Sath Guru
S P Sivasubramaniam, painted by a student

Suchindram S P Sivasubramaniam (1917-2003) was a multi-faceted genius from Kanyakumari District, southern Tamil Nadu who lived a life devoted to music and humanity, and gave to the world a great treasure of compositions in the Carnatic classical, devotional, Harikatha, and patriotic genres.

Early Life

Sivasubramaniam was born on 12th September 1917 in Vagaikulam, Tirunelveli District, southern Tamil Nadu. He was introduced to music by his mother, an ardent music-lover, and developed a great passion for it at a very early age. Self-taught, he learnt and practised intensively, looking to the music of the great masters as his guidance and inspiration. By his teenage years, he began performing concerts, and rapidly became a musician of repute.

Sivasubramaniam later on underwent formal training with the renowned musician and composer Arunachala Annavi of Boothappandi, Kanyakumari District, and with his guidance, Sivasubramaniam’s knowledge and skills grew manifold. Soon thereafter, he established his own school, ‘Sarasvati Gana Vidyalayam’, and over the years trained many disciples who went on to become successful musicians, teachers, and scholars in various fields and institutions.

The Artiste

Sivasubramaniam accompanying renowned musician and playback singer T R Mahalingamt

A rich voice, sensitive artistry, and a stunning spontaneity were the hallmarks of Sivasubramaniam’s music. His soulful, bhava-laden style melted the hearts of countless music-lovers, who thronged to his concerts. His concerts were featured all over South India and Sri Lanka, and he regularly performed on All India Radio as well.

Sivasubramaniam also had the unique gift of breathing music into any instrument he touched, be it the violin, veena, harmonium, mrdangam, or even the piano, and he even trained many disciples in each of these instruments. He took up the violin as his main instrument after chronic ill health began to affect his voice, and, with his characteristic genius and flair, he became a highly sought-after accompanist for many stalwarts of the era. He also performed many solos, duets, and ensemble concerts. His love for music took him even to the realm of instrument craftsmanship, and he created many fine violins, along with elegant cases to house them.

The Composer

A master vaggeyakara, Sivasubramaniam created many gems of sublime musical and poetic beauty that convey messages of humanity and faith. An ardent devotee of Lord Muruga, he composed many masterpieces on him, as well as on other deities, on music itself, and even on social and patriotic themes, one of the few Carnatic composers to do so. He had a great passion for the Tamil language, and an eloquent, erudite Tamil pervaded his work.

Sivasubramaniam worked extensively in the art of Harikatha (the narration of religious stories through interwoven song and discourse) as well. His wife, R Sornambal, was a Harikatha artiste who, under Sivasubramaniam’s guidance, became one of the leading exponents in the region. For each of her Harikathas, Sivasubramaniam did extensive research on the stories, gave her inputs and ideas for the discourse, composed the songs to be presented, and finally himself performed alongside her on the violin or harmonium. In this manner, he prepared several Harikathas, such as Valli Tirumanam, Tirunavukkarasar Charitram, Nandanar Charitram, and many more. He even crossed cultural barriers and composed a Christian Harikatha, Matavin Mahimai, which he and Sornambal regularly performed for Christian audiences. His brilliance as a composer was recognised in the drama field as well, and his music was featured in many Tamil plays.

Sivasubramaniam with his wife Sornambal

Sivasubramaniam’s works abound in captivating examples of musical and lyrical brilliance. In the song ‘Ananda Tandavam’ (Vachaspati ragam, from the Harikatha ‘Karaikkal Ammaiyar Charitram’), the charanam is a plea to Lord Shiva, portrayed as being sung by the saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar as she dances on her hands towards the Lord’s abode on Mount Kailasa. Each line’s first syllable is in swaraksharam (coincidence of the lyrical and sol-fa syllables), starting from the middle-octave ‘ga’ (third from tonic), and with each line progressing note-by-note up to the higher-octave ‘pa’ (fifth). Another composition, ‘Padum Paniye’ in the raga Kalyani, is a prayer to Lord Muruga composed in the elaborate structure of Saint Tyagaraja’s Pancharatnas, with each of its madhyamakala charanams (stanza with fast lyrics) set to a different yati (mode of rhythmic progression such as expansion, reduction, and so on). Yet another composition, ‘Ketta Varam Taruvan’, narrates the exploits of Lord Muruga, and has stanzas set to each of the five Ghana Ragas, with each raga’s name skilfully woven into the lyrics. Each stanza has a swara passage as well, and the song ends in a finale swara passage in which all five ragas cascade into one another in reverse order, ending back at the pallavi. ‘Ka lai Amudam’ in the raga Nilamani is a eulogy to music itself, and explores in depth every aspect of the ideal music. ‘Velai Panivadu Nam Velai’ in the raga Shanmukhapriya is a masterpiece full of vivid imagery and skilful wordplay in praise of the Vel (spear) of Lord Muruga. He also composed songs in multiple gatis (musical metres like duple, triple, quintuple, etc.), unique rhyme schemes, and so on.


Sivasubramaniam (centre) in concert with his wife R Sornambal and son Akkarai S Swamynathan (on the violin)

Although Sivasubramaniam eventually had to forego his performing career because of constant ill health, he remained steadfastly devoted to music, and continued to render his service through teaching and composing. His own children and grandchildren were inspired to follow in his footsteps, and became renowned musicians in their own right, taking the name ‘Akkarai’ (Sivasubramaniam’s hometown) in his honour.

Sivasubramaniam passed away on 8th June 2003, leaving behind a rich musical legacy.


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