When Ramaswami Sivan Stoked a Needless Controversy Over Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan

Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan's untimely death was a huge blow for his brother, Ramaswami Sivan. He wrote an unfair book castigating greats like Patnam Subramania Iyer in order to uphold his own death brother's eminence.
When Ramaswami Sivan Stoked a Needless Controversy Over Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan
Vignesh Varan

MAHA SHIVAN’S GREAT CONTEMPORARY and neighbour Patnam sent his best students to Maha Shivan to complete their training, especially to learn the latter’s method of Kalpana-swaras. Not all could learn such a transcendent art, but a few – notably Poocchi Srinivas Iyengar and possibly Tiger Varadachar – did imbibe something of the great man’s method. It speaks volumes for the generosity of Patnam himself that he acknowledged the greatness of Maha Shivan even to his students. Patnam, unlike Maha Shivan, was not a vocal prodigy, and had to labour hard and long to bring his unruly instrument under control. And perhaps for that reason, he was an excellent and patient teacher. He had evolved a totally different style that emphasized fundamentals and fidelity to the composer’s mood and intentions. Maha Shivan was one of his prominent admirers and never missed a recital by Patnam, to the extent his busy schedule allowed.

The two were the best friends, though their busy schedule did not allow them much time to socialize outside musical events. One occasion they always met was the annual Upakarma ceremony, when orthodox Brahmins renew their vows by replacing the sacred thread (yagnopavitam). Patnam would visit Maha Shivan at his house and seek his blessings. The first time it happened, Maha Shivan, who was barely a year older than Patnam, was deeply embarrassed. “Such a great artist as you should not come to me for blessings,” he protested. “By saluting you, “Patnam retorted, “I am only seeking Lord Shiva’s blessings.”

The two – Patnam and Maha Shivan – were often invited to sing together by patrons and princes including the Maharaja of Mysore.  Their contrasting styles must have made such programs memorable.  It is interesting that on such occasions, Maha Shivan’s brother Ramaswami did not appear on the stage.  This suggests that he was not in the same league as the two stalwarts.  But this did not stop his followers and admirers from trying to show that Maha Shivan owed much of his success to the guidance of Ramaswamy Shivan, possibly with the latter’s connivance.  This took an unfortunate turn soon after Maha Shivan’s death in 1893.

His brother’s untimely death (not yet 49) was a great blow to Ramaswami Shivan.  It is understandable that he should have done everything to perpetuate the memory of his great brother.  But he went beyond the need, going to the extent of bending the truth.  He published a biographical work he called Vijaya Sangraha (‘Compilation of Victories’) that was supposed to chronicle Maha Shivan’s triumphant career as a musician.  In it he sought to elevate his brother’s stature by denigrating the art and the character of some of his contemporaries, notably Patnam, whom he portrayed as a jealous rival who was afraid to face Maha Shivan. 

This infuriated Patnam who published a retort titled Vijaya Sangraha Khandana (Refutation of Vijaya Sangraha). This drew a ‘Refutation of the Refutation’ from a student, one Veena Mayavaram Vaidyanatha Iyer. The unseemly controversy seems to have ended only with the death of Ramaswami Shivan.  Had he been alive, Maha Shivan would never have allowed it to come to this pass.

The episode shows Ramaswami Shivan in less attractive light than his great brother – more materialistic and also capable of malice.  He probably resented his brother’s admiration for Patnam’s art.  Subbiah Bhagavatar, who had studied with the Shivan brothers, wrote:

“I saw Ramaswami Shivan’s little book Vijaya Sangraha in 1894.  It seemed to me full of exaggeration.  Even though Ramaswami Shivan was my esteemed teacher, I could not ignore its deficiencies.  So, I made a note of factual errors in the book.” 

This was an admirable act that showed his concern for truth. But as a traditional Hindu brought up to regard his teacher as worthy of worship, it bothered Bhagavatar.  He writes: “To clear my conscience I served God by writing three books on Vedanta.”

This sheds interesting light on the attitude of a devout Hindu in those days.  He had to respect truth, but he also had to respect his teacher.  When a conflict arose, truth was more important.  But to compensate for denigrating his teacher, however mildly, he had to undertake a worthy task as penance.

But Bhagavatar was not prepared to leave it at that.  He saw Ramaswami Shivan in 1895 and asked: “Why did you have to write that such great artists as Patnam Subramnia Iyer, Kunnakudi Krishna Iyer and others were afraid of singing in the company of your brother?”

Ramaswami Shivan gave a lame excuse.  He cited an instance when a local prince asked Patnam and Kunnakudi to join Maha Shivan in a joint recital at a wedding.  They declined saying that such a recital would not allow scope for them and would also lower the dignity of the profession by making it look like a wrestling contest. This, Ramaswami claimed, showed fear on the part of Patnam, Kunnakudi and a few others. Ramaswami was wrong and the musicians were right.  They could not allow some minor prince to use them as exhibits to project himself as a great patron of the arts before friends and relatives at a family wedding.  The same musicians sang with Maha Shivan on other, purely musical occasions.

This distressed Bhagavatar.  He went on to observe: “Patnam and Kunnakudi were great artists who always respected Maha Shivan as their superior.  His supremacy was conceded by all.  Maha Shivan’s standing in the musical world is no way diminished by acknowledging the greatness of others.  It gained nothing by denigrating other artist.”  The great man himself was always generous with praise, so as long as it was well deserved.  No unkind word ever escaped his lips.  But Ramaswamy Shivan had neither the artistic nor the spiritual greatness of his brother that made him generous with both praise and money.

To be continued

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