Sri Palghat Rama Bhagavatar
(By Gana Kalanidhi Dr. Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar)
(This is a translation by Sandhya Vinjamuri-Giri of the article written by Gana Kalanidhi Dr. Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar in Telugu)
In the year 1935 A.D, after completing my B.A examinations, I went to Madras for the summer vacation. I have already mentioned (in another article on Papanasam Sivan) that during that time I had the good fortune of meeting Sri Papanasam Sivan. During those times, Sri Palghat Rama Bhagavatar's music performances used to be held frequently in Music Sabhas. Many audiences, who were interested in listening to the traditional music, used to enjoy his divine music. Rama Bhagavatar would sing according to the old tradition, without singing too many songs, just four or five Kritis from the compositions of the musical trinity, Thyagaraja Swamy, Muthuswamy Deekshitar and Shyama Sastry. He would give more importance to Neraval and Kalpana Swarams. The concert commences with a Varnam. After singing the Kritis he would sing Ragam Tanam Pallavi. For the Raga elaboration, he would chose one of Bhairavi, Thodi, Kalyani, Sankarabharanam, Saveri or Dhanyasi and elaborates it for a long time. After singing weighty (Ghanam) Tanam and the Pallavi set either to Adi Talam or Rupaka Talam or Triputa Talam he would give the Mridangist a chance to show his expertise. After that he would sing a Slokam, a Padam, a Javali, a Tillana and a Thiruppuzal and conclude the concert with Mangalam. By then it would be more than four-hour performance. Bhagavatar was very traditional. He would not drink coffee or soda in the middle of the concert. His was a Tri-Sthayee (three octaves) Sareeram (voice). The audiences would sit spellbound when he sings Sarvalaghu Swarams.
Sri Parameswara Bhagavatar was a famous musical maestro who was the court musician at the palace of Sri Swathitirunal Maharaja of Tiruvancore. His son and disciple was Nurni Mahadeva Bhagavatar and his disciple was Nurni Anantharama Bhagavatar. The famed Violinist Palghat Anantharama Bhagavatar is the same person.
Our Rama Bhagavatar, in the beginning, learnt music from his older brother Venkatakrishna Bhagavatar and, by his good fortune, became the disciple of Sri Anantharama Bhagavatar. He had twelve years of rigid training under him as a live-in disciple and started performing from the age of twenty-four and soon earned unsurpassed fame all over India. For about half a century, he gave enjoyment to many an audience. He was a handsome man and he had a tuft. He was a man of few words. He would neither insult anyone nor would criticize anyone. He was a Rama Bhaktha. He always recited the Rama Namam. We can say that he was non-egotistic. I will write a few words about my association with him and conclude this article.
During the years 1936 - 37 A.D, I studied for the Diploma in Indian Music, conducted by the University of Madras under the guidance of Sriman Tiger K Varadachariar. At that time, Sriman Tiger taught us the vocal music. Professor Sambamurthy was the professor of the Theory of Music, Sri Parur Sundaram Iyer was the professor of Violin and Sri Udayavarma Raja, who was from the lineage of the Veena musicians from the court of Cochin Palace, was for Veena. In our vocal music class there was a person called Sri K. S. Viswanatha Iyer. When he worked as the excise Inspector in Palghat, he became the disciple of Sri Palghat Rama Bhagavatar. Sri Viswanatha Iyer used live with his family in a large building near the place where I used to live. I used to go to their house every Sunday. In one particular week (when I went there), Sri Rama Bhagavatar was sitting on a mat in their house. When he saw me, he invited me into the house. When I went in, Sri Bhagavatar made me sit next to him. Then, Sri Viswanatha Iyer introduced me to Sri Bhagavatar. Sri Bhagavatar had only one son (Seshamani - at that time) and he asked his son to fetch the Tambura. After setting the Sruthi, he asked me to sing a song. In the beginning I was a little frightened. But, he encouraged me and asked me to sing. Then, I sang Darbar Ragam and then sang the Saint Thyagaraja Kriti "Mundu Venuka Iruprakkala Thodai" set to Adi Talam. I finished the kriti by singing Kalpana Swaras in two Kalas at the charanam " O' Gajarakshaka, O' Rajakumara". He asked Seshamani to write down the kriti saying that the singing was traditionally perfect. As I sang again and again, he set the swaras and made his son write down that kriti. This incident was the result of my good deeds in my past life! He blessed me whole-heartedly!
There is a village called Kalpathi in Kerala. There is a Mandir called Srirama Dhyana Mandiram there. As they do in Thiruvaiyyar, every year, Sri Rama Bhagavatar would conduct a three-day Thyagaraja Aradhana festival there in Kalpathi Srirama Dhyana Mandiram. He invited me for ten consecutive years (to the festival) and made me sing there. All the famous musicians used to participate in that festival. T. Chowdiah played accompaniment for me a number of times. One day, he told me that his violin has improved by playing for Sri Palghat Rama Bhagavatar. The then Presidency Magistrate Sri L. R. Venkataraman once commented to me that Rama Bhagavatar's music is what is called " Brahmananda Sangeetham".
All the following people played Violin accompaniment to Sri Rama Bhagavatar.
Tiruchi Govinda Swamy Pillai, Kumbakkonam Rajamanikyam Pillai, T. Chowdiah, Papa Karur Venkatarama Iyer, C. R. Mani Iyer. Sri Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu used to say "if you want me to play accompaniment, put me for Palghat Rama Bhagavatar".
Among the great people who played Mridangam were Pudukkotai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Azaghanambi Pillai, Thanjavore Vaidyanatha Iyer, and Chattapuram Palghat Subba Iyer. T. S. Mani Iyer himself told me that he participated in Sri Bhagavatar's final performances.
One day, after taking the bath in the Kalpathi River and while performing the ritual of the Sandhya Vandanam, his soul reached the heavenly abode. All those who heard this sad news had wetness in their eyes. The Sankarabharanam that he sang thirty years ago cannot be forgotten even today. Music world had lost a musical giant. He was famous during the time of people like Koneriraja Puram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer and Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar. Many people may not know that Sri Rama Bhagavatar belonged to the lineage of the disciples of Sri Thyagaraja Swamy. He, for sometime, was a student of Sri Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer and learnt a lot of (Thyagaraja) Swamy's kritis. Sri Swaminatha Iyer was the son of Umayalpuram Sundara Bhagavatar. Sri Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer was a co-student of Sri Rama Bhagavatar. Sangeetha Kalanidhi Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer also learnt some kritis from Sri Rama Bhagavatar. I just had the good fortune of visiting him only. The opportunity to write this essay is my good fortune. He was slim and tall and used to wear Vesti and an ungavastram. Sri Swaminatha Iyer, Sri Venkatarama Iyer and Sri Rajagopala Iyer were his sons and I had close contact with two of them. The Thyagaraja Swamy kritis sung by the vidwans today is the alms given by Umayalpuram Sundara Bhagavatar and Rama Bhagavatar who protected them and given them to the world of music. These two people set the swaras (tuned) as (Thyagaraja) Swamy sang, and propagated them.