MADURAI SOMU... THE MONARCH OF MANODHARMA SANGITHAM
Tanjore district is not only famous as the rice bowl of Tamilnadu but also as the cultural hub of the state. It has produced numerous artistes who have made an indelible mark in the field of fine arts through the decades.We all know that Swamimalai is one of the Six abodes (“Arupadai veedu”) of Lord Muruga. This temple town has produced the famous Periya Nagarathinammal and Chinna Nagarathinammal sisters who were well trained in music. Being descendents of the Isai Velaalar sect, their grandson Srinivasa Pillai was a well known Nadhaswara vidwan. His son Sachidanandam Pillai was a Bench Court clerk. He was married to Kamalambal. This couple already had nine children. The 10th one was born on February 9th 1919 (09.02.1919). He was named Paramasivam. Sachidanandam Pillai was transferred to Madurai Court and the family shifted from Swamimalai to Madurai. There was a temple nearby their house in Sembu kinattru theru where Sachidanandam Pillai’s sons Muthaiah, Meenakshi Sundaram and Paramasivam were attracted by a local Pehalwan by name Muthu Vadhiyar who taught silambam, wrestling and other body building exercises. After a period of time each one of them mastered in these martial art forms and excelled in their own way. There was one Narayanak Konaar in that same temple who would sing Bhajans in the evening. Paramasivam was attracted towards this and after his physical training in the mornings would sit through the bhajan sessions with a sruti box..!
Kamalambal was particular in putting her last son Paramasivam under the tutelage of a well known Nadhaswara vidwan as she wanted to see her son as a leading player of the wind instrument. But Paramasivam who did schooling upto the sixth or seventh standard could not continue the nadhaswaram classes as well. He had interest only in vocal music and would practice rigorously for hours in neck-deep water..!.
Left with no other choice, Paramasivam was initiated into music initially under Seiththur Sundaresa Bhattar, a disciple of Kancheepuram Naina Pillai. Then he underwent Thevara singing training under Madurai Latchumana Chettiar, a disciple of M.M.Dandapani Desikar and from Sesham Bhagavathar, Abhirami Sasthriar and Madurai Thiruppugazh Mani.
In the year 1934, Paramasivam rendered some devotional songs in front of the presiding deity Lord Muruga at Thiruchendur. Immediately after that, with the benign blessings of Lord Somasundareswara of Madurai and his own mother’s blessings Paramasivam became to be known as “Somasundaram”....”Somu”.
That’s the story of how Swamimalai Paramasivam came to be known as Madurai Somasundaram..fondly as “Somu” by his rasikas. It was in the early 1930s....during the Navarathri celebrations, the famous musician Chithoor Subramania Pillai had come to Madurai to render a Navarathri special concert. As usual young Somu was there in the audience totally absorbed and mesmerised by Subramania Pillai’s rendition. At once the young lad decided that Chithoor Subramania Pillai should be his Guru and shared his views with the family members. On the auspicious Vijayadasami day, accompanied by his father and his maternal uncle Nagasundaram Pillai, Somu was initiated into the Gurukulam style of learning music under the tutelage of Chithoor Subramania Pillai with a one sovereign gold coin as Guru dakshina..!
Chithoorar was residing at Vallam Bangaru Chetty street, Purasawalkam, Madras at that time with a very big gang of about 20 plus disciples. He used to address Somu as Somaiyya. Chithoorar was a telugu speaking person. So Somu could easily grasp the language that helped him a lot while learning Thyagaraja kruthis. Starting as an assistant to play tambura during concerts, Somu slowly climbed the ladder of success by assisting his Guru as a side artist initially and started singing raga alapanas as directed by his mentor. Todi, Kalyani and Khamboji were his favourites. Somu spent 14 years at his Guru’s house and learnt the nuances of music thoroughly and also imbibed the moral values of life apart from music.
Happy with his pet student Somu’s grasping power and learning, Chithoorar presented Somu with three pairs of veshti, kurta and a shawl along with a tambura and blessed him heartily to start performing on his own. A concert at the Kaali Amman koil in Sembian Lane, Madurai and another one in front of Lord Murugan sannidhi at Thiruchendur were some of his early concerts in 1940 that kick started Somu’s solo performances. In 1944 an afternoon slot at Rasika Ranjani Sabha saw the doyen Tiger Varadachariar heartily appreciating Somu’s concert with his stylish “Sobhaash”(Sabhash). Even after several decades Somu considered Tiger Varadachariar’s appreciation as the most prestigious award he had ever received. In the year 1946 Somu was conferred the title “Ranjitha Gana Mani” by his Guru Chithoor Subramania Pillai. Probably that was the first title conferred on Madurai Somu.
