MUSIC OF THE SPIRIT
Life and art of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan, one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.
In the year 1903, the celebrated Hindustani musician Vishnu Narayan Batkhande (above) published a work titled My Travels in South India. In it he wrote: “Wherever I went, I had to listen to people constantly telling me that no one could sing like Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer used to or play the ‘mridangum’ (percussion drum) like Narayana Swamy Appa. I don’t see what purpose is served by such senseless worship of the past!” (For this episode I am indebted to Sri S. Seshadri, who translated U.V. Swaminatha Iyer’s Tamil biography of Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer into Kannada.)
Had Bhatkhande heard the great man sing there can be little doubt that he would have agreed with those he was fuming about, for Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer (1844 – 1893) was a musical genius of surpassing greatness, whose music embodied the highest ideals of spiritual art. It is of course nothing new for music lovers of every generation and in every country to claim that singers today are not as good as those in the ‘good old days’. But Maha Vaidya Natha Iyer — better known as Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan — was unusual in an important respect. Those who heard him wrote: “There is no record of anyone before him who could sing like him.” So his reputation was not based on nostalgia alone.
He appeared on the musical scene in what is widely regarded as the most golden of the Golden Ages of Karnatak (South Indian) music, sharing the limelight with a galaxy of brilliant musicians never equaled in history. Yet both fans and colleagues acknowledged his supremacy without reserve. Many who heard him, including several musicians of the first rank, have left their memoirs; all are unanimous that Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan had no peer either as a vocalist or as a musician. It is important to note that he was not only the greatest performing musician, but also the greatest musical scholar and composer of the age. He was that unique phenomenon in history— the greatest musician, the greatest composer and also the possessor of the greatest voice of his or probably any generation. As a combination of composer and performer, he can be compared only to Bach and Mozart.
More than a century has passed since his death but books about him continue to be written. There are at least forty biographies, the first written by his elder brother Ramaswamy Shivan (1842 – 1898). In addition, he appears in the memoirs of almost every musician — and many non-musicians — of the period. There are also manuscripts and musical sketches — several in his own hand.
As a result there exist ample materials to get a picture of this unique artist and his career. My goal in this essay is to use some of these sources to give an idea of the life and achievements of this great artist, and, in the process, describe also the world in which he moved. Through this I hope to describe for modern music lovers — both Indian and Western — a world of music and musicians that no longer exists. In my childhood and even early youth, I saw a little of that world in its vanishing stages and knew also a few of the personalities that had been part of it. I want our young people to learn and retain something of this important and vital part of their history and heritage.
My qualifications for writing this essay are historical and literary rather than musical. I am a product of both the East and the West with an abiding love of the music of both cultures. My technical knowledge of Western music is slightly better than that of Karnatak music, but that is not saying much. I was born into a family of music lovers and patrons and had the good fortune of listening to most of the leading musicians of the 1950s and 60s — some of whom were born in the 19th century. Many were personal friends of our family; several including Veena Doriaswamy Iyengar, M.S. Subbulakshmi and T. Chowdia have performed in our house. One of them was Mysore Vasudev Achar (1865 – 1961), a legendary figure in music, who happened to be an elderly relative (distant) of mine. He knew Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan and had heard him many times. So I can claim to retain a link to that age and tradition when music was more art than commerce. Even though I had every opportunity, I never leant Karnatak music.
Later, when I went to Indiana University (Bloomington) to study mathematics (and mathematical physics), I had an unmatched opportunity to learn about Western music. Indiana at the time had the reputation of having one of the great music schools in the world, especially renowned for opera. Its music faculty included singers like Margaret Harshaw, Martha Lipton and Eileen Farrell as well as pianists and other instrumental musicians like Jorge Bolet, Sydney Foster, James Buswell, Ruggerio Ricci, Josef Gingold, Janos Starker and many others of world repute. I taught myself some piano— not to play so much as to read simple musical scores. Thanks to the encouragement of a cellist friend, Deborah Totz (nee Davis) I attended the wonderful master classes conducted by the visiting Russian musician Gorbasova. (I don’t know if she was related to Gorbachev, though the name suggests she may have been. This was in 1972 when no one in America had heard of Michael Gorbachev.) I attended also the opera workshops of Ross Allen with his encyclopedic knowledge of operatic history and performance. In fact we became good friends.
I did not find my Ph.D. work in mathematics particularly demanding— especially after I passed my qualifying exams in my first year at Indiana. This allowed me to spend a good deal of time with music and musicians. Most of my friends were musicians. They were friendly and generous with both their time and knowledge. I owe much to three musician friends of mine — Rosalee Wolfe (nee Nerheim), Miriam Gargarian and Maureen Balke — for educating me on the finer points of music performance and theory. I too contributed a little with my knowledge of history of both Indian and Western music. Musical education in the West has always struck me as narrow, and I introduced them to the work of several outstanding performers that some of them didn’t know about. These included singers Teresa Berganza, John McCormack and the Bach conductor Mogens Woldike. Thanks to several scholarships and fellowships, as well as occasional consulting assignments, I was able to entertain my friends and also visiting artists then on the verge of important careers. These parties were invariably musical in nature.
I had with me some recordings of Indian singers including M.S. Subbulakshmi (above), which fascinated my American friends. I soon had a substantial collection of records including many of historical significance like those of Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Szigetti and Mishca Elman (violin), Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Schnabel (piano) and others. I had a particularly good collection of vocal recordings including those of Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Nellie Melba, Adelina Patti, Emma Calve and many others. All this was highly beneficial to me. Later, as a professor of engineering, it gave me particular pleasure when my student Judy Farhart wrote a thesis under me on the use of computers for analyzing musical scores.
My goal in this essay is to use some of this background to convey something of the life and times of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan in a manner that is comprehensible to those unfamiliar with Indian music and performance. In the process I hope to convey also an idea of the social and cultural milieu in which a nineteenth century Indian musician worked, and the spirituality that sustained their art. (This includes not only Westerners, but also many ‘educated’ Indians today.)
Music of South India
Modern art music of India (or ‘classical’ music) has evolved along two main idioms— Karnatak or South Indian, and Hindustani or North Indian. For historical reasons, the southern idiom or the Karnatak has remained closer to its roots, which are believed to go back to Vedic chants, especially the Samaveda. That this is not just a pious fantasy becomes clear upon listening to properly recited Vedic chants, when one can clearly hear the intricacies of tana singing that is one of the glories of Karnatak music. But music like any other art form is not unchanging. The person who gave shape to the Karnatak idiom leading to its present form was the great Vaishnavite saint and composer Purandhara Dasa (1482 – 1564, above left). In his numerous compositions, which include pedagogical works, he laid the foundation for the great flowering of musical theory and performance that has continued to the present. His devotional songs, all in Kannada, set the pattern for future composers. Students invariably begin with his works.
