Childhood and Early Influences of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan

Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan was born in a lineage of accomplished musicians and he took the illustrious legacy to the very summit.
Childhood and Early Influences of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan

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Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: Music of the Spirit
Childhood and Early Influences of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan

Music of South India

         MODERN ART MUSIC OF INDIA (or ‘classical’ music) has evolved along two main idioms – Carnatic or South Indian, and Hindustani or North Indian. For historical reasons, the southern idiom or the Carnatic has remained closer to its roots, which are believed to go

back to Vedic chants, especially the Samaveda.  That this is not just a pious fantasy becomes clear upon listening to properly recited Vedic chants, where one can clearly hear the intricacies of tana singing that is one of the glories of Carnatic music. 

But music like any other art form is not unchanging.  The person who gave shape to the Carnatic idiom leading to its present form was the great Vaishnavite saint and composer Purandara Das (1480 – 1564).  In his numerous compositions, which include pedagogical works, he laid the foundation for the great flowering of musical theory and performance that has continued to the present.  His devotional songs, all in Kannada, set the pattern for future composers. Students invariably begin with his works.

While scholars today study them for their musical interest, Purandara Dasa saw his art as the expression of his devotion for his favorite deity Purandhara Vitthala (Krishna).  This tradition of composition, combining art and spirituality continued, reaching its summit three centuries later in the works of the Great Trinity of Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847), Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1775 – 1835) and Shyama Shastri (1763 – 1827). 

A connoisseur today may not be aware of the spiritual or the devotional impulse behind their masterpieces, but their music would not exist without it.  Even purely secular works like tillana and javali bear the stamp of their spiritual inspiration.  Maha Vaidyanatha Shivan, the subject of this essay, is a prime example of this spirit.  He was a direct spiritual and artistic descendent of the great saint-composer Tyagaraja himself.

Early influences

 As this article is written with the expectation that it will be read by both Indian and Western music lovers, I shall on occasion have to make comparisons between Indian and Western musicians – especially singers – in an attempt to bridge the gulf between the two cultures and musical idiom.  This I feel will be easier on most readers than trying to explain one musical idiom in terms of the idiom of the other. 

As the main subject of this essay happens to be a singer – and a prodigiously gifted singer – it is useful to have as reference a singer of comparable natural gifts from the pantheon of Western music. After much searching, I find that the great nineteenth century soprano Adelina Patti (1843 – 1919) comes closest to him in natural gifts though not in musical scholarship. No operatic singers can compare with an Indian musician when it comes to scholarship. There are some similarities – and differences - between these two great artists that are enlightening.

Maha Vaidyanatha Shivan was born in the village of Vaiyyacheri (Tamil Nadu) on 26 May 1844 into an orthodox Smartha Brahmin family of Kaundinya gotra or lineage. For convenience, I shall be using the name Maha Shivan, as he was also known. He was the third of four children, all sons.

His father was Pancha Nada Iyer, known also as Doriaswamy Iyer; his mother was Arundhati Tayi.  Most musical geniuses are of obscure origin, but Maha Shivan’s family seems to have been of some distinction.  Later biographers have tended to romanticize his early life, claiming that he grew up in poverty, but facts suggest otherwise.  His father, a musician, turned down offers from several princely courts, and seems never to have worked for a living.  He always maintained an open house and visitors to the village were offered hospitality.  Contemporary accounts tell us that his mother fed at least ten poor children every day.  They owned a house and some land, and no doubt, Doraiswamy Iyer derived some income by performing the duties of a traditional Brahmin priest at marriages and other functions.  All this suggests sufficient means to maintain a comfortable though not a luxurious household.  As devout Brahmins, their needs were simple.

After he began his career as a singer, Maha Shivan’s earnings soared and he became quite wealthy.  But he gave away a good part of it in charity.  He could not say ‘no’ to anyone and his brother Ramaswami had to shelter him from people.  Vasudevacharya  (1865 – 1961) wrote: “I visited Maha Shivan at his place a few times, but we never became friendly.  He was extremely reticent by nature and hardly ever spoke.  His brother Ramaswamy Shivan took care of all his affairs.”

Maha Shivan’s ancestors were accomplished musicians, with several of them having enjoyed patronage at various princely courts that dotted the area.  Without doubt, he was born into a musical family.  At the same time, like the ancestors of Johann Sebastian Bach, none of them would be remembered today but for the fact that Maha Shivan proved to be a musician of transcendent genius. 

His elder brother Ramaswamy Sivan was also a gifted musician and composer and the two were inseparable.  He often sang with his more famous brother – more ‘filling passages’ than actually singing.  His musical scholarship was said to be on the same level as his younger brother, but it is interesting that no one who heard the two together mentioned him in the same breath.  His voice and his contribution to composition consisted mainly of lyrics, which his brother set to music.

From recently unearthed documents, it is clear that Maha Shivan often had to change his brother’s lyrics to make them suitable for music.  On a few occasions, these modifications had to be done during the course of the performance, when a new composition was being sung for the first time.  “I saw it myself on several occasions,” wrote his student and biographer Pallavi Subbiah Bhagavatar (1959 – 1941).4 This sheds light on Maha Shivan’s unequaled capacity for improvisation and almost instantaneous grasp.  He could master the most complicated compositions in minutes.  All biogrpahers are unanimous on this point.

Both brothers were gifted with extraordinary memories.  Ramaswami was an eka-sanda-grahi – i.e., he could remember anything after one hearing.  Maha Shivan was dvi-sanda-grahi – or one who could remember after having heard something twice.5  This allowed the two boys to play a joke on a well-known poet visiting a local court.  He gave a reading of a work he had just composed in the style of ancient poets.  Ramaswami said it was not new but an ancient work that he had learnt long ago.  The poet laughed at this boyish effrontery only to be flabbergasted when Ramaswami repeated it word for word.  To make matters worse, he told the audience that his younger brother also knew the work.  Maha Shivan, who had just heard it twice, also repeated it – to the poet’s mortification.  Everyone including the poet had a good laugh after the boy’s father explained the joke to them.

To be continued

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