. This tendency grew stronger as he grew up, according to his 90-year-old great granddaughter, Aavudai Ammal, who lives in Karamanai, Thiruvananthapuram.

Subramanya married Lakshmi, daughter of Thanu Iyer, a wealthy man of Kkaramanai, when he was 16.  They had four sons and a daugh- ter. When he was 20 years old he took up government service and became a village magistrate which post he held for 15 years. He used all his spare time for musical and devotional pursuits.

But it is clear that he was not happy with his official routine as is evident from his song Enna vitham pizhaippam in Mukhari, wherein he condemns the all-round corruption in society. After some time, he resigned his job and disappeared from home. It is believed that he had darshan of Siva and Parvathi and received their blessings. There is also the story of devi Anandavalli placing thambulam (betel leaf with nut and lime) in his mouth which inspired him to compose songs.

The first outpourings came in the form of 10 stanzas known as Thiruneelakanta Dasakam (Pandenna pujai yaam saitha payano?), after which he called himself `Neelakanta Daasa'. People who could see divinity in him called him `Neelakanta Sivan.'

He praised Devi Anandavalli in many of his verses: Anandavalli Sathakam, Anandavalli Ashtakam and Anandavalli Chantham. In Thiruneelakanta Botham, he praised Vadiveeswaram as Vadivodu mannumidam Vadiveeswaram and Maathinodu mannudan Vadiveeswarame.

Neelakanta Sivan composed more than 2,000 kirtanas in Tamil. The majority of his compositions are in praise of Lord Siva. But his catholicity is evident from the fact that he considered Lord Siva and Vishnu as equal.

His ragamalika Nathanai nambum pothare in 18 ragas is a rare composition.  Neelakanta Sivan visited several temples all over south India and praised the glory of the respective deities, like the Nayanmars of yore. Some, in fact, consider him to be the 64th Nayanmar of Saivism. All the southern kingdoms of those times invited Neela- kanta Sivan and honoured him.

Like other seers, he called his daughter and sons and told them about the day and time he would leave this world. After singing Thiruvasagam and uttering the words `Mahadeva, Mahadeva', he attained samadhi at the appointed time.

Among the disciples of Neelakanta Sivan was Ramaiah, later known as Papanasam Sivan. When he was studying in the Thiruvananthapu- ram Sanskrit College, Papanasam used to join the bhajans conducted  by Neelakanta Sivan in Karamanai. Papanasam popularised the songs of his guru and also began to compose songs in his style. The language, diction and content of the songs were so similar that people were confused about their authorship.

Seventy-seven years after his death, the Sree Neelakanta Sivan Sangeetha Sabha was founded at Karamanai on March 24, 1977, which day happened to be the birthday of Muthuswamy Dikshitar. This organisations conducts Neelakanta Sivan aradhana music festival every year.

The best way to honour this little-known composed would be to erect memorials at Vadiveeswaram, Padmanabhapuram and Thiruvananthapuram. It is the duty of the government to include his kirtanas in the syllabus of the Music College.


(c) The Indian Express, September 26, 1994. All rights reserved.