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