Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: The Voice that Swam in all Octaves

Maha Sivan's voice extended from the anu-mandara pancama to ati-tara shadja. It is difficult to believe that any human voice – let alone a male voice – could have such a stupendous range
Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: The Voice that Swam in all Octaves

Read the Previous Episodes

Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: The Voice that Swam in all Octaves
Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: Music of the Spirit
Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: The Voice that Swam in all Octaves
Childhood and Early Influences of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan
Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan: The Voice that Swam in all Octaves
When Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan Composed the Mela Ragamalika in Just a Week

The Man and his Music

While it is easy to pronounce a judgement of Maha Shivan as a musician, it is not so easy to capture in words the magic of his voice, but I’ll give it a try.  Maha Shivan’s voice was the wonder of the age.  When he was a child it was naturally brilliant, but apparently retained its brilliance and flexibility even when he became an adult.  He did not go through the usual difficulty of a male singer as the voice breaks.  It was a gift of nature and not the result of any special method of schooling.  Professor Samba Murthy says: “His voice was the gift of God and owed nothing to hard work or training.” 

Hindus explain such prodigy by saying that it is the result of accumulated merit (Punya) from previous births – as good an explanation as any.  Fortunately, his teachers had the good sense to leave it alone.  Although he had a good deal of musical education and a thorough grounding in theory and composition, no one tried to ‘train’ his voice.  More promising voices have been wrecked than helped by voice teachers.

It is somewhat difficult to get a clear picture of his vocal compass though by all accounts it was phenomenal.  Professor Samba Murthy writes that it extended from anu-mandara pancama to ati-tara shadja

That is, Maha Shivan sang to the basic pitch of G (or the ‘fifth house’ as Indian musicians denote it). The description by Samba Murthy gives a range from the low D of the bass to the G above the tenor high C – or a compass of three octaves and a fourth!  It is difficult to believe that any human voice – let alone a male voice – could have such a stupendous range.

The great musician and composer Vasudevacharya , who heard him many times makes no mention of three-and-a-half octaves, though he does say that Maha Shivan sang effortlessly in all three octaves.  This is not the same thing as saying that he had a range in excess of three octaves.  Incidentally, the lowest note written for the voice is the low D, found in Osman’s aria in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, written for the German bass Ludwig Fischer.  The highest note for the male voice is the F above the tenor high C written by Bellini for the tenor Rubini in Puritani

According to Samba Murthy, Maha Shivan’s voice included both.  While Samba Murthy was a careful scholar, I find it difficult to accept his claim for the following reasons.

The first problem I have is subjective.  I think I have heard almost all the great singers of the century of both Western and Indian classical music, either in person or on records.  And I know of no singer with the range that Samba Murthy attributes to Maha Shivan. Female singers with three octaves are rare but known.  In their prime, M.S. Subbalakshmi and Parveen Sultana among Indian singers and the mezzo-sopranos Marylin Horne and Teresa Breganza among opera singers commanded three octaves.  No doubt there have been others.  But for a male voice to exceed even two octaves is quite rare.

Balamurali Krishna has a range that can exceed two octaves, but his top notes, above the gandhara (roughly B-flat) tend to be forced.  His style also has shades of Maha Shivan, especially in the Kalpana-swaras.  Ludwig Fischer mentioned earlier, had a vocal range of two and half octaves (D to G), which the International Encyclopedia of Music finds worth mentioning.  Maha Shivan’s voice had an octave above it! 

Could Samba Murthy have been mistaken, perhaps because he depended on hearsay? He was born only in 1900, when Maha Shivan had been dead seven years.

But we also have first-hand evidence that appears to settle the question. Pallavi Subbaiah Bhagavatar (1859 – 1941), a leading musician of the last century, was one of Maha Shivan’s early students.  He spent nearly seven years – from 1876 to 1882 – as a member of Maha Shivan’s household, as was the custom of those days.  This is known as gurukula-vasa or ‘living with the guru’s family’.  He kept a detailed record of his master’s activities during his gurukula period. This was published as a memoir by Subbiah Bhagavatar’s son, Gomati Shankar Iyer, a well-known Veena player.8 And Subbiah Bhagavatar, who must have heard Maha Shivan hundreds of times, says that he sang in a range from mandara shadja to ati-tara shadja or three octaves from G to G.  This may be accepted as authentic, on the authority of an accomplished musician who had heard him many times.  But this singing was done effortlessly, with no strain on the voice.

At the same time, Samba Murthy was a meticulous scholar whose statement cannot easily be dismissed.  Maybe he was partly right.  Maha Shivan never pushed his voice and always sang within himself.  As a naturally ‘high voiced’ singer, it is possible that he did not like to reach below the low G for the fear of straining his voice.  He might have possessed low notes that he did not use in public.  With a naturally high tessitura, excessive use of low notes would have strained his voice, which he was careful to avoid.

Whatever be the actual range, Maha Shivan was a vocal phenomenon without equal.  This was acknowledged by both Indian and Western fans.  He was once invited to sing before the British Governor of Madras, and the audience included some European guests who had heard the best opera singers of the nineteenth century.  After his performance, they left in a daze, shaking their heads in disbelief. 

The Governor said that he did not known of another voice like it.  Samba Murthy says that it was unusually rich in harmonics.  “It was as loud and clear at 200 feet as at twenty feet,” wrote one of his biographers.  The secret of course was perfect intonation.  Some years later, the British Resident in Mysore – also a music lover – said much the same thing.  Many other Western fans, who had heard the best that Opera had to offer in the nineteenth century, were of the same opinion.

To be continued

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