Remembering Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan on his 175th birth anniversary

He is known for his longest single ragamalika kriti set to 72 melakarta ragas

Among the several great composers in the field of Carnatic music, Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan (1844-1893) is perhaps the one musician who has composed the longest ragamalika kriti set to the 72 melakarta ragas. This one composition runs to 86 pages as published by the Adyar Library in 1937.

A composite and beautiful creation of all the Janaka ragas in praise of Siva, and beginning with the word ‘Pranatharthihara,’ it has twelve cycles. Later composers have created individual kritis in each of the 72 parent ragas but not one composite kriti as Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan did. This magnum opus was composed at the instance of Sakaram Saheb, the then Maratha ruler of Thanjavur. This signature kriti gives the full scope and beauty of each Janaka raga in the briefest possible time. Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, whose 175th birth anniversary falls on May 26 this year, had also composed and performed several pallavis in the most difficult talas, such as Simhanandana tala and Lakshmisa tala. Along with his brother Ramaswamy Sivan, he pored over several texts of music, clarified his doubts with experts in language and adopted them in his singing.

The Tiruvavaduthurai Adheenam had a branch in Kallidaikurichi, a prominent centre for music in Tirunelveli district. Its pontiff Subrahmanya Desikar was a patron of arts. The two brothers Ramaswamy and Vaidyanathan visited the math. Highly impressed by the duo’s performance, Desikar, after consulting the senior performers (Peria Vaithi being one of them) conferred upon the 14-year-old Vaidyanathan the titles of ‘Maha’ and ‘Sivan’ to highlight his musical intellect.

Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan’s repertoire for discourses was rich and he used to render hymns from the Thevaram and Thiruvachagam. He would bring new insights into his stories every time he narrated them.

Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan moved to Tiruvaiyaru in his 43rd year, where his contemporary Patnam Subramanya Iyer also lived. The two differed in their approach to Pallavi singing. While Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan looked for intricacies in raga and tala with much thought going into the Pallavi composition, Patnam Subrahmanya Iyer liked creativity and spontaneity, especially in simple Adi tala pallavis. There were many instances of open confrontation among their students, at times in their presence, on how pallavis should be rendered.

Once on a visit to the Mysore palace, two kritis were sung by Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, which were recorded. Later he marvelled at how he heard his own voice from a machine. No one knows the fate of these recordings at the Mysore palace. In all the samasthanams notably Pudukottai, Ramanathapuram, Thiruvananthapuram and cities and towns across the Tamil region, Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan enjoyed high patronage and admiration for his accomplishments.

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