Remembering Shyama Sastri

A news item in the back pages of The Hindu a few months back brought to light the pathetic situation of some descendants of Shyama Sastri – one of Carnatic Music’s hallowed trinity of composers and arguably one of the finest ever. Since that item appeared, there have been a few sporadic efforts to raise funds to help the composer’s family. It is an issue that has rankled the conscience of the Carnatic fraternity. Many people, especially artistes felt that while every Carnatic concert gets embellished with at least one Shyama Sastri composition, the maestro’s folks languish in penury, seek support for education and – horror of horrors – have no avenue even to pursue music!Predictably the public response ranged from offers of immediate assistance – especially by leveraging the power of the Internet – to several queries about the genuineness of the story. Some folks were wondering if the collected funds would go to the right people. Others wondered aloud about the end use of the collected funds; whether it would be appropriate to hand it over to ‘descendants’ whose antecedents could not be verified or to channel the funds toward restoration of the dilapidated Shyama Sastri residence in Tiruvarur.

One man who did not entertain any doubts and boldly went ahead collecting funds worldwide for the cause was V. V. Sundaram, the indefatigable impresario of Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana fame. Shri. Sundaram’s efforts coincided with some plans that we at Carnatica had made to dedicate an event exclusively to Shyama Sastri, highlighting his musical contributions and thereby drawing public attention and donations to a worthy cause. The initial idea was to have the event jointly conducted by Carnatica and the Cleveland Aradhana Committee but circumstances willed otherwise and it so happened that Shri. Sundaram’s event and handover of the collected monies preceded ours by a few days. That however did not preclude a full-fledged two-day Shyama Sastri Remembrance festival being conducted by us at P. S. High School, Mylapore on Aug. 14th & 15th 2008 with the full cooperation and support of Shri. Sundaram, silk baron Shri. Nalli Kuppusami Chettiar, Shri. Natarajan (ex-director, Doordarshan) and a whole bunch of enthusiastic artistes, donors and volunteers.

The event was conceived as a total exposure to Shyama Sastri’s music and compositions, the crowning jewels being the three monumental swarajati s in Bhairavi, Yadukulakambhoji & Todi. The first evening was dedicated to an explanatory concert featuring the three swarajati s wherein the renditions were followed by explanations of the lyrical and musical specialities employed by Shyama Sastri. The singers were Sowmya, Prema Rengarajan, Pala C. K. Ramachandran, Shashikiran, Ganesh and Nisha Rajagopal. They were accompanied by Nagai Sriram, Ananthakrishnan, Neyveli Narayanan and Nerkunam Sankar. The group rendition was an interesting effort and quite challenging because of the varying pAThAntaram s of each participating artiste. Unlike the annual Aradhana for Tyagaraja (where the ghana rAga pancaratnam s are rendered) or the less frequent Dikshitar festivals, there have been virtually no exclusive festivals for Shyama Sastri and there are also wide differences in the pAThAntaram of his kriti s that are in circulation. In that sense, this was a novel and welcome initiative to have a common platform. Adding lustre to the proceedings was the appreciative presence of experts such as Prof. T. R. Subramaniam in the audience.

The second day’s proceedings kicked off with a set of three mini concerts, again featuring only Shyama Sastri compositions by upcoming stars: Sriranjani Santhanagopalan (daughter & disciple of Neyveli Santhanagopalan), Prasanna Venkataraman (disciple of Sanjay Subrahmanyan) and Amrutha Venkatesh (disciple of Charumathi Ramachandran). Some rarely compositions were explored by these youngsters. Another highlight of the day was a Quiz devoted exclusively to the life & music of Shyama Sastri, conceived and conducted by Smt. S. Sowmya with assistance from Shashikiran and myself. A range of interesting questions was thrown up, that shed new light on the composer’s life and times. The slightly disheartening apsect was the low turnout, but that was amply compensated by the enthusiasm of the thirty-odd people who turned up!

The same evening witnessed a musical treat – four mini concerts by established vidwan s & vidushi s such as Vijay Siva, R. Vedavalli, Suguna Purushottaman & Varadachari and Gayathri Venkataraghavan. Barring one or two repetitions, all the concerts featured different compositions and served to bring out the plaintive emotions and poignant beauty of Shyama Sastri’s lyrics. As an exposition to lesser known compositions of the sensitive maestro, the exercise was a spectacular success. As for the fundraising aspect, we were a little underwhlemed by the scale of support from the general public. With the exception of a couple of wonderful individuals, most people – both in Chennai as well the active online diaspora – failed to back up well-meaning words with substantial donations. Let’s rest our case, reassured by the sense that Shyama Sastri and his music are miles above such earthly yearnings for money and fame. Justice will ultimately prevail and the composer’s descendants will – with the blessings of Kamakshi – have a brighter life ahead of them. May these efforts just serve as a starter course…

— Ramanathan N. Iyer

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  • Saiganesh

    No doubt, it is a commendable effort to organize such an event in honour of the great composer. Hats Off !
    It does pain me to see the descendants of shastri living in such a condition. However, with no intentions of any offense, i personally feel that mere belonging to the lineage of a great soul, does not make them special in any way. There are millions and millions starving to death every day, who might just be as deserving if not more for some help by kind souls. They have not contributed in any way to enrich the traditions of our music. This in a way boils down to discrimination on the basis of birth.
    I support the cause of renovating shastri’s residence and establishing a memorial to mark his genius.

