A treasure-trove brimming with riches

A treasure-trove brimming with riches

Shreekantham Nagendra Shastry with some precious pieces.

I pluck the strings of the thambura and thrill to the deep, sonorous naadam which spreads through the room and lingers awhile. After a while, I return this exquisite, ornate thambura with great care mingled with some tension, to its place in the cupboard––after all, this instrument was once owned by the legendary Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar and later used by the stalwart Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Another fabulous thambura, about three-centuries-old stands in a corner––once used by ashtana vidwans at famous royal courts.

Well-known Karnatik classical vocalist, teacher and respected scholar Professor Shreekantham Nagendra Shastry has many such treasures in his possession. In his home are centuries-old palm-leaf manuscripts, books and audio-records relating to Karnatik music and related subjects all crowded into small cupboards, boxes and shelves. The collection was largely inherited by Shastry––he hails from the famed Chintalapalli family with a recorded history of 800-years as the asthana vidwans for some of south India’s biggest royal courts––the Hoyasalas of Dwarasamudra, Vijayanagar and Bahmani kings, Gadwal royals, Mysore Maharajas, etc.

The pride and happiness of being in possession of such a rare collection is coupled with a huge sense of responsibility about its proper preservation as well as some anxiety about being equal to this daunting task. Consider the magnitude of the work on Shastry’s hands. There are nearly 500 gramophone records dating back to the early 20th century beside a decades-old gramophone player. A small cupboard houses hundreds of books dating from  1865 A.D. while about 500 palm-leaf manuscripts are bursting out of another one. The subjects of these books and manuscripts include music, astronomy, astrology, religion, Ayurveda, tantra, mantra and yantra. The palm-leaf manuscripts are being indexed by the erudite Shastry into Rig Veda Samhita, Yajur Veda Samhita, Nakshatra Choodamani Gaadadhari, etc.

Disseminating knowledge

The biggest surprise and one which needs to be worked on systematically is the mammoth collection of 10,000 compositions with notation by vaggeyakaras––of the Trinity, pre-Trinity and post-Trinity. And hold your breath––of these nearly  5,000 are not known to exist in printed format anywhere! There are about 3,000 audio-cassettes containing renditions (at public and private performances) by past greats like Thitte Krishna Aiyyangar, Bellary Brothers, D.K. Pattammal, Chembai Bhagavathar, Mysore Vasudevachar, Shanmukha Vadivu, Veena Chokkamma, etc. Some contain
private interviews by Shastry of great musicians.

It is an enormous challenge, preserving these for posterity. Dr Shastry is passionately doing all he can. Digitising the old records, disseminating the knowledge contained in the books and manuscripts by passing it on to students and research scholars, and holding workshops on rare compositions are among these efforts.

So, he has a computer corner where the PC hard disk stores 350 GB of classical music by  contemporary and yesteryears stalwarts, sourced from commercial records and  private performances––much of it gifted by noted musician Akella Mallikarjuna Sarma of Hyderabad. Every Sunday evening, Dr Shastry holds a workshop where he renders and teaches (without charging fees) select lyrics from his rare-compositions-collection. Another initiative is Goshti Gayaana or group singing of these compositions which any student of any teacher, and of any age is welcome to join.  

He has released about 10 books containing compositions––from the 5,000 mentioned above––and four records like Rasaraja Vaibhava, Lalita Sangeetha Lahari, Apoorva Srividya. Some of these have been tuned by him and all rendered vocally by him. Besides, he has contributed a regular musical programme for AIR on selected rare compositions wherein the script and commentary are by him and renditions by eminent musicians.

Shastry also permits access to his collections to research scholars and musicians.
It is a gargantuan task made tougher by the fact that there is no governmental or institutional support and little help too from individual art-patrons. “Maintaining  and preserving these collections for future generations requires a great deal of manpower, time, and money,” he says.

He has limited resources––his music-teaching has always been free of cost to students. He makes a living as a college-lecturer and as a performing musician.

Shastry’s archiving efforts deserve all possible help. After all, there are some people in our country who have guarded their rare music-related recordings and books without sharing it with anyone, till these treasures have deteriorated to the point of being destroyed and irretrievably lost.

So, when someone like Shastry is valiantly and generously trying to preserve and share his music treasures with other musicians and the younger generation, his noble efforts deserve all the help that can be given.

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