Friday, 6 March 2015

The King Himself Is Gone.
(Maharajapuram Santhanam‘s death on June 24, has left a vacuum in the world of music: and if that sounds like a cliché, it has never been truer than today.)

This article was first published in 1991 in ‘The Independent Journal of Politics& Business’, a Times Of India publication).

The past tense does not come easily when one is writing about Maharajapuram Santhanam .The tragic car mishap on June 24 which so cruelly snatched away this musician at the peak of his phenomenal career, was in every way a fatal collision for Carnatic music. We are humbled. A glorious voice has been  silenced and silence itself is deafening.
Maharajapuram Santhanam had hitched his wagon to a star, the star of the music of the spheres. The success of his trailblazing career in the past 20 years was unheard of in the history of carnatic music. He enjoyed the giddying popularity of a rock star. He demanded fees others could not even dare to dream of. Rasikas thronged the concert halls, spilling over into the aisles and doorways, crowding on to the stage. Appropriately, Santhanam had the demeanor of a maharaja on the stage: his air of confidence, and the disarming smile on his cherubic face, hooked the listeners and they stayed hooked. In the four hours that followed, there would not be a single dull moment.

Maharajapuram Santhanam was born in 1928 in a family whose musical lineage could be traced back to Tyagaraja himself. He had his early training under one Sama Dikshitar of Melattur. But it was his father , the illustrious Maharajapurm Vishwanatha Iyer ( who was also the guru of the octogenarian doyen of Carnatic music, Semmmangudi Srinivsa Iyer) from whom Santhanam inherited a vast repertoire of compositions in four languages.
For many years was quietly content with providing vocal support to his father in all his concerts. The concert platform must have been real training ground, for Santhanam’s one great asset was gauging audience response. For five years (1960-65), Santhanam took a break and served as the principal of a music college in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. He seemed to have honed his talents to perfection during this period, for when here turned, his career shot up with dazzling speed.
Not many could have guessed that Santhanam had a robust voice and erudition to match. R. Sethuraman, erstwhile secretary of Bharatiya Music & Arts Society, Mumbai , reminisces,” When I proposed  for the first time that we encourage the young Santhanam by giving him a concert for our Sabha in 1956, there were howls of protest.
Maharajapuram’s voice could soar to the highest octaves, yield easily to gamakas and graces and yet sound melodic and pleasant throughout. His stamina was enviable. Even after a string of concerts for a week, his voice would still not lose its clear ringing tone. He developed his raga alapana to grandiose proportions. His music had a lyrical charm. It was lilting, highly polished, pristinely classical. He could add unusual variations (sangatis) and unexpected twists spontaneously and draw thunderous applause from his fans. He would play to the gallery with gimmicks punctuating the concert with subtly humorous asides, and ingratiating attempts to satisfy the endless request slips that his audience handed over. But he could also sublimate his concerts with an enriched rendition of Mukhari (Ksheenamai), or Harikamboji (Dina Mani). Other evergreen favourites of the Maharajapuram style (bani) were ragas like Atana, Bilahari, and Ritigoulai. Legend has it that the raga Mohanam is a precious heirloom of the Maharajapuram family.

Santhanam often revealed an inane sensitivity to melodic expression (raga bhava) and lyrical expression (sahitya bhava). He was a past master in weaving a silken tapestry of sarvalaghu kalpana swaras—long passages of swaras woven dexterously to reach a climax with precise artistry. On the other hand, the evening’s fare could become trite and theatrical with an overdose of ragamalikas, viruttams and short Tamil compositions. The purists, therefore, have often felt disappointed and a little piqued at his forays away from weighty classicism.
Maharajapuram performed to enchanted audience in many countries  abroad. He represented the country in the festival of India in the USA. He was honoured  with the Sangeet Natak akademi award in 1984. More than the Padmashri awarded in 1990 by the Indian government in 1990 by the Indian government, Santhanam probably valued the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title bestowed on him by the Music academy, Madras, in 1989. For the first time in its 60-year history both father and son had been equally honoured by this august body.
Maharajapuram leaves behind two young sons, Ramachandran and Srinivasan, whom he has lovingly groomed for a career in music. He has set up a Trust in memory of his father, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, to encourage young talent and provide pensions for retired musicians.
One does not know what plans he had for the future. One cannot guess how many more compositions his genius would have created for the music world. Santhanam’s death has indeed left a vacuum. If that sounds clichéd, it has never been truer today. We have lost yet another stalwart. The Carnatic music world stands impoverished by this loss. And that is the tragedy of the moment.

NOTE: No mention of his death or obituary was published in any newspaper north of the Vindhyas. Late RGK, an eminent author and journalist wrote a letter to the editors signed by several eminent artistes of Mumbai.