In the year 1947 Madurai Somu married Saroja B.A.(Hons), a teacher at the Lady Wellingdon school, Madras. She is the grand daughter of Mahavidwan Thirukkarugavoor Gurunatha Pillai and daughter of Sakthivel Pillai. Guru Chithoor Subramania Pillai blessed his disciple Somu and Saroja specially by rendering an exclusive concert for their marriage. In the year 1958 Somu was engaged by the makers of “Sampoorna Ramayanam” tamil film, to render a few songs for the movie under the baton of K.V.Mahadevan. Somu rendered one song each for Bharathan to be essayed by Sivaji Ganesan and also for Raavanan to be played by T.K.Baghavathi. However, while filming the swara passages that adorned the “Veenai kodiyudaya vendhane”song, it was perceived that T.K.Bhagavathi found it difficult to lip-sync the notes to Somu’s speed. Hence C.S.ayaraman was roped in to render the same at a slightly lesser tempo. Later on, Somu insisted that all his songs be dropped from the movie. He vowed to keep away from cinema after this disappointing experience.
It was in 1972 that Chinnappa Devar’s “Deivam” with Kunnakkudy Vaidyanathan’s music brought Madurai Somu back to tamil cinema. Devar and Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan made history by making each of the singers appear on the screen for their respective song sequence. Kannadasan penned the lyrics and Kunnakkudy Vaidyanathan composed the song in the raga Darbari Kanada. Though he refused initially, Somu was tempted by the fact that this song was a paen to his beloved Lord Murugan. This song remains a jewel in the crown of Madurai Somu and dazzles as one of the finest moments of Tamil Film Music. Needless to say that superhit song is “Marudhamalai Maamaniye Murugaiyya”. Once again in 1983 for Devar Films’ “Shashti Viratham” Madurai Somu rendered the song ”Thunaivan Vazhith thunaivan” penned by Kavignar Vaali and composed by Shankar-Ganesh duo. Again jointly with Hareram, Somu composed music and sang for an obscure unreleased film “Avalukkagave Naan”. The song “Maamava Meenakshi” penned by Somu himself in Kalyani gets a royal treatment from the singer. An exquisite offering to Goddess Meenakshi Somu’s delineation of the notes leaves the listener enthralled, elevating the composition to towering heights, placing it on an echelon much higher than film music. With this Somu bid a big goodbye to the tinsel world and returned to the carnatic music stage.
Somu had a flair for Hindusthani music. He was an ardent fan of the famous Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and has heard his songs through gramophone discs. Once, when Somu was performing a concert at Mumbai Shanmukhananda Hall he was thrilled to see the Ustad right in the front row enjoying his music. Somu sang few pieces in hindusthani ragas and that too in Ustad’s own style much to his pleasure. The doyen then presented a costly shawl to Somu and blessed him.
Once during the music season Somu had performed his concert for Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in a grand manner. After two days it was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s concert. As the doyen was unwell, he personally requested the Sabha Secretary Shri Yegnaraman to fix Madurai Somu in his place..for the second time. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer rang up Somu and insisted that he should perform in his place. Left with no other choice and with a mind full of apprehensions Somu obliged. But what a concert that was....the audience were spellbound and none of them could ever think that it was the same artiste who performed a couple of days back. It was so fresh and energetic without any repetition of songs. Extremely happy with the rasika’s response the Sabha handed over the remuneration to Somu. He immediately went to Semmangudi mama’s house and after paying his obeisance, handed over the remuneration. Srinivasa Iyer initially refused but took a small portion of the remuneration as a token of gratitude and returned the balance to Somu. Somu considered this as a bountiful blessings from a doyen and safeguarded the amount till his last breath. He didn’t even shell out a single pie from that amount.
In the year 1978, Somu performed a kutcheri in SriLanka. The concert started at 10.00 p.m and went on and on till 4.30 a.m. the next day. On behalf of the musicians of Srilanka the organisers conferred him with a title ”Geethamrutha vaarithi”.