While scholars today study them for their musical interest, Purandhara Dasa saw his art as the expression of his devotion for his favorite deity Purandhara Vitthala (Krishna). This tradition of composition, combining art and spirituality continued, reaching its summit three centuries later in the works of the Great Trinity of Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1775 – 1835) and Shyama Shastri (1763 – 1827). A connoisseur today may not be aware of the spiritual or the devotional impulse behind their masterpieces, but their music would not exist without it. Even purely secular works like tillana and javali bear the stamp of their spiritual inspiration. Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan, the subject of this essay, is a prime example of this spirit. He was a direct spiritual and artistic descendent of the great saint-composer Tyagaraja. He became also the main vehicle of Muttuswami Dikshitar’s music.
As this article is written with the expectation that it will be read by both Indian and Western music lovers, I shall on occasion have to make comparisons between Indian and Western musicians — especially singers — in an attempt to bridge the gulf between the two cultures and musical idioms. This I feel will be easier on most readers than trying to explain one musical idiom in terms of the idiom of the other. (It will also be easier on me with my limited knowledge of music theory.) As the main subject of this essay happens to be a singer — and a prodigiously gifted singer — it is useful to have as reference a singer of comparable natural gifts from the pantheon of Western music.
After much searching, I find that the great nineteenth century soprano Adelina Patti (1843 – 1919) (above, available on Youtube)comes closest to him in natural gifts though not in musical scholarship. (No operatic singer can compare with an Indian musician when it comes to scholarship.) There are some similarities — and differences — between Shivan and Patti that are enlightening
(For pure vocal gifts, M.S. Subbulakshmi in her prime perhaps can give an idea of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan’s vocal gifts, though as creative musicians the two cannot be compared. She is also the only vocalist to have recorded his great cycle of composition known as Mela-raga-malika. Only a singer supremely certain of her pitch and intonation could dare it.)
Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan was born in the village of Vaiyyacheri (Tamil Nadu) on 26 May 1844 into an orthodox Smartha Brahmin family of Kaundinya gotra or lineage. For convenience I shall be using the name Maha Shivan (Shivanaal in Tamil, or Shivanavaru in Kannada as he was also known.) He was the third of four children, all sons. His father was Pancha Nada Iyer, known also as Doraiswamy Iyer; his mother was Arundhati Tayi. Most musical geniuses are of obscure origin, but Maha Shivan’s family seems to have been of some distinction. Later biographers have tended to romanticize his early life, claiming that he grew up in poverty, but facts speak otherwise. His father, a musician, turned down offers from several princely courts, and seems never to have worked for a living. He always maintained an open house and visitors to the village were offered hospitality. Contemporary accounts tell us that his mother fed at least ten poor children every day. They owned a house and some land, and no doubt Doraiswamy Iyer derived some income by performing the duties of a traditional Brahmin priest at marriages and other functions. All this suggests sufficient means to maintain a comfortable though not a luxurious household. As devout Brahmins, their needs no doubt were simple.
After he began his career as a singer, Maha Shivan’s earnings soared and he became quite wealthy. But he gave away a good part of it in charity. He could not say ‘No’ to anyone and his brother Ramaswami had to shelter him from people. Vasudev Achar (1865 – 1961) wrote: “I visited Maha Shivan at his place a few times, but we never became friendly. He was extremely reticent by nature and hardly ever spoke. His brother Ramaswami Shivan took care of all his day-to-day affairs.”
Maha Shivan’s ancestors were accomplished musicians, with several of them having enjoyed patronage at various princely courts that dotted the area. That is to say, he was born into a musical family. At the same time, like the ancestors of Johann Sebastian Bach, none of them would be remembered today but for the fact that Maha Shivan proved to be a musician of transcendent genius. His elder brother Ramaswami Shivan was also a gifted musician and composer and the two were inseparable. He often sang with his more famous brother— more ‘filling passages’ than actually singing. His musical scholarship was said to be on the same level as his younger brother’s, but it is interesting that no one who heard the two together mentioned him in the same breath. His voice, some wrote, ‘lacked power’.
Ramaswami Shivan (left) was known more as a poet than musician. His contribution to composition consisted mainly of lyrics, which his brother set to music. From recently unearthed documents it is clear that Maha Shivan often had to change his brother’s lyrics to make them suitable for music. On a few occasions these modifications had to be done during the course of the performance, when a new composition was being sung for the first time. “I saw it myself on several occasions,” wrote his student and biographer Pallavi Subbiah Bhagavatar (1859 – 1941). This sheds light on Maha Shivan’s unequaled capacity for improvisation and almost instantaneous grasp. He could master the most complicated compositions in minutes. (This was for texts only. Maha Shivan’s grasp of music was far superior to his elder brother’s. After he completed his basic training, he didn’t need to study new compositions in detail. One glance and/or hearing was enough. The same was true of Mozart.)
All authorities are unanimous on this point. There exist examples of pallavi passages — some in his own hand — of such mind-boggling complexity that no one today would even attempt them.
Both brothers were gifted with extraordinary memories. Ramaswami was an eka-santa-grahi — i.e., he could remember anything after one hearing. Maha Shivan was dvi-santa-grahi — or one who could remember after having heard twice. This allowed the two boys to play a joke on a well-known poet visiting a local court. He gave a reading of a work he had just composed in the style of the ancients. Ramaswami said it was not new but an ancient work that he had learnt long ago. The poet laughed at this boyish effrontery only to be flabbergasted when Ramaswami repeated it word for word. To make matters worse, he told the audience that his younger brother also knew the work. Maha Shivan, who had just heard it twice, also repeated it— to the poet’s mortification. Everyone including the poet had a good laugh after the boys’ father explained the joke to them.
In Karnatak music, at the highest level, a performing artist must combine immaculate execution with the creativity of a composer. For this reason, some of the greatest performers have also been composers of distinction. Unlike a Western musician who may not know much outside the repertoire of his or her instrument, every Karnatak musician receives the same kind of training and learns roughly the same basic repertoire. (This repertoire can of course vary depending on the inclination of the teacher and the student.) The vocalist still reigns supreme— a situation that used to prevail in Europe also until Beethoven and his successors banished the singer and put instrumental music in his place. Rare is the singer in Western music who can challenge the supremacy of the instrument, let alone the orchestra. This was not the case in the seventeenth- and the eighteenth centuries, and, happily, still not the case in India. This means that an Indian musician has to be thoroughly schooled in theory. It is interesting to observe that all the great composers of Karnatak music — from Purandhara Dasa to Vasudev Achar — have been singers. One possible exception is Mysore Seshanna, but his works are primarily instrumental.
This brings out a difference between the performance practices that prevail in Western and Indian music. In listening to Western music, one gets the sense that the singer is imitating the instrument, while with Indian music it is the reverse. This was not always so. The great pianist Chopin used to say: “If you want to know how to play my music, go to the opera and listen to Pasta or Rubini sing.” It is not surprising that Western art music should have reached a dead end, as Henry Pleasant has pointed out in his Agony of Modern Music. The same will be the fate of Indian music if it ignores the singer and begins to concentrate on the instrument. Happily, there are no signs of this retrograde movement happening.
