Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: Music of the Spirit

Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: Music of the Spirit

The Art of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.


In the year 1903, the celebrated Hindustani musician Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande published a work titled My Travels in South India.  In it he wrote: “Wherever I went, I had to listen to people constantly telling me that no one could sing like Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer or play the ‘mridangam’ (percussion drum) like Narayana Swamy Appa.  I don’t see what purpose is served by such senseless worship of the past!” 

Had Bhatkhande heard the great man sing, there can be little doubt that he would have agreed with those he was fuming about, for Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer (1844 – 1893) was a musical genius of unsurpassed greatness, whose music embodied the highest ideals of spiritual art.

It is of course nothing new for music fans of every generation and in every country to claim that singers today are not as good as those in the ‘good old days’.  But Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer – better known as Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan – was unusual in an important respect.  Those who heard him wrote: “There is no record of anyone before him who could compare with him.”  So, his reputation was not based on nostalgia.

He appeared on the musical scene in what is widely regarded as the most golden of the Golden Ages of Karnataka (South Indian) music, sharing the limelight with a galaxy of brilliant musicians never equaled in history. And yet, both fans and colleagues acknowledged his supremacy without reserve. Many who heard him, including several musicians of the first rank, have left memoirs and all are unanimous that Maha Vaidyanatha Shivan had no peer either as a vocalist or as a musician.2 More than a century has passed since his death but books about him continue to appear.  There are at least forty biographies, the first written by his elder brother Ramaswamy Sivan (1842-1898).  In addition, he appears in the memoirs of almost every musician of the period.  There are also manuscripts and musical sketches – several in his own hand.

As a result, there exist ample materials to get a picture of this unique artist and his career.  My goal in this essay is to use some of these sources to give an idea of the life and achievements of this great man, and, in the process, describe also the world in which he moved.  Through this I hope to describe for modern music lovers – both Indian and Western – a world of music and musicians that has disappeared.  In my childhood and even early youth, I saw a little of that world in its vanishing stages and knew also a few of the personalities that had been part of it.  I want our young people to learn and retain something of this important and vital part of their history and heritage.

My qualifications for writing this article are historical and literary rather than musical.  I am a product of both the East and the West with an abiding love of the music of both cultures.  My technical knowledge of Western music is slightly better than that of Carnatic music, but that is not saying much. I was born into a family of music lovers and patrons and had the good fortune of listening to most of the leading musicians of the 1950’s and 60s – some of who were born in the 19th century.  Many were personal friends of our family, and several including Veena Doriaswamy Iyengar, M.S. Subbalakshmi and T. Chowdaiah have performed in our house.  One of them, who knew Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan and heard him many times was Vasudevacharya (1865 – 1961), a distant relative of mine.  So, I can claim to retain a link to that age and tradition when music was more art than commerce.  Though I had every opportunity, I never leant Carnatic music.

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Later, when I went to Indiana University (Bloomington) to study mathematics (and mathematical physics), I had an unmatched opportunity to learn about Western music. Indiana at the time had the reputation of having one of the great music schools in the world, especially renowned for opera.  Its music faculty included singers like Margaret Harshaw and Eileen Farrell as well as pianists and other instrumental musicians like Jorge Bolet, Sydney Foster, James Buswell, Ruggerio Ricci, Josef Gingold, Janos Starker and many others of global repute. I taught myself some piano – not to play so much as to read simple musical scores. Thanks to the help of a cellist friend, Deborah Totz (nee Davis) I attended the wonderful master classes conducted by the visiting Russian musician Gorbasova.  (I don’t know if she was related to Gorbachev, though the name suggests she may have been. This was in 1972 when no one in America had heard of Michael Gorbachev). I also attended the opera workshops of Ross Allen with his encyclopedic knowledge of operatic historic and performance.

My program in mathematics was not particularly demanding – especially after I passed my qualifying exams in my first year at Indiana.  This allowed me to spend a good deal of time with music and musicians.  Most of my friends were musicians.  They were friendly and generous with both their time and knowledge.  I owe much to three musician friends of mine – Rosalee Wolfe (nee Nerheim), Miriam Gargarian and Mauren Balke – for educating me on the finer points of music performance and theory.  I too, contributed a little with my knowledge of the history of both Indian and Western music.

Musical education in the West has always struck me as narrow, and I introduced them to the work of some outstanding performers that some of them didn’t know about, notably singers Teresa Berganza, John McCormack and the Bach specialist Mogens Woldike.  Thanks to several scholarships and fellowships, as well as occasional consulting assignments, I was able to entertain my friends and also visiting artists then on the verge of important careers.  These parties were invariably musical in nature.

I had with me some recordings of Indian singers including M.S. Subbulakshmi, which fascinated my American friends. I soon built a substantial collection of records including many of historical significance like those of Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Szigetti and Mischa Elman (violin), Dinu Lipatti, Arthur Schnabel (piano) and others.  All this was highly beneficial to me.  Later, as a professor of engineering, it gave me particular pleasure when my student Judy Farhart wrote a thesis under me on the use of computers for analyzing musical scores.

My goal in this essay is to use some of this background to convey something of the life and times of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan in a manner that is comprehensible to those unfamiliar with Indian music and performance.3 In the process I also hope to convey an idea of the social and cultural milieu in which a nineteenth century Indian musician worked, and the spirituality that sustained their art.

To be continued

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