Once Somu was travelling in a Passenger train while returning to Madras after a performance at Thanjavur Punnainallur Mariyamman temple. Rasikas from the adjacent compartments who came to know that their favourite musician Somu was travelling in the same train, started thronging to Somu’s compartment. One of them said, ”I have heard you sing..”Kodi malaigalile kodukkum malai
endha malai” 50 times..” Pat came the reply from Somu...”Don’t worry. Listen to it for the 51st time...right now” and he sang the song immediately. Another person quipped..”Anna I heard your “Aadal Kaaneero...Thiruvilaiyaadal kaaneero” recently...that was simply fabulous.” Somu started that raagamaalikai piece and rendered Mohanam, Kalyani, Kambhodhi and Sankarabharanam. Then he said “This raagamaalikai has 21 raagas in it. It will take minimum of 45 minutes to complete. As a token of fulfilling your request I have rendered these ragas now. Rest in my next kutcheri. Now let us have dinner..!” and put an end to the listener’s requests with his usual thunderous bouts of laughter.
“Idhayam Pesugirathu” Manian was an ardent fan of Madurai Somu’s mesmerising music. When Manian’s marriage was finalised, his in-laws requested him for a list of demands from his side. Madurai Somu’s concert for the marriage reception was the only item on Manian’s wishlist. And to that Somu immediately obliged by cancelling his already booked concerts. Again Somu sang for Manian. This time it was for the launch of “Baala Jothidam” magazine.. Such was the bonding between Somu and Manian.
In 1958 the head of Thiruvavaduthurai Aadheenam conferred the title “Sangeetha Chakravarthy” on Somu. In 1969 His Holiness the Paramacharya of Kanchi conferred the title “Gandharva Gaana Mani”. The prestigious “Isai Perarignar” from Madras Tamil Isai Sangam was conferred in 1971. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1976 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1978. In 1979 the Tamilnadu Government honoured him as “Arasavaik Kalaignar”and the Annamalai University conferred the Doctor of Law on him Honoris Causa. In 1984 the Indian Fine Arts Society conferred the “Sangitha Kala Sikhamani” on Somu who also held honorary posts in Madras, Madurai and the Thanjavur Tamil Universities in their respective music departments. In 1988 the Deivath Thamizh Mandram, Chennai conferred the title “Deiva Gnana Isaik Kadal” on Madurai Somasundaram.
Some of the ardent fans of Somu include former Chief Minister of Tamilnadu M.G.Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Cho Ramaswamy, lyricist Vaali,...and it goes on. In an interview to a tamil magazine Somu states as follows: “I developed an interest in the raga Todi after listening to the nadhaswaram wizard Thiruvavaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai. I became his ardent fan. Sadguru Thyagaraja’s “Enduku daya raadhu” is my favourite kruthi in this raga. Ariyakkudi Ramanua Iyengar’s Kalyani will be like G.R.Vishwanath’s batting; while G.N.B’s Kalyani will be like that of Gavaskar’s. I like both their renditions of this regal raga. “Sive Paahimam” by Thyagaraja swamigal and my own composition “Ma Madurai Meenakshi” are my favourite Kalyani raag pieces. When it comes to Manirangu my Guru Chithoor Subramania Pillai excels. None can come near his pitch, swara passages and delineation in “Raa nidhi raadhu..”
I love Kambodhi raag very much. Thanks to the doyen Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer. I learnt the art of singing raga aalapana in high pitch from Vaidyanatha Iyer’s friend Mannargudi Rajagopalan. Sankaradas Swamigal’s composition “Thaaye Meenakshi thanayan velanukku” is my all time favourite in this raga.
Once during the Thyagabrahma utsavam at Coimbatore, I was listening to the Pancharatna kritis rendered by this stalwart. In the evening I was to perform a concert at the same venue. The stalwart immediately set to tune a sloka in Mohanam and taught me. My programme was a grand success. Who else it could be who taught that mesmerising Mohanam other than Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer..! And when it comes to Karaharapriya it is always Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer’s “Pakkala Nilabadi”.
Somu was an extraordinary musician with an emotive way of singing. He always aimed at audience participation with music improvisation, manodharma sangitham, pure devotion, humour and total involvement. His constant bantering and encouragement of the accompanying artistes with a “Sabhaash”, “Besh” and “Aaha” was a delight to watch and hear. After Kancheepuram Naina Pillai and his own guru Chithoor Subramania Pillai, Somu is known for filling up the stage with violin, mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, morsing, konnakkol, tambura and vocal accompaniments....”A Full Bench Kutcheri” intact. Whenever Somu sang “Aandavane Illaye...Thillai ambala thaandavam aadum Natarajanaip pola” in Kambhoji or the Neelamani raga song “Enna kavi paadinalum” there would be a spontaneous response from the audience .....from the layman to the learned.