Nearly all great musicians are child prodigies, but Maha Shivan was prodigious even among musical prodigies. In him were combined the gifts of a vocal prodigy and musical genius of the highest order. The two rarely go together. We are on firm ground when it comes to evaluating his greatness as a musician, for we have his own compositions and the sangtis ¬— or cadenza-like passages — he wrote for some popular compositions by Dikshitar. Maha Shivan’s compositions are among the towering masterpieces of Karnatak music, as good as any composed by the ‘Great Trinity’ of Tyagaraja, Mutthuswamy Diskshitar and Shyama Shastri. He was nowhere near as prolific as the trinity, and perhaps for that reason, the general level of his compositions is very high. Like Mozart at his best, there is not one note or one syllable out of place. Then there is his magnificent Mela Raga Malika, which he composed to illustrate the musical features of all the seventy-two major ragas in a single cycle of compositions. It is a musical and pedagogical masterwork that may be compared to Bach’s ‘Well Tempered Clavier’, except that it is not restricted to one instrument. Maha Shivan is said to have scored it in a single week!
A raga consists of an ascending scale and a descending scale each containing from four to seven notes. A ‘mela karta raga’ is a complete scale containing all seven notes in both its ascending and descending scale. Unlike in Western music, where there are basically two such scales — the major and the minor — the Indian system of using half tones as well as occasional quarter tones gives seventy-two mela ragas. (This is an oversimplification, but will do for the moment.)
It is worth noting that not withstanding how they appear when written in Western notation, no interval of Indian music other than the octave corresponds to the Western. The same raga played according to Western notation sounds entirely different when executed by an Indian musician. The same would no doubt be true of Western music transcribed into Indian notation. This makes the tempered scale (formalized by Bach) unusable in Indian music.
By age twelve Maha Shivan (left) was recognized as an accomplished singer and musician. His phenomenal voice needed no training at all, which allowed him to concentrate on theory and composition. By fourteen he was acknowledged as the greatest in all aspects of music. He was awarded the title of ‘Maha’ or great, at a learned assembly of musicians and scholars, the only one to be so recognized. Periya Vaidya Natha Iyer (no relation), then regarded the foremost singer of the age, generously proposed that the fourteen-year old prodigy be given the title ‘Maha’ as he would soon surpass every known musician. Ever since, he was known as Maha Vaidhya Natha Iyer, or more commonly as Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan. Even today, more than a century after his death, no one refers to him without the title ‘Maha’. (Like Samuel Johnson being generally referred to as Dr Johnson.)
Tyranny of the orchestra
As just noted, in Maha Shivan were combined an incomparable voice and musical genius of the highest order. Like Adelina Patti, he was an accomplished singer at seven, recognized as an outstanding performer; he could sing pallavi before he was eight. But unlike Patti, he was also by then a superbly schooled musician entirely at home in the creative aspects of music like improvisation and variations of a raga without which no Karnatak musician is taken seriously. This is not meant to detract from the genius of Western artists. If great Western singers like Patti were not so well schooled as their Indian counterparts, the blame lies less with them than the system of excessive specialization that prevails in Western music— and the tyranny of the instrument and the orchestra.
The man and his music
While it is easy to pronounce a judgement on Maha Shivan as a musician, it is not so easy to capture in words the magic of his voice, but I’ll give it a try. Maha Shivan’s voice was the wonder of the age. When he was a child it was naturally brilliant, but apparently retained its brilliance and flexibility even when he became an adult. He did not go through the usual difficulty of a male singer as the voice breaks. As with Patti (and Subbulakshmi), it was a gift of nature and not the result of any special method of schooling. Professor Samba Murthy says: “His voice was the gift of God and owed nothing to hard work or training.” Some Hindus explain such prodigies by saying that it is the result of accumulated merit (punya) from previous births— as good an explanation as any. Fortunately his teachers had the good sense to leave it alone. Although he had a good deal of musical instruction and a thorough grounding in theory and composition, no one tried to ‘train’ his voice. More promising voices have been wrecked than helped by voice teachers.
It is somewhat difficult to get a clear picture of his vocal compass though by all accounts it was phenomenal. Professor Samba Murthy writes that it extended from anu-mandara pancama to ati-tara shadja. I shall try to explain it for those unfamiliar with Indian terminology. Maha Shivan sang to the basic pitch of G (or the ‘fifth house’ as Indian musicians denote it). The description by Samba Murthy gives his voice a range from the low D of the bass to the G above the tenor high C — or a compass of three octaves and a fourth! It is difficult to believe that any human voice — let own a male voice — could have such a stupendous range. The great musician and composer Vasudev Achar, who heard him many times, makes no mention of three-and-a-half octaves, though he does say that Maha Shivan sang effortlessly in all three octaves. This is not the same thing as saying that he had a range in excess of three octaves. Incidentally, the lowest note written for the voice is the low D, found in Osman’s aria in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, written for the German bass Ludwig Fischer. The highest note for the male voice appears to be the F above the tenor high C written by Bellini for the tenor Rubini in Puritani. According to Samba Murthy, Maha Shivan’s voice included both. While Samba Murthy was a careful scholar, I find it difficult to accept his claim for the following reasons.
The first problem I have is subjective. I think I have heard almost all the great singers of the century of both Western and Indian classical music, either in person or on records. And I know of no singer with the range that Samba Murthy attributes to Maha Shivan. Female singers with three octaves are rare but known. In their prime, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Parveen Sultana among Indian singers and the mezzo-sopranos Marylin Horne and Teresa Berganza among opera singers commanded three octaves. No doubt there have been others. But for a male voice to exceed even two octaves is quite rare. Ludwig Fischer mentioned earlier had a vocal range of two and half octaves (D to G), which the International Encyclopedia of Music finds worth mentioning. Maha Shivan’s voice had an octave above it! Could Samba Murthy have been mistaken, perhaps because he depended on hearsay? He was born only in 1900, when Maha Shivan had been dead seven years.
Fortunately, we now have first-hand evidence that appears to settle the question. Pallavi Subbaiah Bhagavatar (1859 – 1941), a leading musician of the last century, was one of Maha Shivan’s early students. He spent nearly seven years — from 1876 to 1882 — as a member of Maha Shivan’s household, as was the custom in those days. (This is known as guru-kula-vasa or ‘living with the guru’s family’.) He seems to have been a compulsive diarist and kept a detailed record of his master’s activities during his guru-kula period. This was published as a memoir by Subbiah Bhagavatar’s son, Gomati Shankara Iyer, a well-known Veena player. And Subbiah Bhagavatar, who must have heard Maha Shivan hundreds of times, says that he sang in a range from mandara shadja to ati-tara shdja or three octaves from G to G (assuming G to have been the reference pitch). We may accept this as authentic, on the authority of an accomplished musician who had heard him many times. This singing was done effortlessly, with no strain on the voice.
