My earliest recollection of listening to a music concert was sometime in 1966 or 1967. I was about five or six years old. The occasion was the inauguration of a temple built by FACT, which was set up in 1943 and is the oldest fertilizer company in India. My father was there on deputation for a second term, this time to set up the Ambalamedu Division of the company, near Kochi. When the land was acquired, one or two villages were displaced, which became the subject of a famous short story, Sakshi, by T. Padmanabhan, celebrated Malayalam celebrated short story writer, who wrote the story after six years of enigmatic silence.
The villages gave way to a huge artificial lake which submerged a fairly big temple and several smaller ones. As per acquisition terms, the company built a new temple where all the idols from the previous temples were reinstalled. For the inauguration of the temple, a grand music festival was held. This practice continued every year at least till 1971 when we left Ambalamedu.
Among the musicians, I distinctly remember Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, a young M. Balamuralikrishna then in his late 30s (he had also visited our home), and Lakshmi Shankar. I also remember a young Lalgudi Jayaraman as an accompanist. The company could bring in such stalwarts because of the charisma MKK Nayar, a first batch IAS Officer, who was the Managing Director.
All the concerts were being recorded on our new Grundig spool tape recorder, supervised by my uncle. My grandfather, who knew most of the musicians, was also around. One interesting exchange that was recorded was my grandfather requesting Semmangudi to sing Ksheera Sagara Sayana, the famous Tyagaraja composition in Raga Devagandhari. Semmangudi’s immediate response was “poyi Raja Iyengare kelu…” (go ask Raja Iyengar).
Who was Raja Iyengar? There is no Wikipedia page on him. But, there are numerous references to him available online (see this blog article which draws on an earlier article that appeared in Sruti magazine, volume 203). There does not seem to be unanimity on his years of birth and death. Mysore B.S. Raja Iyengar, as he was known, was born in 1900 or ’01 and died in 1978 or ’80. He was from Banavar near Arsikere in Hasan district) of Karnataka. His gurus included K.V. Srinivasa Iyengar, brother of Tiger Varadachariar, one of the stalwarts of early 20th century.
Having started learning music in a pre-microphone era, Raja Iyengar’s style of singing was high-pitched and sonorous, and could be heard even at the far end of the audience. The above article notes his “captivating tempo, measured briga-s and the predominance of lakshya” or imagination and aesthetics. Apart from Ksheerasagara, his most popular song was Jagadodharana in Raga Kapi, both available in 78 rpm records.
According to the above article, Raja Iyengar’s debut concert was in the late 1920s followed by a concert at the Akhil Bharat Sangeet Sammelan, held during a session of the Indian National Congress in 1927 in Madras. His career saw him render music at royal courts, temples, dramas, movies, and sabhas. He acted as Narada in the Kannada film “Satya Harishchandra” (1943) directed by R. Nagendra Rao. The songs Shantiye Jeevana and Pahi Shubhacharithe sung for the film are available here and here.
He used harmonium accompaniment, provided by Arunachalappa, who was also an accomplished violinist. Using harmonium was an oddity looked down upon by purists. Harmonium was banned on All India Radio from 1940 to 1971 covering most of Raja Iyengar’s career. Did that mean that he was blacked out by All India Radio all these years?
Raja Iyengar won the Karnataka State Sangeet Natak Academy Award (1967), Gana Kala Bhooshana from the Karnataka Gana Kala Parishat (1970) and the Sangeet Natak Academy Award (1973), all coming towards the end of his life. He did not win the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award, coveted by all Carnatic classical musicians. Did this have something to do with the harmonium in his concerts or his foray into theatre?
In my younger days, listening to Raja Iyengar meant listening to what the local station of the All India Radio thought fit to broadcast. And this was limited to Ksheerasagara and Jagadodharana. Maybe they did not have any of his other pieces. Now, nearly 20 recordings of Raja Iyengar are available on various sites.
See this for a beautiful rendering of Brochevarevarura, a Telugu composition by Mysore Vasudevachar in Raga Khamas. And this for the majestic Nagumomu, a popular Tyagaraja composition in Raga Abheri. Raghuvamsasudha, Patnam Subramania Iyer’s composition in Sanskrit and set in Raga Kadhanakuthuhalam, drew inspiration from Western music and was therefore a starting point for many who were otherwise averse to Carnatic music. Raja Iyengar’s version is available here. All these pieces are fast paces as much had to be packed into a little over three minutes or less than seven minutes depending on whether only one or both the sides of the 78 rpm record were being used.
Back in the 1960s, when Raja Iyengar was still alive, Semmangudi must have felt intimidated about being compared with Raja Iyengar. Alternatively, he might have thought how could he having won the Sangeetha Kalanidhi 20 years earlier sing a song linked with a drama singer who uses harmonium for accompaniment. But, there were others who did just that and with great effect. Chembai’s Ksheerasagara was released as part of an LP record that became hugely popular in the 1970s.
Afterthought: I had seen an online link to an AIR concert by Raja Iyengar. But, the URL has been blocked as per directions from Department of Telecommunications, Government of India. That brings us to an important question, for how long will the All India Radio sit over thousands of hours of classical music in its custody, which as per some sources, are deteriorating very fast? It seems the archives have been digitised. But, quality is suspect. They are part of global heritage. Please share them online, maybe through a YouTube-like channel, for the benefit of music lovers across the world. An unused archive is a dead archive.