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Darling of the Carnatic initiate

Nandhu Sundaram | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 24, 2016
Virtual guru: Carnatic vocalist Maharajapuram Santhanam’s forte was his clear enunciation, which left no doubt in the mind of the listener on the correct way of singing a line.

Virtual guru: Carnatic vocalist Maharajapuram Santhanam’s forte was his clear enunciation, which left no doubt in the mind of the listener on the correct way of singing a line.   -  The Hindu Archives

Maharajapuram Santhanam’s deep baritone and sweetly masculine voice enticed both the seasoned and novice rasika alike

A confession first: I have only a rudimentary understanding of Carnatic music. I am an avid listener and the knowledge I have gained is by listening to the masters of this universe. I often sing the odd song to myself, especially the light-hearted ones. It is in this context that I have undertaken the task of writing about one of the most famous Carnatic vocalists of all time — Maharajapuram Santhanam.

I took up this assignment for the sheer joy the singer brings to me, especially while rendering the stellar songs of the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharathiyar. Santhanam not only lent his distinct, powerful voice to Bharathiyar songs, but also added a touch of pure devotion. I was captivated and have been for the last 10 years.

A newcomer to the world of Santhanam’s singing will find it as enticing as will the trained musician who appreciates its nuances. There is extraordinary discipline and stamina to the singing. The voice is a deep baritone and as sweetly masculine as it can get.

Santhanam didn’t try to revolutionise Carnatic music, choosing instead to shape its pristine, eternal glory with his deft vocal touch. His emoting of the words is unparalleled and often acts as a hook to draw the audience in. He enunciated very well, leaving no doubt in the mind of the listener on the correct way of singing a line. Many who enter the seemingly daunting confines of classical music find assurance when they envision Santhanam as their virtual guru.

He was equally known for his compositions, many of them in praise of the gods Muruga and Krishna, and the Kanchi Sankaracharya.

The veteran consciously promoted young talent. Noted singer Aruna Sairam has publicly acknowledged the encouragement she received from him in her early days as an upcoming artiste.

Born on December 3, 1928, Santhanam hailed from a well-known family of musicians in Sirunangur, Tamil Nadu. His father was the famous vocalist Vishwanatha Iyer.

After learning from his father in his initial years, Santhanam later became a disciple of Melattur Sama Dikshitar, under whom he perfected his technique. During 1960-65, he served as head of department at the Ponnambalam Ramanathan College of Music in Jaffna, Sri Lanka.

It was only after his father’s death in the 1970s that Santhanam really came into his own. At the peak of his career, legions of fans flocked to his concerts. Perhaps in his eagerness to please his audience, Santhanam began to stick to the major hits in Carnatic music. Experts accused him of dumbing down, but then even they couldn’t deny his exceptional integrity. The virtuoso’s voice and singing style were critically acclaimed. During live performances, fans felt as though he were singing especially for each of them.

By the late ’80s, however, many of them moved away to other artistes as they felt that Santhanam had gone commercial.

His untimely death at age 63 in a car crash on June 24, 1992, came as a rude shock to his family and fans. Dozens of albums of his works were released posthumously. Among those keeping his musical tradition alive are his sons, Srinivasan and Ramachandran, as also his foremost disciple, Dr R Ganesh.

It is often noticed that the Carnatic initiate invariably loves Santhanam’s songs. The popular Tamil song ‘ Enna Thavam Seithanai Yasodha’, composed by Papanasam Sivan, packs a whole new level of appeal in Sathanam’s rendition. The song has the poet declaring his envy of Yashoda, the one who gets to be addressed as mother by Lord Krishna. Santhanam’s version of the ‘Pancharatna Kirtis’ — a five-song set composed by Tyagaraja — also deserves a special mention.

A recipient of the Padma Shri, the famed Sangeetha Kalanidhi award from the Madras Music Academy, and the Kalaimamani title from the Tamil Nadu government, Santhanam also has a street named after him in Chennai’s T Nagar area. Memorial concerts paying tribute to the great vocalist continue to be held all over India. Social media has given an added lease of life to his musical legacy, with many of his songs, including live performances, being heard again after years. The iPod generation has embraced him with open arms.

Nandhu Sundaram is a freelance journalist based in Ooty

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Published on June 24, 2016
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