“Look up the meaning of the Tyagaraja kriti Sangita gnanamu in the book there ,” the frail old man bundled up and blanketed in the chair in front of me said, a minute after I entered his bedroom in his nephew’s house inside Sankarnagar, Tirunelveli, when my friend Sampathkumar and I visited him earlier this month.
Near nonagenarian and confirmed bachelor Tanjavur Sankara Iyer may be a very sick man today, needing the constant care of a loving family, but his musical creativity and devotion to past masters including the Trinity remain undimmed. True to the words of Tyagaraja, he still pursues sangita gnanamu with fervent devotion, still composes his own bhava-rich compositions and still sings and teaches everyday. The object of his love and affection and guru kripa is his 12-year-old granddaughter Aparna, on whom he pins his hopes for the future.
For those unfamiliar with Sankara Iyer’s contribution to Carnatic music, I reproduce below a brief extract from a Sruti (issue 195) profile of the vidwan by Lakshmi Devnath:
Sankara Iyer is a highly respected vaggeyakara. His compositions have been a source of delight both to the vidwans and to the general public, but he himself speaks with great modesty about his works. “I should not be bracketed with the Trinity or other famous composers of the past. But I can say my compositions are rooted in sampradaya, as theirs are, while they cater at the same time to evolving needs without being light. Shall I say, my compositions are a bridge between the old and the new!”
Anyone who has listened to Sankara Iyer’s vocal concerts, lec-dems and his own compositions, will readily agree that he is indeed a bridge between the old and the new.
My planned interview with Sankara Iyer never took place, because, thrilled to meet visitors from Chennai, he was keen to demonstrate his granddaughter’s singing, and more important her ability to absorb his lessons on sruti suddham, raga lakshana, and clear enunciation of sahitya. He stressed the vital importance of the last of these aspects of music, but was quick point out that on his list of priorities, the raga overrode the Bhakti emanating from understanding of the lyrics. “The lyrics could be about Rama, Krishna or Karuppannasami; it’s the musicality that matters.”
We were fortunate to catch glimpses of his highly evolved sense of aesthetics through his profound enjoyment of the beauty of both verse and tune, whether by the Trinity, Sankara Iyer himself or Kalki Krishnamurti, whose Poonkuil koovum pooncholaiyil orunal, he taught Aparna with obvious relish. “What a wonderful poet!” he exclaimed.
When I reminded him about a T Viswanathan concert he had attended more than a decade ago at my Chennai home after which I dropped him home, he instantly recalled, “Muktha was in the audience, wasn’t she, and I remember she joined Viswa in a song whose words he momentarily forgot. In the car, you asked me if I would perform at your residence. What happened to that offer?”
That was indeed a doosra from the veteran. I had no answer to that