At the same time, Professor Samba Murthy was a meticulous scholar whose statement cannot easily be dismissed. May be he was partly right. Maha Shivan never pushed his voice and always sang within himself. As a naturally ‘high voiced’ singer, it is possible that he did not like to reach below the low G for the fear of straining his voice. He might have possessed low notes that he did not use in public. With a naturally high tessitura, excessive use of low notes would have strained his voice, which he was careful to avoid.
Whatever be the actual range, Maha Shivan was a vocal phenomenon without equal. This was acknowledged by both Indian and Western fans. He was once invited to sing before the Governor of Madras (British) and the audience included some European guests who had heard the best opera singers of the nineteenth century. After the performance, they left in a daze, shaking their heads in disbelief. The Governor said that he did not know of another voice like it. Samba Murthy says that it was unusually rich in harmonics. “It was as loud and clear at 200 feet as at twenty feet,” wrote one of his biographers. The secret of course was perfect intonation. Some years later, the British Resident in Mysore — also a music lover — said much the same thing. Several other Western fans, who had heard the best that Opera had to offer in the nineteenth century, were of the same opinion.
During a visit to Mysore, the Maharaja (Chamaraja Wodeyar) is said to have recorded Maha Shivan singing a passage from Dikshitar’s composition Chintayama (in the Bhairavi raga) on an Edison cylinder. (This had to be in 1891 the last time that Maha Shivan visited Mysore.) He was intrigued to hear his own voice reproduced. We do not know his reaction. Adelina Patti, upon hearing her own voice on record for the first time exclaimed (in French), “How wonderful! What a voice! I now know why I am Patti!” There is no record of a similar response from the reticent and austere Maha Shivan. Unfortunately, there is no trace of the Edison cylinder. It is believed to have been destroyed in a fire in the Mysore Jaganamohan Palace, now a museum. (My inquiries at the Jaganmohan Palace Museum turned up empty.)
Another feature of his voice was that it never needed any practice— a feature that he again shares with Patti. The voice was always ready as long as the mood was not disturbed. He was highly sensitive by nature and his family members took great care to see that nothing disturbed him. They regarded his voice as a family treasure, which it was. His elder brother Ramaswamy Shivan completely sheltered him from the affairs of the world. It is known that Patti also never practiced more than a few minutes a day of vocalizing. She learnt new roles from the score and placed them mentally, trying out a few special effects like fioritura. Maha Shivan followed a similar method. He studied the music and grasped its details. His voice was preserved for public performance. (Also, he rarely sang more than a handful of compositions by others, mainly Tyagaraja and Dikshitar. About half the program was devoted to his own and his brother’s compositions.)
Here is an interesting account of his extraordinary vocal gift. The well-known Tamil scholar Swaminatha Iyer once accompanied Maha Shivan and his brother to a performance. As they were approaching the place, Maha Shivan called out his brother in full voice, “Ramaswami, Ramaswami!” Swaminatha Iyer wondered why Maha Shivan had to call his brother by name when he was walking just next to him. After the performance, he picked up enough courage to ask Ramaswami Shivan. He replied that Maha Shivan was simply trying out his voice before the performance!
(I was witness to a somewhat similar phenomenon in 1958, when M.S. Subbulakshmi sang for my grandfather at our home. Without bothering to warm up her voice, or even waiting for the accompanists, she began to sing. When they followed a couple of minutes later she was found to be dead on pitch. The Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick writes that Patti was similarly gifted.)
As his voice needed no training, he had ample time on his hands to study music theory and composition and also Tamil and Sanskrit literature. He was also deeply religious and a devotee of Lord Shiva. He seems to have spent more time studying philosophic works than music. (His admirers believed that he was blessed by Lord Shiva himself. He was always addressed as ‘Shivanal’ or Maha Shivan, and never by his given name of Vaidya Natha. Relatives and close friends called him ‘Vaithi’.) In his own day he was as well known for his exposition of Shiva Puranas or Shiva-katha as his musical recitals. It is a special art that combines musical prose and poetry with singing— something like combining recitatives and arias in eighteenth century operas. On rare occasions he gave Hari-kathas or stories and myths associated with Lord Vishnu. He was not as well read in the Vaishnava Puranas, but had sufficient familiarity with the classics to conduct Hari-katha performances. Shiva was his ishta or favorite deity, but there was no sectarianism in the man. He gave performances at Vaishnava centers also.
The musical milieu
Although he observed the caste rules of the day, some of his closest friends and most patrons were not Brahmins. The person he most admired was the great Tamil scholar Minakshi Sundaram Pillai, who was not a Brahmin. In this, Maha Shivan was by no means exceptional among learned Brahmins. I mention this because there is a tendency among modern writers — especially left-leaning academics — to paint a picture of Hindu society as a caste-ridden hell in which Brahmins did nothing but oppress others. This is a grotesque caricature. They were neither the wealthiest nor the most influential group. The idea of ‘Brahminical oppression’ is an invention of Christian missionaries of the colonial era who saw attacking Brahmins and their learning as the most effective means uprooting Hinduism, in their program of converting India to Christianity. They made no secret of their plans— that the most effective method was to destroy the intellectual basis of the Hindu Civilization by attacking the Brahmins and their learning.
The reality is quite different. Brahmins were required to follow a very strict regime simply to qualify as priests, to be called to perform religious rites. Their livelihood depended on it. For example, in eighteenth century Mysore, Brahmins, if found drunk, could be whipped in public. They were supposed to set an example for the rest of society and uphold dharma, in return for the respect that the community gave them. They could not afford to antagonize the rest of society on whose patronage their livelihood depended. To draw a comparison, being an orthodox Brahmin in those days was like being a Kosher Jew.
Maha Shivan began studying music with his own father and other musicians in the village, but was soon sent to Manambu-chavadi Venkatasubbiah— the foremost teacher of the age, who had studied under the great Tyagaraja himself. (Of the great trinity of Karnatak music, Tyagaraja is regarded the first among equals.) In this sense Maha Shivan was directly in the line of Tyagaraja’s tradition. But his style was his own and had little in common with the other outstanding pupils of Venkatasubbiah, notably his great contemporary Patnam Subramanya Iyer (1845 – 1902). It is possible that Patnam was closer to Tyagaraja in style and execution, while Maha Shivan had evolved a unique style based on his incomparable vocal gifts. It is also possible that Tyagaraja, a vocal prodigy himself, was capable of both styles and Patnam and Maha Shivan carried forward different aspects of it.
Patnam once highlighted the difference between the two to his student Vasudev Achar of Mysore: “You see Vasu, one must evolve a style that suits one’s voice. Can I sing using the rapid tempo of Maha Shivan? No! Can he sing compositions emphasizing moderate tempo and variation the way I do? Again, no! Why? Because our voices are different. A good musician always sings in a style that is natural for the voice.”
