Santhanam ? A watershed in Carnatic Music
Carnatic Music was at a low ebb in the early 1970s. Many of the top maestros, who had dominated the art form for over three decades had passed away. The remaining few, barring some exceptions, were fading out. The younger generation had not thrown up a sufficient crop of talent. Classicism in film music had all but ended, but sadly, the popularity of film music had not. It continued to hold sway and wean more and more of the younger generation from the Sabhas to the movies halls. Attending Carnatic Music concerts was considered the hobby of the aged and many Sabhas saw dwindling audiences in the performances they conducted.
The time was ripe for the entry of a swashbuckling personality, who would rouse the art form from its stupor. This role was fulfilled by Maharajapuram Santhanam. Born as the second son of the veteran vocalist Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and his wife Visalakshi, in 1928, Santhanam grew up in a musical atmosphere. His father was then at the peak of his performing career and was in addition tutoring Semmangudi R Srinivasa Iyer. In such circumstances Santhanam had unlimited opportunities to absorb all that poured forth in his father?s music.
Learning from that brilliant but maverick musician was however not easy as Viswanatha Iyer was known for his unique rAga AlApanas and svara singing which were in many ways inimitable. Viswanatha Iyer sang AlApanas for the same rAga differently each time he attempted them, such was his fertile imagination. Santhanam learnt his father?s style step by step, helped greatly in the later years of the maestro?s life when he needed vocal support and which Santhanam provided. But breaking out of that giant?s shadow and establishing a place for himself in the limelight was no simple task. In 1960, Viswanatha Iyer was invited to inaugurate a music college at Marudanarmadam in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Santhanam accompanied his father. The founder of the college Su Natesa Pillai requested Viswanatha Iyer to grace the college by becoming its first principal. But Viswanatha Iyer, citing old age, refused and suggested his son be appointed instead.
Santhanam was supposed to stay on for a year, but extended his stay by almost six years. During this period, he put his time to good use and honed his music skills. He had plenty of concert opportunities in the island and soon established a name for himself there as a teacher and a performer. Returning to Madras in 1966, he bided his time for a while, involved in other commercial pursuits. Came the 1970s and Santhanam, a man of brilliant intellect, surveyed the Carnatic Music scenario. He could see the general impression that this was a highly intellectual art form, which the lay public and the youngsters were shying away from. He quickly worked out a new concert pattern that was to make all the difference. The song list was varied, it had a number of light pieces, which attracted the novices in and it also had a few outstanding gems of Carnatic Music in heavy rAgas, that only he could render with grandeur. Santhanam thus perfected the art of bringing in the crowds through his light pieces and then exposing them to the treasures of Carnatic Music. He therefore made the Carnatic Music concert a refreshing experience as opposed to a purely cerebral exercise. He brought in voice modulation and thus could portray a variety of emotions through his songs that often left audiences in an emotional trance. Above all his fidelity to pitch and the purity of musical notes made him a treat to listen to. On stage, Santhanam made for an impressive personality. He had a way with the audience and many were the jokes and puns that he would let fall as the performance progressed. These only added to the attraction his performances held out to his doting fans.
The floodgates of popularity were thrown open. Thousands flocked to hear him sing. Tickets were sold out for his performances, days in advance. Traffic would be out of control near his performance venues and for the first time in its history, the Music Academy, Madras, had loudspeakers installed in its car park to prevent those who could not get tickets from gate crashing into the hall. Overnight, Carnatic Music became the in thing. It became the rage among the younger set. Films began to look at using rAgas again. Sabhas in India and abroad vied to get Santhanam to sing. He sang and built a fan following that rivalled that of any film star. Awards poured in, culminating in the Music Academy?s prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi in the year 1989. It was the fastest rise to stardom in the annals of Carnatic Music. He was feted in all the great song halls where Carnatic Music was rendered. Santhanam also worked a revolution in remuneration for Carnatic Musicians, by asking for rates that were on par with Hindustani artistes, thereby attempting to level a long existing variance.
Many songs that he sang became identified with him, completely overshadowing the composers. He turned composer himself, creating a few delectable pieces on his idol, the Paramacharya of Kanchi. He in turn adored a composition of Swami Dayananda Saraswathi, bhO shambhO in rEvati, which he made up his mind to render in at least 108 successive concerts.
But that was not to be. Like a firework that throws out all its sparkles and dazzles just before it is snuffed out, Santhanam, at the peak of his career, was killed in a car accident, in the early hours of the morning of 24th June 1992. His mellifluous voice was silenced in a screech of skidding tyres, the grinding of brakes and the splintering of glass. It was the end of a glorious albeit short lived career.
Today, his admirers take solace in the numerous concert recordings of his that are available. He had established a Santhanam style or bhani that was in every way unique. He thus established a paddhati or tradition and joined the ranks of the great torch bearers of Carnatic Music.