Syama Sastri

Actual Name : Venkata Subrahmanya

From: 26th April, 1762 To: 6th Feb, 1827

Father: Visvanatha Iyer

Mother: Vengalakshmi

Place of birth: Thiruvarur in Tanjavur Dist of Tamilnadu

Syama Sastri was the oldest of the Trinity of Carnatic music. He was a contemporary of the other two, Tyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar, and was a personal friend of the former. Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri were good friends. They often met and spent hours together singing. Syama Sastri had deep regard for Tyagaraja.

Venkata Subrahmanya, affectionately known as Syama Sastri, was born to Visvanatha Iyer and Vengalakshmi on April 26, 1762 in a Tamil – speaking brahmin community known as auttara vadamA. His parents though scholarly, had no particular interest in music. His forefathers were archakars in the temple of Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi.

At the age of seven, his Upanayanam was performed. Initially his father taught him devotional songs and has given sound education in Sanskrit and Telugu languages and attained scholarship in these languages at a very young age. Finding the aptitude for music, his mother requested her cousins to teach him the fundamentals of music. However this got no further than the elementary stage in music education.

When he was eighteen years old, his family moved to Tanjore. There, they got a chance to host a sanyasi (monk), Sangitaswami, a master of dance and music, who was spending some four months in Tanjore. The sanyasi was quick to discover Syama Sastri’s keen intellect, melodious voice and musical talent and foresaw greatness in him. He obtained the father’s consent and taught Syama Sastri all aspects of raga, tala and swara prasthArAs. The teacher found that the student could absorb even the intricate details very quickly, all in a matter of four months or less. Sangitaswami presented Syama Sastri with a few rare treatises on music and certified that the student had gained full knowledge on the theoretical aspects of music. He advised his student to seek the friendship of and listen to the music (but not learn anything from) one Paccimiriyam Adiyappayya, the composer of the famous bhairavi aTa taLa varnam – viriboni, and a court musician in Tanjore. Syama Sastri duly did as he was advised. The influence of Adiyappayya is reflected in his swarajati kAmAkshi in Bhairavi raga.

Over the years, Syama Sastri became a well-known and respected musician, scholar and a composer. He was quite admired and respected by Tyagaraja and it appears that the two of them often held scholarly and lengthy discussions on their latest compositions.

He frequently accompanied his father to the temple. Gradually his faith in the Goddess grew. Syama Sastri, like his father was the archaka (priest) in the Bangaru Kamakshi Temple in Tanjore. He was a very pious and genuine devotee of Goddess Kamakshi. He is believed to have lost consciousness of the outside world on several occasions as he prayed to the Goddess. On such occasions, he would sing his kriti-s extemporaneously.

Although he did not compose as many kritis as his two prolific contemporaries, Syama Sastri’s compositions are equally well known. It is said that he has composed about three hundred pieces in all. He did not have too many disciples to propagate his compositions, nor was the printing press an easy convenience during his time! More importantly, the scholarly nature of his compositions was not appealing to the layperson; they needed to be studied to be savoured. He composed in Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil and mostly on Goddess Devi.

He is said to be the architect of the swarajati musical form. His set of three famous swarajatis is referred to as ratna thrayam. These are in Bhairavi, Yadukulakambhoji and Todi. These stand unparalleled both for the delineation of the raga bhava and the fecundity of musical ideas.

Syama Sastri’s compositions are usually in common ragas, except for a few in ragas such as Manji, Chintamani, Kalagada and Karnataka Kapi. His favourite ragas seem to have been Saveri and Anandabhairavi, judging from the number of kritis composed in these ragas.

Anandabhairavi, an old raga that was frequently used in folk music, seemed to acquire a new stature after he composed masterpieces such as mariveregati, himachala tanaya, Oh jagadamba, pahi sri giriraja and even a couple of varnams in it. His rare originality was in swara sahitya compositions and the use of swarakshara. In other words, swara and sahitya having identical sounding syllables such as ‘padasarara‘ corresponding to the swaras pa da sa in the kriti, devi ni in Kambhoji.

Syama Sastri would perhaps stand out most for the “rhythmic beauties” employed in his kritis, such as the use of five-syllable words like sarasamukhi, varamosagu, kamalamukhi etc. These correspond to the rhythmic phrase “ta dhin gi Na thom”. His kriti-s feature the abundant use of the misra cApU tALA (4+3). He also features dual rhythms as in sankari samkaru in raga sAvEri, with the inherent rhythm of rUpakam and a suggestive rhythm of adi tALA. “Syama Sastri had a rhythmical frame of mind and he was always swimming in the ethereal regions of rhythm and tALA prasthArA. No other composer has composed songs answering to the rhythmical beauties referred above.

Syama Sastri, though not a prolific composer, has been given a permanent place in the musical Trinity due to the quality, depth, variety, scholarliness and bhakthi bhava in his compositions.

Once, Kesavayya, a great musician from Bobbili, challenged the Thanjavur court musicians in handling intricate talas. Before facing him. Syama Sastri went to the temple, meditated and sang “Devi brOva samayidE” meaning “Devi! now it is the time for you to protect me”. With confidence, went to the court and defeated the challenger.

Once, on the advice of a saint who heard Syama Sastri singing Brhadamba in Pudukottai, went to Madurai to sing in praise of MeenAkshi Amman and composed “Navaratnamalika’ (nine kritis). These include kritis such as sarOja daLa nEtri in Shankarabharanam, mAyammA in Ahiri, mIna lOcana brOva in dhanyAsi, etc.

At Nagapattinam, Syama Sastri defeated in a contest Appukutti Nattuvanar who was proficient in music. Consequently Appukutti forfeited his tambura and tALA for ever.

Most of Syama Sastri’s compositions are in praise of Devi Goddess Kamakshi. He supposed to had composed about 300 songs but only 45+ are available now. Though a Tamil, he had chosen Telugu language as the medium for his songs for the inherent beauty of that language. There are a few Sanskrit and Tamil songs too.

“If you would sense the thrill, you have to go to the cApu tALA for it and if you would like to enjoy its maximum effect you would find it in the compositions of Syama Sastri”, writes the Late T. V. Subba Rao.

Syama Sastri style is neither simple as that of Tyagaraja nor difficult as that of Muttuswami Dikshitar. His compositions are replete with the natural pathos and tenderness of a child crying out to reach its mother. He has composed kritis, varnam and swarajatis with the ankita mudra (signature) ‘Syama Krishna‘.

Syama Sastri had two sons, Panju Sastri and Subbaraya Sastri. The former became a priest and the latter was a versatile musician (and a disciple of Tyagaraja). Through Panju Sastri, the family tree grew and produced quite a few scholars. Syama Sastri’s great grandson lived till the age of 94 passing away only in 1950 AD. Through him many incidents of Syama Sastri’s life are known. He was reportedly a tall and a rather stout person with a fondness for betel leaves! Syama Sastri, like Tyagaraja and Dikshitar, was well-versed in astrology.

Like his great contemporaries, he too correctly predicted the time of his passing. He passed away on February 6, 1827, six days after his devoted wife passed away.