Somu’s concerts will always be with surprises...there will be “Ninnu namminau” varnam in Udaya ravichandrika followed by “Manasuloni” in Varamu, “Jagadeeswara” in Manoranjani, an RTP in Sankarabharanam, plus Kalyani, todi, mohanam, Bhairavi and Atanaa on one side; “Vinave O Manasa” in Vivardhini, “O rama nee naamam emi ruchira rama” of Badrachala Ramdas in Poorvikalyani, “ Ninaikkadha neram” in Ragesri, Ulundurpettai Shanmugam’s ragamalika piece “Madurai arasaalum Meenakshi” or the Panthuvarali song “Aalangaattil aadum aiyyan” or “Sri Raja Rajeswari” in Khamboji.
Somu brought incredible energy and passion into every concert with top-notch accompaniment of stalwarts like Ramanathapuram M.N.Ganesa Pillai, Lalgudi Jayaraman, M.S.Gopalakrishnan, M.Chandrasekaran, V.V.Subrahmanyam, C.S.Murugabhoopathy, Palghat Raghu,Trichy Sankaran, Guruvayur Dorai, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Vellore Ramabhadran, Aalangudi Ramachandran, Pudukkottai Mahadevan, Mayavaram Somu..and so on.
Somu attained the lotus feet of his Ishta deivam Goddess Sri Raja Rajeswari on 9.12.1989.Madurai Somasundaram etched himself into every one’s heart as a resonant vocalist lighting up the stage aglow with a vibrant voice, profound raga rendition soaked in emotion and a colossal presentation of an enviable repertoire of classical pieces that are the quintessential treasures of Carnatic music. His masterpieces will remain evergreen in the hearts of his rasikas for generations.
About the author
SHANKAR VENKATRAMAN, a practising company secretary by profession, hails from a family with musical lineage. On the maternal side, his mother’s great grandfather Nemam Subramania Iyer was one of the last disciples of Saint Thyagaraja Swamigal. His maternal grandfather Nemam Nataraja Bhagavathar was the disciple of Mahavaidhyanatha Sivan and an Asthana Vidhwan of Sringeri Samasthanam. His son “Kalaimaamani” Prof N.S.Ramachandran was the Director of different Kendras of All India Radio and the Dean and Director of Music Department, University of Delhi. He had composed many kruthis out of which “Sri Chandrasekhara Yatheendram Aashrayae”on Sri Kanchi Paramacharya in Sankarabharanam popularized by Dr.M.S.Subbulakshmi and “Sree Maha Ganapathae..” in Aabhogi an evergreen hit of M.L.Vasanthakumari are very popular.
Shankar Venkatraman’s father (Late) K.V.Venkatraman, son of Kanjanur-Kottur S.Vaithyanatha Swamy Iyer was an ardent devotee of Sri Kanchi Paramacharya and had served as the Correspondence-in-charge for Sri Paramacharya while Shri Periyavaa was camping in Kumbakonam during 1930-31(When Periyavaa was referred as Kumbakonam Periyavaa). Sri Sengalipuram Anantharama Deekshithar is Vaithyanathaswamy Iyer’s maternal cousin.
Shankar did his schooling at Vidya Mandir, Mylapore (1968-1982) Chennai and obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Commerce from Loyola College, Chennai. He did his Company Secretary course from the Institute of Company Secretaries of India, Chennai-600034.
Shankar Venkatraman’s publications:
1. “Thirai Ulagil Isaik Kalaignargal”.
Serialised first in the tamil music-dance magazine “Sarigamapadhani”, this project consists of a brief life history of more than 100 musicians (who contributed or made an impact, either directly or indirectly in the tinsel world) as the first part and their filmography as the second. This serial “Thirai Kadalil Isai Muththukkal” was published as “Thirai Ulagil Isaik Kalaignargal” and released on 17-01-2002 under the auspices of Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha during their dance festival held at the Mylapore Fine Arts auditorium. (Shri P.H.Pandian was the chief guest)
2. “Semmangudi Oru Sagaabdham”
Biography of Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer as narrated by Sri “Semmangudi Maama” himself from November 2002 upto first week of October 2003. Released by H.E. (Dr) Ramamohan Rao, the then Governor of Tamilnadu during the December 2003 Isai Vizha under the auspices of Brahma Gana Sabha.