  • T.M.Sivaraman

    I beg to differ with Sri Sai Ganesh.For a moment,forget the lineage of the descendents of Shyama Sastry and focus the centre of attention only on the Saint’s immortal contribution and legacy to the world of carnatic music.What a colossal treasure house of compositions has he left behind for posterity to feast on with music for the soul, invoking the Goddess Kamakshi and her different rupams.Can any carnatic concert today be complete without rendition of his classic “Amman” krithis?His bhava filled krithis contain the essence of all the religious and humanitarian philosophies at the core of the Hindu Dharma,and really serve as a worthy treatise on the “Art of Living”.
    I feel that the saint’s soul would be tormented that his descendants are forced to live in penury, while the carnatic musicians of today,using his compositions are wealthy and are in a position to ensure the prosperity of their future generations.
    It is no crime for any person to accumulate wealth to ensure that his progeny live in comfort with a good quality of life.By the same token it would be no crime for the descendants of Saint Shyama Sastry to live a life in comfort and not have to starve and struggle in abject penury, whether, they have contributed anything to the carnatic world or not.And I doubt anybody has really done a study on whether any of his descendants have carried on the legacy of the Saint and contributed in any way to enriching carnatic music in some way.In the absence of such a study, it would be unfair to condemn the descendants of the Saint for not contributing anything to carnatic music and make an affirmative statement that they do not deserve some measure of economic sustenance,merely by reason of their birth.Isn’t it true that the children of today’s film fraternity,sports stars,politicians and industrialists enjoy all the wealth and publicity and live a lifestyle of opulence,merely by reason of their birth? So why should the Saint’s descendants not have at least some measure of economic well being without having to starve?
    The bottom line of this debate:
    “By all means honour the Saint’s memory by renovating his residence,building a memorial,spread the richness of his compositions to all corners of the globe by translating them into all languages.But also do whatever we can to ensure that his descendants do not have to starve in penury.This would a fitting way to honour the Saint,and give his Soul lasting peace and happiness in Heaven”

  • B Jagannathan

    I remember an officer of Chennai Telehones(now BSNL ), I had forgotten his name in one of the interviews said that that he is one of the descendents of Shyama Sastri and he is still having the Bangaru Kamakshi idol ( actually worshipped by Shyama Sastri)in his custody.

  • MIRLE KARTHIK

    I agree with Saiganesh. Just because they happen to be the descendents of Shyama Shastri does not entitle them to any privileges, especially considering that none of them have made any tangibile contribution to Carnatic Music as performers or composers or even plain rasikas. Going by the reports in The Hindu, none of them have any musical leanings or even a remote connection with music. Some old moth eaten manuscripts, some inscriptions somewhere, there is nothing to support their claim. Even today, there are so many descendents of great Vaggeyakaras who are also in need but with no musical leanings whatsoever. If we start entertaining their claims, there would be no end to it.If as Mr. Shivaraman says, Shyama Shastri would be pained to see his descendents suffering in penury, would he not be pained to see their musical ignorance?
    But renovating Shyama Shastri’s house, propogating his compositions, trying to unearth the lost kritis, these are commendable aims and need to be supported.

  • http://-- R.Gurumurthy

    The great composers and musicians did not bother for material prosperity and and their decendandants suffer. I know many. but they do not approach people for help. There must be common funds and trusts who can look after these people.

  • http://BlogESWARA(tobereachedthroughGoogleBlogsearch vkailasamvenkat

    I am in tears. and, also happy to learn
    the helping hand of the music lovers.
    I hope some permanent arrangements have been made.Governement is providing funds for Cine artists of yesteryears.Can this be taken up ?

  • VIGNESH VENKATA GOPALA KRISHNAN

    Its very shocking to know that,the descendents of shree shyama shastri,who redefined ragas like bhairavi and saveri,are leading a pathetic life. Its my personal feeling that,shyama shastri ,does not receive the same attention as received by other composers. I hope the musicians take up this seriously and popularize his rare krithis. May the goddess kamakshi help musicians in achieving this.