Emani Sankara Sastri

The contribution of Emani Sankara Sastri to Indian music

Professor N.S. Ramachandran

Any connoisseur of music in our country knows that Emani Sankara Sastri is one of the most outstanding vainikas of this generation.

It was sometime in the early forties that I first heard Emani Sankara Sastri in a concert broadcast by All India Radio, Madras. I could immediately feel the presence of an authentic tradition in the music and an unmistakable individuality in its expression. From that time he has been steadily growing in stature till he reached the mellowness and maturity that we find in him today. I knew his father Achyutarama Sastri quite well. He was reckoned as one of the leading veena players of Andhra. It used to be said that, while Venkataramana Das excelled in tanaru and Sangameswara Sastry in raga vinyasa, Achyutarama Sastry stood out for his mastery over the presentation of keertana and swaraprastara. Sankara Sastri has inherited the vidwat and talent of his father in the fullest measure.

He started playing on the veena even before he was ten years old and he began giving concerts when he was still in his early teens. He had ample opportunities to listen to great vidwans and by careful observation and arduous private practice he soon built up a place for himself in the world of art.[See Sruti 47]

The veena has occupied an honoured place in Indian music from the Vedic period and has dominated the musical consciousness of our people from time immemorial. It has played a significant role in the development of the music of India, and during the course of the centuries, authorities like Bharata, Sarangadeva, Somanatha, Venkatamakhi, Tulaja, Maharyah and others expounded vital aspects of theory in relation to the veena. The practical side of the art was also similarly influenced by this instrument in a significant manner.

During the evolution, the veena had emerged as the instrument for chamber music par excellence and it flourished as long as it enjoyed the patronage of the royal courts and nobility, but when gradually the responsibility of fostering fine arts shifted to the public at large, the veena receded to the background and it came back as a concert instrument only with the advent of the microphone and the radio. In the intervening period, specialisation on the veena appeared to be a dubious choice and only those who were keenly devoted to this instrument kept up the precious heritage associated with it and have rendered the invaluable service of keeping it alive and intact. Sankara Sastri belongs to this noble band of artists.

The techniques of playing on the veena and the methods of musical presentation have been influenced in different ways by the ‘contact microphone’. The responses and reaction of the veena to these new conditions have to be grasped if the artist is to express what he conceives and it is here that Sastri shows a deep understanding of the medium and employs it as he wills.   A clear harp and vibrant till in the tara sthayi, or low rumbling thunder in the mandra octave, a leap over the octaves chasing the phrases, all come out of his nimble fingers, with effortless ease. In producing notes or modulating phrases and in the overall playing, it is extraordinary to see how he regales. His plectrum is the `nakha’or finger nail as traditionally prescribed and he utilises the skin-surface also for particular effects and tonal values. For decorating formal music or for obtaining colourful imagery and background, he uses all strings and all octaves and creates a concord of sweet sounds just as he wants. In all this as well as other spheres of music, he is truly guided by the spirit of experiment and he is ever willing to follow a trail if it yields results commensurate with the endeavour.

Sastri’s music has acquired a depth and an added dimension over the years. This is evident from his concerts, which may be considered under two broad categories. One is the public performance before an audience in a concert hall. Here he plays in the traditional kutcheri pattern, the pieces are so arranged as to give full scope for manodharma in raga alapana, niraval and swarakalpana for the kritis chosen. His alapana dwells on the characteristic features of a composition, but is neither too long nor too short. After giving a polished rendering of the composition he highlights the developments with appropriate vinyasa of selected portion of this pila and with telling series of swaras. I have found him reaching heights of kalpana and chaturya in his swaravistara, wherein the aesthetic element always holds sway over the closely knit and brilliant patterns of the utmost intricacy cascading over the avartas in sweet profusion. One can see how much sadhana has gone into the wonderful display of skill and imagination combined with true musical instinct. All this applies to his treatment of pallavi, preceded by elaborate alapana and tanam, which transmits some of the deepest and most soulful utterances of the veena. The music is not restricted nor hustled. There is vistara in the genuine sense of the term and every moment of it is made lively for the audience by a fine control over the rhythm and by making it blend with the melody. The pallavi is followed by light pieces and bhajans based on Hindustani music. Sastri is adept at setting and rendering such tunes. The audience feels a sense of satisfaction, an awareness of a complete aesthetic experience and of repose.

As the director of the National Orchestra of All India Radio in Delhi, Sastri has used his talent as a creative artist and has a large number of fine compositions to his credit, including kritis and javalis. The orchestra, consisting of both Hindustani and Carnatic music artists has been welded into a disciplined and excellent team capable of playing pieces arranged according to both systems of music under Sastri as well as his predecessors viz., Ravi Shankar, Pannalal Ghosh and T.K. Jayarama Iyer. Sastri has set special compositions for this orchestra in rare ragas like Salaga Bhairavi and in major ragas and a full-scale pallavi which is by no means an ordinary achievement.

In the field of experimental music, two of his thematic creations deserve special mention. One is entitled Gowri Kalyanam based on episodes from the Kumara Sambhavam of Kalidasa and the other deals with a day in the life of a bee (Bharmaravinyas) and for both of them the resources of the orchestra have been put to very effective use. These programmes have had the warm appreciation of listeners not only here but also abroad. Another direction in which he has successfully carried out experiments is the jugalbandi. He has participated in these recitals with Ravi Shankar, Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan playing on the sitars and Gopalakrishnan on the vichitra veena, giving the audiences an insight into the quality and power of the music of the veenas. Sastri has made a searching inquiry into the nature of gamakas which occur in Carnatic music and his exposition with practical demonstrations is of real value to the student, teacher and rasika.

Sastri’s style, which bears the unmistakable imprint of his personality is evident through his recordings. He has a number of talented disciples, including Chitti Babu.

Many have been the honours bestowed on him and he was recently presented with the `Suvarna Ghanta Kankanam’, an award of rare value, by the admiring public of Rajamundry. Following the function he gave veena recitals at different centres in the region before a large audience in each place. It is noteworthy that the veena is heard by such huge audiences and this queen of our musical instruments is being restored to her rightful place in the hearts of the masses.

The author was a vainika and a scholar


A real nadopasaka

Lalgudi G. Jayaraman

Emani Sankara Sastri is one of the best and outstanding veena artists of today. He is an artist in the true sense of the term, by which I mean, he possesses in him in abundance, that artistic sense, which guides a man always along aesthetic lines whenever he applies his mind to music. He has developed a very pleasing and gentle method of handling the veena. His performances reveal a highly individualistic approach and much creative genius. His music is full of melody that arrests any audience. Emani Sankara Sastri has done a good amount of research in music as in the art of playing the veena. He has demonstrated many varieties of tone of the veena by different methods of plucking the strings. When he plays, he does so with great concentration which is discernible by any good listener. He is a real nadopasaka. He has composed many interesting pieces in music. He is modest, unassuming and there is complete absence of ego in him, which attracts people to him.

The many occasions on which I have met him, he has talked always about music and has had a number of ideas to offer about music. This shows the depth of his interest in the art, his enthusiasm and his active and energetic mind. On an occasion when I accompanied him, he told me before the performance not to restrict myself to the role of subservient accompanist but to participate in the concert as a full-fledged equal artist. This displays his broad mindedness.

In his official capacity as the chief producer, Carnatic music in the All India Radio, he has done yeoman service with valuable ideas and suggestions. His treatment of other artists has been a very cordial one and on a brotherly footing. He has always tried to help the artists.


The author was a renowned violinist & composer