3. “Engum Nirai Naadha Brahmam”
“Bharat Rathna” M.S.Subbulakshmi’ s biography compiled under the able guidance of Shri T.Sadasivam and MS Amma during frequent visits to their home. First published as “Isai Arasi” (48 page booklet) in Sarigamapadhani & released as a full fledged biography under the caption ‘Engum Nirai Naadha Brahmam” in 2006 (MSS’ 90th birthday spl) at a function held at Hotel New Woodlands, chennai
4.“Upanyasa Chakravarthy- Anantharama Deekshithar
Biography of Sengalipuram Brahmasri Anantharama Deekshithar. Released during the December Isai Vizha of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in 2006 under the chairmanship of shri R.Yagnaraman.
5.“Sabhaa Naayagar” (spl book on Ranganathapuram Yagnaraman of Sri Krishna gana sabha) A tribute-commemoration volume released on June 30,2008
6. LALGUDI-80-spl commemorative volume (October 2009-Sri Krishna Gana Sabha) Released by Dr.N.Ramanathan and Mrs.Sujatha Vijayaraghavan.
7. COLOSSUS OF CARNATIC MUSIC-Biography of MS released on Nov 29,2009 under the auspices of Hamsadhwani (Mr. R.Natraj-I.P.S.,Mrs. YGP and Mrs. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan were the Chief Guests))
8. “Sangeetha Saagaram---Semmangudi”—biography of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer in Tamil—released on 14th August 2010 under the aegis of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (Mr. Balasubramanian, C/MD, City Union Bank, GuruKaraikudi R.Mani and Isai Gnaani Ilayaraja ---spl function)
9. "Harikatha Chakravarthy" biography of Sri Embar Vijayaraghavachariar released on 24th June 2013 under the aegis of Sri Krishnagana sabha (Sri N.Gopalaswami former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Vidhushi R.Vedavalli and Dr Nalli Chettiar were the Chief guests)
10. “Naadagame Ulagam” Biography of actor Neelu. Published by Alliance co. Mylapore.
Project completed: “Lalgudi orr Isaip pettagam” biography of Lalgudi jayaraman (frm 1804 till date) —to be released shortly)
On going projects-----Biography of “Gaana Kalaa Dhara” Madurai Mani Iyer captioned “Eppo Varuvaaro ?” Also the Full life history of Director K.Subrahmanyam is in progress.
Sri Sriperumbhudur Jeear had honoured Shankar with the title,”SANGEETHAAMRUTHA RATHNA” in the year 2006.
Honoured by Sri Shanmukhananda Fine Arts Mumbai, during MSSubbulakshmi centenary
· Was the editor of “Sarigamapadhani” magazine from January 1999-December 2003
· Presented a one-hour CENTENARY SPECIAL programme “Sangitha Saagaram Semmangudi” to commemorate the 100th yr birth day celeberations of the Doyen of Carnatic Music Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on Podhigai TV on 27th July 2008 (which was re-telecast twice)
· Presented a special Independence day programme—“Sudhanthira Geetham” with rare audio clippings of K.B.Sundarambal, N.C.Vasanthakokilam, D.K.Pattammal, M.S.Subulakshmi, M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and G.N.Balasubramaniam on Podhigai TV.(August 15, 2008)
· Presented a 6 week serial “Engum Nirai Naadha Brahmam” on the life history of MS with interviews of eminent personalities on Podhigai Tv.
· Presented a one-hour lecdem on Semmangudiyin Nagaichuvai (Humour and Semmangudi) in tamil at the Lecdem mela held at TAG Centre, chennai-600018 on 21st December 2010 to a well attended audience.
· Scripted “Naattin Thuymai Nam Vazhvin Menmai” from 10th week till 20thweek that was telecast on Podhigai TV in June-July 2010
· Scripted :Nilaavil veedu Kattovam” a hilarious comedy drama telecast on Podhigai TV on Deepavali (2011) and also a special documentary on the Chennai Metro Rail project and history of GANGA for 2012 Deepavali (podhigai) Presented "HASYAM" in carnatic music for Chennai Music Forum during 2012 Isai Vizha. (alongwith Shri Neelu and Asthika Samajam Narasimhan)
· Presented a two hour programme on Lalgudi Jayaraman in 2013 Isai Vizha (Srinivasa Sastry Hall, Mylapore, Chenai) with a special Audio Visual presentation.
· Scripted “Isaith Therin Vadam Pidiththor” a 13 week serial on tamil composers---for Podhigai-Chennai Doordarshan Kendra that was telecast from September 2014.
· Had done the script work for “Kurai Ondrum Illai” a 82 week long serial for Chennai Doordarshan to commemorate the centenary of Bharat Ratna Dr. M.S.Subbulakshmi.
· Presently doing the script work for D.K.Pattammal centenary for Podhigai T.V.