Few careers of musician have been such a success story as that of Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasier. His success was based on hard toil, unremitting enthusiasm and a driving ambition to make good in a profession which tests the resolve of every apprentice.
Chapter I describes his early life from 1908 to 1926. He was named after the Utsava Murthi of the Vishnu Varadaraja temple on the street in Sempongudi village. His maternal grandfather was a harikatha exponent and his maternal uncle was the successful Tirukodikaval Fiddle Krishna Iyer. He learnt music from his cousin Narayanaswamy, Sakarama Rao, Swaminatha Iyer and Viswanatha Iyer. The first music recital he rendered was in 1926. In his formative years he absorbed music from the reigning stalwarts Konerirajapuram Vaidhyanathier, Madurai Pushpavanam, the Karaikudi Veena brothers, Naina Pillai, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, flute Sanjeeva Rao and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.
Chapter II traces his career graph from 1926 to 1940. He underwent the ordeal of two operations for a nasal block and tonsils during this period. Srinivasa Iyer got the first opportunity to perform in the emerging Madras city in December 1927 during the All India Congress Session. Under the guidance of S. Satyamurthy the All India Music Conference came into existence. When Music Academy was established Semmangudi became a pillar of the fledgling institution. In 1930 Semmangudi performed at the Tiruvayyaru Thyagaraja Aradhana. He cut his first disc in 1931 followed by many more. He recorded for HMV, Twin and Columbia.
Chapters III and IV are on Semmangudi's sojourn at Trivandrum as the head of Swati Tirunal Academy of music and his rise as a top ranker in the golden era of Karnatak music. He successfully managed the Swati Tirunal project and his performing career during this phase. He was chiefly responsible for popularizing Swati Tirunal's compositions through print, Swadeshamitran and the Music Academy. He played a key role in resolving the disputes at Tiruvayyaru Tyagaraja Aradhana. Semmangudi managed to build bridges with the Rival Tamil Isai movement also. In 1947, Semmangudi became the youngest musician to be conferred the title of Sangita Kalanidhi at 38. He received the award immediately after his guru, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. He also received the President's award (later known as Sangeet Natak Akademi award) in 1953 ahead of several seniors. Semmangudi went on to receive the Kalidas Samman in 1981 and the Padma Vibhushan in 1990.
The terms of the award for Kalidas Samman clearly lays down the pillars of artistic strength of an awardee. The recipient should be (a) a great performer, (b) a teacher of impressive credentials and (c) one who has to his credit a lot of constructive work relating to publication of great musical works and dissemination of valuable information on classical music. That Srinivasier was the first recipient of this prestigious award points to the confluence of these and other great streams of art and technique and exposition of his achievements.
Semmangudi popularized ragas Karaharapriya and Shammukapriya more than any one else. His first gramophone record was the composition beginning with the words 'Navasiddhi petralum'. His raga alapanas contained all the Sangathis revealing the particular raga bhava. He had a penchant for Kamboji, Kalyani, Ritigowla and Sriranjani. Pages 97 to 127 of the book is devoted to the musical prowess of Semmangudi. Though not blessed with a problem free voice he was gifted with 'Sangita gnanam' and 'Jnana Bhavam'. He imbibed the rich manodharma of raga alapana from his guru Viswanatha Iyer and the repertoire of kritis from Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer. He had the knack of choosing the right tempo for the rendition of a composition. The compositions which were made immortal by him are listed by the biographers.
Public concerts for large audiences came into being in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The success of a concert artiste and the achievement of popularity depended on the ability of the performer to hold the audiences to his music. Semmangudi was a great assessor of the audience's psychology and taste. He mastered the art of a right mix of kritis, ragas and talas to achieve a high success rate. Semmangudi judged his voice condition on a particular day and could change strategies on the concert platform. He had a fine sense of proportion to build up a concert.
The work under review is a centenary commemoration of a maestro and hence sidelines the share of controversies that the 'Pitamaha' attracted. Unlike Musiri Subramania Iyer Semmangudi never retired from the profession. He gave his last concert on 7 November in the year 2000. Controversies came in full measure too. Balamurali Krishna sued Semmangudi in court for damages worth Rs. 2, 00,000 which ended when Semmangudi tendered an apology. Semmangudi and critic Subbudu locked horns for over a decade and finally declared truce. The bitterest controversy was on Swati Tirunal between Semmangudi and Veena Balachander. The controversy blew over with Balachander's death in April 1990. A proper biography of an artiste of the calibre and achievements of Semmangudi should not ignore the important happenings in the life of the maestro.