A lawyer's tryst with Carnatic music

In the 1950s, Karnataka had a resplendent Carnatic music scene. In the same period, Srinivasa Iyengar, a lawyer and veena player, began writing articles on the Carnatic music scene in the state along with reviewing music concerts, for various publications including Deccan Herald.

Iyengar wrote under the pseudonym of
‘Rajasree’ and wrote articles and reports that popularised music criticism and reportage in Karnataka.

In those days, Sangeetha Sabhas in Bengaluru restricted their patronage to a select group of prominent Carnatic musicians. Iyengar was one of the few critics who cast a wider net and brought attention to new and local talent in the Carnatic music space.

Due to his popularity as a music critic, he enjoyed a good relationship with famous music personalities. Due to this acquaintance, he was witness to interesting conversations, incidents and anecdotes involving leading musicians.

One such anecdote involves T Chowdiah, a violin maestro from Mysuru. Iyengar, who was the secretary of the Gayana Samaja in Bengaluru, decided to organise a performance of the Alathur brothers, with Chowdiah on the violin and Palghat Mani Iyer on the mridangam.

A day before the concert, Chowdiah sent Iyengar a telegram that he was unwell and had to skip the performance. Iyengar arranged for an upcoming violinist to take Chowdiah’s place. On the day of the concert, Iyengar noticed someone sneak into the auditorium and sit quietly in the last row. His curiosity piqued, Iyengar went over to see who it was, and was astonished to discover that it was Chowdiah, who had attended the concert anonymously to see if the upcoming violinist made the cut!

Iyengar had varied interests outside of Carnatic music and these interests coloured his writing in a unique way.

He wrote on Hindustani music, Western classical music, and theatre. His love for English literature also shaped his criticism, and in one instance, he used John Milton’s famous lines, “In notes with many a winding bout Of linked sweetness long drawn out,” to describe Lalgudi G Jayaraman’s concert. His profile of Palghat Mani had a compelling headline – “In the hands of the wizard, the mridangam sings.”

When critiquing a Chowdiah and Doraiswamy Iyengar concert, he wrote, “One would wonder how a seven-string violin and a veena would combine. But to those who turned up at the Samaja hall, the combination belied misgivings and turned out to be a pleasant experience.”

Mellifluous melody

He described M S Subbulakshmi’s concert at a music festival in Ravindra Kalkshetra in Bengaluru in 1965 as “a veritable shower of mellifluous melody.”

Iyengar shaped the Carnatic music scene in Bengaluru through his association with the Gayana Samaja. He raised funds to build the Samaja’s music hall. He also worked towards introducing the first annual conference in the Gayana Samaja, on the lines of the famous annual music festival held at the Madras Music Academy. This conference began in 1969 and continues to this very day in Bengaluru.

Iyengar wrote 18 books, including one on T Chowdiah. His body of music criticism serves as a vital piece of music history in Karnataka. This year marks Iyengar’s centenary year and it is interesting to see how far Carnatic music and concert reportage has evolved in Karnataka since he first started writing in the 1950s.

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