Patnam’s (left) style — also taking root in Tyagaraja — has come down to us. He was the foremost teacher of his day and the singing of some of his students’ students is available on records, and their students are still performing. Maha Shivan’s style is more elusive. He sang at an extremely rapid tempo. What was druta (fast) for others was his beginning tempo, but there was no distortion or dropping of notes. Vasudev Achar writes: “Every note, every syllable and word was clear even at the highest tempo. Each passage was like a string of dazzling brilliants. His creativity in swara-kalpana [improvised passages] was breathtaking. At the same time, his singing was clarity itself and left the audience in a trance.”
In other words, his singing was full of fire— both in creation and execution. Recognizing this, his great contemporary Patnam, only a year younger and his life-long colleague, had cultivated the totally opposite style of moderate tempo and unhurried exposition. This also suited his easy-going — some would say pleasure loving — temperament. The two artists, total opposites in style and temperament, were the foremost singers of the second half of the nineteenth century. There were many other outstanding musicians — both vocal and instrumental — making it the golden age of Karnatak music. It drew its inspiration from the burst of creative genius of the Great Trinity of Tyagaraja, Muttuswamy Dikhshitar and Shyama Shastri in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century. As previously noted, this creative burst was made possible by innovations in music theory and performance beginning with Purandara Dasa (left). It is interesting that the Great Trinity was contemporary with Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, which gave Europe its own Classical Age.
To return to Maha Shivan’s style, one can try to get some idea of it from his students. Patnam sent some of his advanced students to Maha Shivan to polish up the kalpana-swara singing. One of them was Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar (or ‘Poocchi’) who sang in this century. It is said that his singing had echoes of Maha Shivan’s style. The same cannot be said of Poocchi’s foremost pupil Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar who sang well into the fifties and is available on records. One of Maha Shivan’s important students was Konerirajapuram Vaidya Natha Iyer who left behind one great student— Maharajapuram Vishwa Natha Iyer. Perhaps in Maharajapuram in his glory days we can hear the style of the master, especially in kalpana-swaras. Some of my musician friends tell me that there are times when the modern singer Balamurali Krishna, with a style all of his own, displays some features of Maha Shivan’s style, though vocally the two cannot be compared. (Also Balamurali’s singing is often marred by excesses and unevenness that Maha Shivan would not have tolerated.)
How can I explain this to my Western readers? The first point is that even the best singer of Western art music today does not have the tradition of improvising variations— at least at the creative level that one expects from a major artist in Indian music. (How many Western singers have been composers of note?) As a natural genius Maha Shivan was on the level of Mozart, while as a singer he was without peer. To go with this his style was fiery. To get an idea of the combination of a fiery singing style and creativity of the highest order, one must go to the best Mozart singing on records of examples that emphasize the fiery spirit found in his operas. In my view, the finest execution of Mozart on records is the recitative and the aria Come Scolio from the opera Cosi Fan Tutti rendered by the great Spanish coloratura singer Teresa Berganza. In her singing spanning space, time and civilizations, I can hear an echo of the fire and artistry of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan.
(For those who might be interested here is something to chew on. The finest singing recorded in Western music are: the Mozart arias by Teresa Berganza just noted; the Donna Anna arias from Don Giovanni recorded by Lilli Lehman, in 1906 I believe; and the aria Il mio Tesoro from Don Giovanni along with Handel’s Care Selva and O Sleep, why dost thou leave me recorded by John McCormack. This is purely subjective of course, considering I belong to the school of thought that holds that a singer who cannot sing Mozart is no singer at all.)
An unusual feature of Maha Shivan’s recitals was that they were short by contemporary standards. In an age when people thought nothing of three-hour programs, Maha Shivan rarely sang for more than an hour and a half or two hours. For one he began his program at full tilt, without the warm-up pieces that other singers use before getting to the main part of the program. He had the voice to pull it off. His style, which wasted no time on non-essentials, ensured that the full length of the program was devoted to the best music. The emphasis was on mano-dharma sangita, or ‘creative music’, where compositions of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar were used as vehicles for the exposition of a particular raga. The latter part of the program was devoted to his own compositions. His rapid tempo and fiery style covered more musical ground than others did in programs twice the length. The highlights of his program were alapana and pallavi or singing variations around a basic text followed by kalpana-swaras.
Above all it was the creativity displayed in his mano-dharma sangita that made him stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries. It may be argued that even without his extraordinary voice, his creativity and musical scholarship would have ensured his supremacy. His kalpana-swaras were so extraordinary that musicians copied down his extempore creations and adopted them as part of existing compositions. They are still in use as part of some of the most popular Dikshitar compositions. Not one music fan in a hundred probably knows that some of the best passages (sangtis) of famous Dikshitar compositions like Vatapi ganapatim bhaje’ham (Hamsadhvani raga), Chintaya ma kanda mula kandam (Bhairavi raga), Sri Subramanyaya Namaste (Kamboji raga) and others were introduced by Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan in his performances and not in the original composition. These have now become integral part of the composition. It may be said with justice that the popularity of Dikshitar’s music owes as much to Maha Shivan as to the Dikshitar. They give us a glimpse of his creative genius as a performing artist.
His great contemporary (and neighbor) Patnam sent his best students to Maha Shivan to complete their training, especially to learn the latter’s method of kalpana-swaras. Not all could learn such a transcendent art, but a few — notably Poocchi Srinivasa Iyengar and possibly Tiger Varadachar — did imbibe something of the great man’s method. It speaks volumes for the generosity of Patnam that he acknowledged the greatness of Maha Shivan even to his students. Patnam, unlike Maha Shivan, was not a vocal prodigy; he had to labor hard and long to bring his unruly instrument under control. And perhaps for that reason, he became an excellent and patient teacher. He had evolved a totally different style that emphasized fundamentals and fidelity to the composer’s mood and intentions. Maha Shivan was one of his foremost admirers and never missed a recital by Patnam, to the extent his busy schedule allowed.
The two were the best of friends, though their busy schedule did not allow them much time to socialize outside musical events. One occasion when they always met was the annual Upakarma ceremony, when orthodox Brahmins renew their vows by replacing the sacred thread (yagnopavitam). Patnam would visit Maha Shivan at his house and seek his blessings. The first time it happened, Maha Shivan, who was barely a year older than Patnam, was acutely embarrassed. “Such a great artist as you should not come to me for blessings,” he protested. “By saluting you,” Patnam retorted, “I am only seeking Lord Shiva’s blessings.”
