A sabdam by Shanmugam

Every Bharata Kalanjali production or item has an interesting anecdote attached to it. Bharata Kalanjali’s special item, the Shanmukha Sabdam, performed by many dancers of other schools too is also one such song. Many believe it is an old traditional composition. It is not.

Way back in 1974, the newly established Bharata Kalanjali was functioning from a small, thatched, rented cottage at No.7, 5th Cross Street, in Shastri Nagar. One day while I was in the garden with my little son Sanjay, a stranger dressed in rags came up to the gate and greeted me with “Vanakkam Ayya” in Tamil. I reciprocated his greeting and because of his rather unkempt looks I asked him to be seated on the cane chair outside instead of inviting him into the house. I sat down beside him. He first introduced himself as Shanmugam, then adding the prefix “Semponnarkoil Shanmugam” he said, he was working in South Indian Shipping Corporation, Chennai Port. His demeanour made it hard for me to believe him, but he started speaking in chaste Tamil and took me by surprise. I realised he was no ordinary man.

He quoted lines from Tevaram and Tiruppugazh with ease and went on to discuss devotional songs on Lord Ayyappa, some of which he had composed. (I am happy to know that his compositions are now to be released by K.J. Yesudass).
To get back to the story, I asked him what brought him to my house. He said, “As I got down from the bus I saw some little girls walking down the street in colourful pyjama-kurtas. I was curious. Told there was a natyam school nearby, I decided to try my luck and meet the natyacharya!” We soon introduced ourselves and struck up a conversation.
I asked him what I, a simple dance teacher, could do for him. He said, “I don’t want anything, but want to give you a song. Get me paper and pen, and tell me what kind of song you want and on which God.” I asked for a kummi song on Muruga. In ten minutes he wrote the lyrics, handed it over and left. The lines were very beautiful, and it was obvious that he was a “nimisha kavi” who could write instant poetry. I kept pondering the Tamil kummi and thought we could compose a folk dance for children with it.
Meanwhile, Sumathi Meenakshisundaram, the first student of Bharata Kalanjali, was preparing for her arangetram. A sudden thought occurred to me and I told Shanta why not convert this song into a new sabdam and call it Shanmukha sabdam and present it instead of the usual Krishna sabdam.
I requested Madurai Sethuraman (who regularly sang for us) to set the song as a sabdam, which he did the very next day. It was truly inspiring and impressive when Sethuraman rendered it. After a couple of days I learnt the song thoroughly and decided to compose it for the 13-year-old debutante Sumathi.
It was a windy overcast evening. After putting little Sumathi through a gruelling practice session, I started composing the Shanmukha sabdam. I struggled for almost an hour but could not hit upon a bright idea to begin composing the dance. I was vexed and almost in a rage. As it started raining accompanied by thunder and lightning, I stopped the class and asked Sumathi to go home.
As both of us were coming down the stairs from the thatched dance class, what did I see? A lovely calendar picture of Shanmukha (the six-faced god) blown off the wall was lying on the last step. It seemed to be smiling at me, beckoning me to take up the challenge of completing the unfinished task! The sight gave me a new wave of inspiration and I called to Sumathi, asking her to come back. We worked in the living room, and I finished composing the Shanmukha sabdam in no time. I really do not know where the ideas flowed into me this time and I worked as one possessed with the child to complete the sabdam. I then called Shanta to take a look at the composition (the term ‘choreography’ was not yet in vogue in Indian dance).
This sabdam was the talk of Sumathi’s arangetram. Dr. Nedunchezhian (Minister of Education) commented on the beautiful Shanmukha sabdam in Tamil. I introduced the composer of the lyrics to the public and he was deeply touched by this simple gesture.
I am happy that the Shanmukha sabdam has become quite an “international hit” and is a loved item in the Bharatanatyam repertoire. Many natyacharyas and Bharatanatyam dancers may not be aware of the origin of this popular piece. I share this story so that due credit can be given to its composer Semponnarkoil Shanmugam whenever the sabdam is performed. Shanmugam, on his part became our ardent admirer and penned the lyrics for our production titled Siva Sakti Vel (The birth of Muruga) which we performed several times in Tamil Nadu and abroad.