Galaxy of composers


SYAMA SASTRI (1762 - 1827 ) - PART 1

- Dr. V Raghavan


Syama Sastri belonged to a Tamil speaking Smartha Vadama Brahmin associated with the worship of Goddess Kamakshi at Kanchi. Owing to the political disturbances in the northern parts, his family, like those of several others, moved to the Cauvery delta, where continuing the noble mission of the great Cholas, the Nayak and Maratha kings had reared a religious and cultural haven. With the idol Bangaru Kamakshi, the family stayed at Tiruvarur for about three decades before they moved with the deity to the west Main Street of Tanjavur, where a new permanent temple was built for the Goddess. It was when the family was staying at Tiruvarur that the composer was born in 1762 (Chaitra, Krittika). His house is now purchased and preserved by the promoters of the Music Trinity Commemoration Sabha of Tiruvarur. His ‘Sarman’ was Venkatasubrahmanya, popular name Syama Sastri, and the mudra he later adopted in his compositions, Syama Krishna.

As his compositions show, Syama Sastri studied Sanskrit and Telugu and started composing, first in Sanskrit - in which he has several pieces - and later changed over to Telugu. For the same dhatu in Kalyani, we have two matu-s of his in Sanskrit and Telugu, Himadrisute and Birana varalichi. He composed also in Tamil, though of these only Tarunamidamma in Gowlipantu is now known. This writer has seen in manuscripts examined by him a piece, marked as set in Paraz, partly in Sanskrit and partly in Tamil; the former part begins Kamakshi lokasakshini Kowmari Manoharini and the latter, Santatam ennai rakshippaye, but the latter Tamil part alone seems to have been current separately.

Always worshipping Kamakshi at the temple and at home, Syama Sastri had little occasion to go out of Tanjavur, but from his pieces, it is seen that he went to the neighboring Tiruvayyaru and sang of Dharmasamvardhini; to Jambukesvaram and sang of Akilandeswari, and also to the more distant Madurai where he sang nine pieces on Meenakshi. While all his pieces are on Devi, chiefly Kamakshi, and also some of her other forms including Brihannayaki at the Big Temple at Tanjavur, there are also, among the published and the unpublished kritis, a few on Subramanya. We may not find among his compositions several types as in those of the other two masters, but besides Kritis, he composed also Tana Varnam and Swarajatis. The Bhairavi, Todi and Yadukalakambhoji Swarajatis of Syama Sastri could be counted as the composer’s specialities by the side of the Pancharatnas of Tyagaraja and Ragamalikas of Dikshitar. 

There is a limitation inherent in the subject of Syama Sastri that handicaps contributions on him, which in the manner of his own contributions, have necessarily to be brief. By this handicap, I should hasten to point out, I mean no limitation to the genius of the composer, I mean, literally are restricted scope is innate in the subject in two fold manner; firstly by quantity and secondly by quality. By the quantitative limitation, one may recollect at once, I am referring to the comparatively small number of compositions left by Sri Syama Sastrigal. Sometimes, critics are familiar, genius is measured also by quantity, which includes variety; but these are not so much a gross test by number as such, as a test of genius in so far as they are indexes of the fecundity and infiniteness of the creative capacity of the artist. Going by that underlying principle, we may not find difficulty in recognizing what is also not uncommon in the artistic field, namely an outstanding contribution, which is choice and not extensive. With one Bhairavi Varnam, one stands immortal. In fact the story is told that one Sangitaswami advised Syama Sastri to take Adippayya as his Guru. There are also immortal poets with only one poem or play. Few and fine are the productions of our great composer. His Bhairavi Swarajati is one of the three epics of its class; his Manji will outlive all attempts on its life by vandalised renderings in Bhairavi; and his Anandabhairavi will continue to sway and rock us on the billows of ineffable bliss as that of few others can. 

What is the limitation by quality which makes it difficult to dwell at length on Syama Sastri? Here it is that he stands apart from his two great composers compared to whose output on epic scale, we may characterize our composers as lyric. Indeed there are some prominent differences between Iyerval and Dikshitar on the one hand and Sastrigal on the other. It is not without ulterior significance, that unlike Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastri did not give rise to any set of adherents or schoolmen, whose worship becomes warm, partial and eloquent. To draw an analogy from mythology, Syama Sastri may be compared to Brahma in the Trinity; he may not have sects like Siva and Vishnu. But is Brahma not the real creator, though none has raised a temple for him or is ringing bells before him?

One may also be prompted to make another technical distinction now quite often heard, among these three; namely that while Tyagaraja may be said to have emphasized Bhava, and Dikshitar, Raga, Sastrigal may legitimately be considered to have been attracted to the charm of rhythm, Tala. This may not be taken in an absolute manner; but it does contain an idea which may be pursued with advantage; for herein lies the clue to the discovery of the correct attitude of Syama Sastri as a composer and essential nature of his compositions. The burden of conveying elaborate lessons of spiritual experience and moral endeavour which Tyagaraja included in his life's mission, never weighed with Sastrigal; similarly the technical anxiety with which Dikshitar went about labeling carefully the ragas in his compositions or his zest for summarizing in his song-texts Sri Vidya, Vedanta and the Sthala - Mahatmyas of the numberless shrines that he went to on pilgrimage - such pre-occupations too did not overweigh Sastrigal's mind. In short, Sastrigal was an absolute musician, his song absolute music. In fact, the very absence of over-anxiety to go on composing and composing, reveals him as a choice artist. His kritis show an obvious spontaneity and effortless ease. In fact, as the late K V Ramachandran said, he attained maximum effect with minimum effort. Even swarakshara beauties of his Sahityas are the by-products of the same felicity. 

That Sastrigal did not charge his deep thoughts like Tyagaraja should not blind us to the fact that Sastrigal was as great a Bhakta and his Vairagya was firm as that of Iyerval or Dikshitar. In piece after piece, Sastrigal affirms faith in the Goddess and her compassion, and his aversion to wait upon the so-called rich people stuck up in their importance. One may recall the final passage in the Anandabhairavi song O Jagadamba - Mariyadalerugani dushprabhula kori Vinutinmpaga varambosogi, or that in Ninnuvina in Poorvikalyani, 

Parama-lobhulanu pogadi pogadi ati
Paramarudai tirigi vesari
Sthiramuleka ati-chapaludaitini
Nachinta deerchave vegame brocutaku

In a Todi piece Vegamevacchi, he echoes Tyagaraja's Dhyaname Varamaina and says that beyond the Mother's Dhyanam, he knows no mantra or tantra. But one supreme quality that Syama Sastri achieved by the simplicity of his Sahitya is the directness of appeal. You see in his songs one directly speaking to Mother. In songs like Brovavamma (Manji) or Marivere (Anandabhairavi), one cannot help being placed in the very presence of the Goddess. The simple repetitive addresses Janani, Talli, Amma, Ninnuvina Gati, Namminanu and sometimes repetitions of words like Nammiti Nammiti twice and even thrice, and the not infrequent use, in effective places, of the address - syllable "O" singly or in repetition, will not fail to transport one to the very ineffable presence of the Mother. Such poignant expression of simple feeling more readily opens that inner well of the tears of bliss than the thought-laden composition, which takes you through long cerebral prakara-s.

Part 2 of this article


Posted on April 17, 2002


More on Syama Sastri and other composers


Carnatica home