The two — Patnam and Maha Shivan — were often invited to sing together by patrons and princes including the Maharaja of Mysore. Their contrasting styles must have made such programs memorable. It is interesting that on such occasions, Maha Shivan’s brother Ramaswami did not appear on the stage. (This is clear from photographs.) This suggests that he was not in the same league as the two stalwarts. But this did not stop his followers and admirers from trying to show that Maha Shivan owed much of his success to the guidance of Ramaswamy Shivan, possibly with the latter’s connivance. This took an unfortunate turn soon after Maha Shivan’s death in 1893.
His brother’s untimely death (not yet 49) was a severe blow to Ramaswami Shivan. It is understandable that he should have done everything to perpetuate the memory of his great brother. But he went beyond the need, going to the extent of bending the truth. He published a biographical work he called Vijaya Sangraha (‘Compilation of Victories’) that was supposed to chronicle Maha Shivan’s triumphant career as a musician. In it he sought to elevate his brother’s stature by denigrating the art and the character of some of his contemporaries, notably Patnam, whom he portrayed as a jealous rival afraid to face Maha Shivan. This infuriated Patnam who published a retort titled Vijaya Sangraha Khandana (‘Refutation of Vijaya Sangraha). This drew a ‘Refutation of the Refutation’ from a student, one Veena Mayavaram Vaidya Natha Iyer (no relative). The unseemly controversy seems to have ended only with Ramaswami Shivan’s death. Had he been alive, Maha Shivan would have nipped it in the bud.
The episode shows Ramaswami Shivan in less attractive light compared to his great brother— more materialistic and also capable of petty malice. He probably resented his brother’s admiration for Patnam’s art. Subbiah Bhagavatar, who had studied with the Shivan brothers, wrote:
“I saw Ramaswami Shivan’s little book Vijaya Sangraha in 1894. It seemed to me to be full of exaggeration. Even though Ramaswami Shivan was my esteemed teacher, I could not ignore its deficiencies. So I made a note of factual errors in the book.” This was an admirable act that showed his concern for truth, but as a traditional Hindu brought up to regard his teacher as worthy of worship, it bothered Bhagavatar. He writes: “To clear my conscience I served God by writing three books on Vedanta.”
This sheds interesting light on the attitude of a devout Hindu in those days. He had to respect truth, but he also had to respect his teacher. When a conflict arose, truth was more important. But to compensate for denigrating his teacher, however mildly, he had to undertake a worthy task as penance.
Bhagavatar was not prepared to leave it at that. He saw Ramaswami Shivan in 1895 and asked: “Why did you have to write that such great artists as Patnam Subramnia Iyer, Kunnakudi Krishna Iyer and others were afraid of singing in the company of your brother?”
Ramaswami Shivan gave a lame excuse. He cited an instance when a local prince asked Patnam and Kunnakudi to join Maha Shivan in a joint recital at a wedding. They declined saying that such a recital would not allow scope for them and would also lower the dignity of the profession by making it look like a wrestling contest. This, Ramaswami claimed, showed fear on the part of Patnam, Kunnakudi and a few others. Ramaswami was wrong and the musicians were right. They could not allow some minor prince to use them as exhibits to project himself as a great patron of the arts before friends and relatives at a family wedding. The same musicians sang with Maha Shivan on other, purely musical occasions.
This distressed Bhagavatar. He went on to observe: “Patnam and Kunnakudi were great artists who always respected Maha Shivan as their superior. His supremacy was conceded by all. Maha Shivan’s standing in the musical world is in no way diminished by acknowledging the greatness of others. It gained nothing by denigrating other artists.” The great man himself was always generous with praise, so long as it was well deserved. No unkind word ever escaped his lips. But Ramaswami Shivan had neither the artistic merit nor the generosity of spirit of his brother that made him as great a man as a musician.
While the greatest of them like Patnam had no fear of Maha Shivan, the same could not be said of lesser musicians. Many of them, finding Maha Shivan in town, would pretend that they had come on some other business. They could not hope for an audience when the great man was around. What was said of Franz Lizst, “when Lizst appeared, other pianists disappeared,” was literally true of Maha Shivan. Their patrons usually recognized the problem and gave them the customary honorarium of ten varahas (about 35 rupees) even when they didn’t perform. Maha Shivan also was sensitive to the problem and insisted that the patrons who invited him should compensate lesser musicians also.
Three traits distinguish Maha Shivan’s character: spirituality, generosity and concern for his art and the dignity of his profession. He was a deeply spiritual man who saw his art as an expression of his devotion to Lord Shiva. Although a musician by profession he spent more time studying philosophy and sacred works. And he was a man who practiced what he believed in. He was generous to a fault who had difficulty saying ‘No’ to any request. His wife Kamakshi was equally generous and helped poor families on occasions like their daughters’ marriage. This was one of the reasons why his brother Ramaswami Shivan managed all his affairs, shielding his brother from people who might take advantage of his generosity.
On one occasion, Maha Shivan promised all his income from a concert tour, including a priceless jewel necklace, to a temple charity and poor students’ home. This made Ramaswami Shivan furious and the two brothers were not on speaking terms for over a month. Finally, Maha Shivan had his way, and made his brother personally hand over both the money and necklace at an official ceremony. This shows that there was some steel in his otherwise mild personality.
Such inclination for charity appears to be a common trait among performing artists— both Indian and Western. The great Swedish soprano Jenny Lind in the nineteenth century and M.S. Subbulakshmi in our own time have also been lavish in their charity. But for each generous artist, one can find the opposite kind. Adelina Patti for example was known to be a tough bargainer. Her fee was $5000 dollars a performance— and this more than a century ago! And the money had to be paid in cash before each performance. There is a famous story of how she put on her full costume except for one shoe, when the opera manager Mapleson had paid her only $4800. She kept both the audience and the orchestra waiting until he came up with the balance of $200. Mapleson wrote that Patti, after being paid the full amount, “her face radiant with benignant smiles, went on the stage.”
He was filled with admiration for Patti, calling her the most successful singer that ever lived. “Vocalists as gifted, as accomplished, may be named,” Mapleson ruefully wrote, “but no one ever approached her in the art of obtaining from a manager the greatest possible sum he could by any possibility contrive to pay.”
This of course is Mapleson’s version of the story. Unlike singers and other performing artists, managers and impresarios (like Mapleson) are not known for their charitable instincts. They are out to make money and many artists have been ruined by trusting the likes of Mapleson. (Just think of Michael Jackson.) Patti was right in insisting that she be paid in full before the performance. She knew what she was worth and Mapleson had the choice of engaging someone else if he thought Patti’s fee was unreasonable. This is precisely what the great singer Gaeteno Caffarelli (below) once told the French king. Here is the story.
Caffarelli (left), one of the most celebrated opera singers of the 18th century was the toast of Paris. Naturally royalty wanted him to sing at the palace. One of the King’s ministers came to Caffarelli, bringing some presents from the palace. The singer looked at them with disdain and pointed to some of the presents he had already received. “But Signor Caffarelli!” the minister exclaimed, “His Majesty gives such presents only to ambassadors!” “Then ask your ambassadors to sing for His Majesty,” advised Caffarelli.
