Reminiscences of a Sangeetha Acharya

Ashok Madhav (

Mysore Vasudevachrya reminisces his impressions as a student during his gurukulavasam with Patnam Subramania Iyer at Tiruvaiyaru in the 1880's.

Young Vasudeva arrived at Tiruvaiyaru to pursue his musical training from Patnam Subramania Iyer with the blessings and support of the Maharaja of Myosre, Chamarja Wodeyar. When he first landed in Tiruvaiyaru, not knowing the exact address, he knocked on the door of a certain house. A dignified man opened the door and Vasu asked him for directions to Patnam Subramania Iyer's house. The man suddenly became red-faced with rage and slammed the door on Vasu's face. It turned out the man was none other than Maha Vaidynatha Iyer- a musician of high repute. Undaunted, in spite of the initial set back, Vasu found the right house where Patnam was living and underwent gurukulavasam. It was only much later that Vasu realized, there was tremendous rivalry between these great stalwarts.

Upon seeing his guru Patnam Subramania Iyer, Vasu prostrated before him by doing the shastanga namaskaram and sought his blessings. Vasu was eager and enthusiastic to learn music from his famed master. However, music lessons were not forthcoming initially. Several months passed by. All Vasu did during this period, was to align his guru's tambura to the proper sruti, and listen to his guru teach another pupil-Parameshwara Iyer and also attend his guru's concerts. Vasu being timid by nature, did not have the courage to ask his guru to start teaching him. Patnam was aware of his disciple's enthusiasm, but he put off by telling him that he would soon get his opportunity.

One fine morning, the guru surprised Vasu by telling him that would teach him his own Ata tala varnam- Marachitlindedi maragadura in raga Begada- his favorite raga. Vasu picked up his varnam in a very short time. Patnam made Vasu sing this varnam in all three speeds, slow, medium and fast tempo. He also made him sing it in the reverse speed. Vasu was asked to sing alapana with its swara pattern for a particular avartha in the varnam. Patnam explained the special features and nuances of the raga,Begada. This lasted for the next three months and no new lessons ere taught to the student. Patnam felt satisfied that he had showed Vasu all the shades of beauty in raga, Begada. Patnam was a superb master in delineating raga, Begada. This earned him the nickname as Begada Subramania Iyer.

Vasu endured tremendous discomfort during his gurukulavasam. He had to sleep outside on the verandah of Patnam's house. The mosquitoes were menacing enough to keep him awake at nights. Vasu used his sleepless nights as an opportunity to practice his music lessons. Vasu happened to hear that Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer was scheduled to perform one night at the temple of Pranatarthihara in Tiruvaiyaru. Vasu was extremely keen to listen to a concert of such an eminent musician. He surreptitiously crept away at night, making sure he arranged his pillow and bedcover to give the impression that he was sleeping. The concert was captivating and Vasu listened with rapturous attention to the vidwan's alapana in Hamsadhvani and the rendition of Vatapi Ganapathim. Vaidhyanatha Iyer's kalpana swarams were swift and brilliant. Upon returning to his guru's house well past midnight, after the completion of the concert, Vasu was surprised to find that his pillow and bedcover had been rearranged. Naturally, Vasu became nervous. He went to bed shuddering at the thought of having to face his guru the next morning. It was the customary practice of Patnam to wake Vasu at dawn and call him inside for his music sadhana, however that morning there was an eerie silence. Sensing the reason, Vasu ran inside the house and fell at his guru's feet begging his pardon for having attended the concert.

Patnam was initially angry but later calmed down. He explained to Vasu that he was not averse to his listening to another Vidwan, but this should be done only after his own training was completed and he had acquired a thorough grasp of the style that he was being taught. Vasu was amazed at how easily his guru's wrath was diffused.

Vasu accompanied Patnam in concerts where he played the tambura and also lent vocal support. Vasu was asked to pay particular attention to his guru's neraval and kalpanaswarams, which were spontaneous executions. Patnam often began his concerts with a varnam and then rendered two or three madhyama kala kritis, this was followed by an alapana and tanam in ghana raga. It was his usual routine to pick the tanam in the same raga as the varnam. Patnam was an expert at handling intricate pallavis set in any one of the 108 talas, but he frequently selected pallavis in simple talas so as not to embarrass his accompanying artistes.

Patnam made Vasu sit beside him whenever he composed varnams or kritis. Vasu was also asked to check the compositions. Vasu was hesitant to express his opinions, but his guru insisted on it acknowledging that Vasu was competent enough to make suggestions with his expert knowledge of the different languages.

Patnam took aside one day to show him some books. At that juncture he remarked that people were under the impression that Patnam and Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer were arch enemies. This was untrue, because their differences were academic in nature rather than frank enmity. Vaidhyanatha Iyer initially wrote a book- 'Vijayasangraha' enumerating his musical achievements. Patnam challenged with his book 'Vijayasangraha khandana'. Vaidhyantha Iyer counter challenged by authoring 'Vijayasangraha khandana Dandana' condemning Patnam's efforts.

Patnam needed to add a rejoinder to the new book but was at a loss to come up with an idea. Vasu suggested to his guru that he write 'Vijayasangraha Khandana Dandana Mundana'. Patnam was pleased with the suggestion. He told Vasu that in spite of the differences they had with each other, both held each other with high esteem. Vaidhyanatha Iyer's voice had a metallic resonance and he sang in a fast tempo, whereas Patnam's voice was heavy and not capable of much speed. Iyer by nature was an aloof person, he remained a bachelor. He was meticulous about preserving his voice and went to great lengths to avoid fried food and midday naps. Patnam on the other hand liked good food and sweets prepared in ghee. He frequently had afternoon naps. He was an easy going person.

The citizens of Tiruvaiyaru had a discerning ear for good music. They frequently pitted these two stalwart musicians against each other. Iyer's concert would be held at the Pranatarthihara temple prakaram and Patnam's at the Dharmasamvardhani devi's prakaram. Each musician tried to outdo the other to get greater applause from their audiences. They did this by displaying their complete mastery and skill in their concerts. Thus the rasikas enjoyed the best of these two geniuses.

Vasu spent the best six years of his life with Patnam. When the time came for him to leave Tiruvaiyaru, he left with a heavy heart which he described as similar to a young bride's feelings upon leaving her parents home where she had known only love and kindness and going to an alien existence.

Reference: These were excerpted from Mysore Vasudevacharya's book- "Naa Kanda Kalaavidaru"

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