Among Indian musicians, Tirukkodikavil Krishna Iyer (1852 – 1915) was known for his fondness for money. He was almost as famous a violinist as Maha Shivan was a singer. He was once invited by the Maharaja of Mysore (Chama Raja Wodeyar) to play at the palace, which was a great honor for any musician. To the horror of court officials, he insisted that the Maharaja should agree to pay 500 rupees for his performance— an enormous sum in those days. The custom was for the visiting musician to accept as an honor whatever the Maharaja paid. But Krishna Iyer would have none of it, so someone had to convey his demand to the Maharaja. Finally, the court musician Veena Subbanna, who was close to the Maharaja, informed him. The Maharaja told Subbanna that he was willing to pay him Rs 500.
The recital was brilliant for Krishna Iyer was probably the greatest violinist that India has ever produced— a true Paganini but with much better musicianship and taste (but not a composer). After the performance, the Maharaja addressed the violinist and the audience: “Sir, you are the greatest violinist I have ever heard. No one can put a price on your artistry. I was planning to give you a thousand rupees, but you insisted on five hundred. I am paying you five hundred because it would be improper for me to go against the wishes of a great artist like you.”
Vasudev Achar (left) relates another incident, also at the Mysore palace, when the violinist got a measure of revenge. On this occasion, the Maharaja did pay Krishna Iyer a thousand rupees. The sight of a plate filled with a thousand silver coins delighted the violinist who had never seen so much money at one time. He sat there on the ground and tested each coin for purity by tossing it and listening to the sound as it fell. He found two that seemed suspicious because of their hollow sound. He turned to the Maharaja and requested that they be replaced saying that it was not proper for a real king to give counterfeit coins. The Maharaja complied with his request, controlling his laughter with the greatest difficulty.
There were no two opinions about Krishna Iyer’s music and uncompromising standards. Once he was asked to accompany a singer who was unaware the violinist’s identity. This singer, a master technician, sang to the gallery, indulging generously in pyrotechnics and vocal gymnastics. Krishna Iyer accompanied as best as he could, while displaying his own artistry whenever the opportunity came. After the concert, the singer turned to Krishna Iyer and said: “Your playing sir, was like a shower of music (sangita-varsham).” “Your singing sir,” Krishna Iyer retorted, “was like a shower of stones (shila-varsham).”
Maha Shivan was once involved in a similar episode, where he had to stand up for what he felt were musical values. This was at a concert in which he shared the stage with the famous pallavi singer Sesha Iyer. Sesha Iyer sang a highly involved pallavai (variations around a recitative) using a complex text. It was clear that he had spent many days preparing for the occasion. He then invited Maha Shivan to sing the same pallavi in his own style. “Would you be kind enough to repeat the sahitya (text or libretto) one more time?” he requested. “Why repeat such a simple thing?” Sesha Iyer retorted.
“There would be no need for such a request,” was Maha Shivan’s polite but firm reply, “if only your pallavi had been composed according to the best traditions of music — with the text enhancing the music. But what you gave is just a jumble of words — a verbal circus leaving little scope for music.”
Krishna Iyer was Maha Shivan’s favorite accompanist, in fact the only violinist of the time who could keep up with his singing. They were the opposite in temperament. Where Maha Shivan was austere and reserved, Krishna Iyer was friendly and outgoing. Also, where Krishna Iyer was thrifty, Maha Shivan was generous to a fault. Maha Shivan, like his parents, maintained an open house. Thirty to forty people were fed at lunch daily, mostly a few visitors and poor children. A member of the household once complained that it was costing too much money to feed all these people. “It is only because of their happy blessings that I have prospered.” he retorted. “As long as I have the means, no one will be denied hospitality.”
Maha Shivan could not stand to see anyone getting hurt. One day at lunch, a young stranger — probably a village boy — came in and sat in the seat normally reserved for the great man. A family member tried to shoo him off, but Maha Shivan would have none of it. Once seated, the guest, no matter how humble, had to be fed. It was his firm belief that it was the blessings of such people that had made him a great artist. He was equally gentle to his students. It was normal practice in those days for students staying with the teacher (guru-kula students) to be given household chores like washing clothes. Maha Shivan would not allow it. But his brother Ramaswami Shivan, who did most of the basic teaching anyway, made sure that the students were kept busy.
While he maintained an open house where visitors were generously fed, his own habits were frugal in the extreme. He did not like spicy foods or sweets, or anything containing fat. He was a strict vegetarian, but he also wanted the vegetables to be dried before being cooked. He felt that such a regime was beneficial to his voice. In addition he could not stand strong smelling flowers and fruits. This suggests that he had allergy problems, but no one understood it at the time. His strict diet was for himself; guests and other members of the household were served normally cooked food. Some of his friends believed that his eccentric diet, lacking in proper nutrition was partly responsible for his untimely death.
His extreme austerity greatly amused his friend Patnam, a noted gourmet. “What is the point in working so hard if you have to starve just to keep your voice in shape?” he once asked his pupil Vasudev Achar. “Should my voice serve me or should I to serve my voice?”
In appearance, he was slim, of medium height and strikingly handsome, who maintained a youthful appearance to the end. His untimely death of course served to keep his youthful image alive. This was true of Adelina Patti also who remained slim and beautiful through most of her career. This is unusual. Singers — both Indian and Western — tend to corpulence well before middle age. But Patti, like Maha Shivan, maintained a strict regime. “Such a life!” exclaimed Clara Louise Kellogg, who knew Patti well. “Everything divided off carefully according to regime: —so much to eat, so far to walk, so long to sleep, just such and such things to do and no others!” Her only indulgence was husbands, of which she had three. Maha Shivan on the other hand was happily married to Kamakshi and had two sons and a daughter.
Maha Shivan was highly sensitive by nature. His mood was easily disturbed by untoward incidents, especially when he felt that some injustice was being done to someone. One incident that took place in Chennai (Madras) towards the end of his career speaks volumes for his generosity of spirit.
To understand this, it is necessary to recognize that musicians those days were paid by patrons. For wealthy men and women, it was a status symbol to be known as a patron of great artists. When a recital was held in a public place like a temple or a school, there was no admission fee and anyone could attend. A wealthy merchant of Madras (Chennai) invited Maha Shivan to perform at a school. Maha Shivan agreed. But this merchant introduced an innovation. Without telling Maha Shivan, he decided to charge admission to the program. When Maha Shivan, accompanied by violinist Krishna Iyer and the Mridangam player Tukaram arrived at the place of recital, he was surprised to see money changing hands. He saw also several men and women with disappointment writ on their faces. On inquiry, he was told that they were being denied admission because they had no money to buy tickets. He cancelled the program.
“Please return the money,” he told the organizers. “My mind is too disturbed by all this and I cannot sing today. But I will sing tomorrow at the Parthasarathy Temple (in Triplicane) with the same accompanists. I invite all of you to come and enjoy the music and receive also the blessings of Lord Krishna.”
Following the performance the next day, the patrons showered Maha Shivan with cash and jewelry worth about 750 rupees — a princely sum in those days when an average musician’s fee was only about 35 rupees. He gave 250 rupees each to his two accompanists and donated his share to the temple, to be given to the poor.
The merchant who had invited Maha Shivan was faced with public disgrace. He approached Maha Shivan and said: “Sir, my only intention in collecting money was to honor you with a larger purse. Your canceling the program will bring disgrace upon me. I’ll never be able to show my face in this town. You must save my reputation by performing at my house. I’ll promise that no one will be denied admission.”
Maha Shivan agreed, but told him: “God has made you wealthy and there is no need for you to take money from others. Why should poor people be denied the pleasures of music? Are there no music lovers among the poor? Don’t the poor also have taste in music? Should only rich people enjoy music? Fortunate people like you and me should help the less fortunate in every way.”
It was this spirit of generosity as much as his incomparable genius that made Maha Shivan universally respected.
For all his greatness and easygoing spirit, Maha Shivan was the target of envy and was also drawn into disputes that he preferred to avoid. As the greatest musical scholar of the day, he was asked to settle disputes relating to some theoretical point or other. These often have no set answers. As Vasudev Achar tells us: “Some musicians think that theory and tradition must be followed to the letter, but in practice, a composer or a performer can use them only as guides. One has to adapt to circumstances. No one can set down rules for ever.” So, in settling disputes, it is necessary to balance theory with practical needs. (The famous conductor Toscanini went further: he claimed that tradition was nothing but the last bad performance.)
One dispute involved Maha Shivan’s colleague Patnam himself. The dispute was between two well-known musicians of Madras. A contest between the two was arranged to decide who was right. Patnam reluctantly agreed to be the judge. During the contest, Maha Shivan, who happened to be in town and heard about it, walked into the auditorium. Patnam gave his judgment but said he would abide by the decision of Maha Shivan as his senior. Maha Shivan supported Patnam’s decision, but went on to gently admonish the contestants.
“When there is a dispute between musicians,” he told them, “it should be settled among ourselves— in an assembly of scholars and musicians. Doing it in public makes us look like wrestlers in a pit. It lowers our dignity in the eyes of the public. It also doesn’t help the cause of music.”
Not many musicians — then or now — think beyond their own interests. For all his gifts, Maha Shivan began to feel the pressure of performing and maintaining such high standards. The Raja of Venkatagiri once invited him to spend a couple of days with him to enjoy his company. Surprisingly, for all his reserve and reticence, Maha Shivan was a witty and entertaining companion. He was relieved to learn that the Raja wanted only to discuss some points of music theory and did not ask him to sing. He later told his friend Swaminatha Iyer: “He paid double the normal fee but didn’t ask me to sing. Usually, such people wring you dry.”
This shows that singing for him was not as easy it appeared on the outside. His exacting standards took their toll. In addition, he had to face challenges from rivals trying to upstage him. Early in his career, he was challenged by the great composer Tyagaraja’s grandson also named Tyagaraja. He had studied under Manambu-chavadi Venkatasubbiah who was also Maha Shivan’s teacher. When he learnt of Tyagaraja’s plan to challenge Maha Shivan, Manambu-chavadi warned him against it: “Don’t go near him. He is a fire that can reduce you to ashes.” This is exactly what happened. Tyagaraja was thoroughly trounced and never recovered from the experience. He is remembered today for that one unhappy episode.
The experience left its mark on Maha Shivan also. Though triumphant, his sensitive nature recoiled from the thought of hurting another musician. But in early 1892, while returning from a lengthy visit to Mysore, he was challenged by one Venu (full name Venugopala Naidu) who was known to be a phenomenal technician, especially at pallavi singing. Much as he tried, Maha Shivan could not escape it. The contest was to be held in Madras with Venu’s teacher Masalamani Mudaliar acting as referee. (Masalamani wanted no part of it, but he was left with little choice.)
The rules of the contest decreed that each was to sing a raga of one’s choosing to be followed by a pallavi in the same raga by the other. The same pallavi had to be sung by the one who began the contest with the raga. Venu waived his turn and said that Maha Shivan could begin in any raga he wished. Anticipating that Maha Shivan would choose one of the popular, major ragas, Venu had come prepared with highly intricate pallavis in all the major ragas to throw as challenge. Maha Shivan was accompanied by his friend, violinist Venkoba Rao. Venu’s plan seemed to be working when Maha Shivan began preparations to sing the major raga Shankarabharam. This would be playing right into the hands of Venu who was ready with an extraordinarily complex pallavi, which he could throw as a challenge— or so he thought.
Venkoba Rao sensed a trap. He drew Maha Shivan’s attention by tapping him on the shoulder, advising him to sing the little known raga Narayana-gowla. This was conveyed using a coded language. Here Maha Shivan had a distinct advantage as a much greater scholar than Venu who was a technician who had concentrated on just one aspect of music. Maha Shivan gave a beautiful exposition, but Venu was flabbergasted. He could not even identify the raga, let alone challenge him with a pallavi in that raga. He left the auditorium in a huff. The judge Masilamani Mudaliar honored Maha Shivan with a shawl and a gift of 750 rupees.
It was another triumph, but left a bad taste in his mouth. His public performances became less and less frequent until one day he stopped altogether. Vasudev Achar who was present on the occasion gives a vivid account of how it came about. It was at the home of a wealthy patron, with gifts and jewelry to be given to Maha Shivan displayed on a table for all to see. Maha Shivan had just completed a magnificent rendering of Dikshitar’s composition Chintaya maa in the Bhairavi raga, when the patron — a wealthy landowner — sent him a note. It asked Maha Shivan to sing a particular composition. Vasudev Achar described what happened as follows.
“I can never forget what happened,” he wrote more than fifty years later. “Ramaswami Shivan glanced at the note and his face turned dark like thunder. ‘Wrap up your tamburi,’ he roared, turning to his brother. ‘The day is gone when an artist could sing following his inspiration and ideal. We are now asked to perform like servants— to please those who pay us. From now on your music is only for yourself, for the elevation of your soul— not for others. Let us take leave of this life.’ ”
Without a word, Maha Shivan got up and followed his brother out of the recital hall. He never again sang in public. This was in 1892. Within a few months, on 27 January 1893, he was dead, not yet forty-nine. On that day, sensing he was nearing death, with a great effort, he walked to the temple, worshiping his favorite deity Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati. He returned home and collapsed. It was an appropriately dramatic end to the eventful life of Maha Vaidya Natha Shivan, the greatest musical genius after Tyagaraja. As his life showed, the great artist was also a great man. This above all is the secret of the universal respect that he continues to command.