Born in 1890 at Polagam in the Tanjavur area as the younger son of Ramamritham Iyer and Yogambal, Papanasam Sivan was christened Ramayya at birth. The early death of his father saw the family comprising himself, his mother and older brother Rajagopalan migrating to the princely state of Travancore. Earning through performing menial chores and eating at the free kitchen of the ruler and studying Sanskrit at the Maharajah?s college, he grew up. Early in life he came under the influence of the musical savant Karamana Nilakanta Dasa (known today as Nilakanta Sivan) and participated in his bhajan sessions. He was also a regular attendee at the various concerts that took place in the capital city of Trivandrum. Wishing to learn music Ramayya apprenticed himself under Nemam Natesa Bhagavatar and acquired the basics. The death of his mother in 1909 ended his lessons and he took to a life of pilgrimage, carrying with him a bag that contained a copy of Ramalinga Swamigal?s Arutpa, some sacred ash, two dhotis and very little else. He wandered from place to place and for some time went to live with his elder brother who was teaching at a school in Papanasam. While staying there he visited several temples nearby and on seeing him the residents of Ganapati Agraharam village christened him Papanasam Sivan. The name stuck. Initially given to participating in and singing bhajans with gusto, Sivan found himself spontaneously composing while witnessing the chariot festival at the Tiruvarur temple. ?Unnai tudikka arul tha? in raga Kuntalavarali established him as a vaggeyakara of the first order. The well-known musical personality Simizhi Sundaram Iyer gave him the title of Tamil Tyagayya. From then, Sivan?s life took off in an interesting direction, but let us follow his songs to learn more about him?
During his wanderings Sivan went as far afield as Calcutta! This was in the 1910s when train travel was still difficult and he had very little money. He participated in the Skanda Shashti festivals organised by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar in his native village and during this time Sivan must have visited the famed Kantimati-Nellaiyappar shrine in Tirunelveli town. His song ?Kantimati annai? in raga Kanada is on the Goddess at this temple.
At this stage, Sivan became a close associate of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, a famed singer. His music was influenced in many ways by Vaidyanatha Iyer who in Sivan?s own words was ?the father he had never had?. Iyer?s death in 1921 was a great shock to Sivan but now, unlike what happened in the aftermath of his mother?s death, Sivan could not resume the life of a wandering singer. Well-wishers had got him married three years previously and he had a family to support. His career as a singer, which had begun auspiciously at the Tiruvayyaru Tyagaraja Aradhana in 1918, had failed to take off, his weak voice being the main reason. By the early 1920s, he had begun giving music lessons. But the allure of listening to concerts and Harikathas never left him. He too tried his hand at Harikatha. He wrote and performed one with Dharmaputra Rajasuya Yagna from the Mahabharata as its theme. In this episode, Lord Krishna was made the guest of honour by Yudhishtra and was taken in procession in a chariot attended on by the five Pandavas. Sivan picturised this scene in the song ?Teril erinaan? set in raga Kalyani. The tune is inspired by the well-known ?Intati kuluke?, but the imagination is all Sivan?s own.
Sivan became famous as a leader of bhajans and in 1921 was invited to perform during the Arupattu Moovar festival at the Kapaliswarar temple of Mylapore, Madras. The presiding deities exerted a powerful attraction over him and he was to come, year after year, till in 1931 he could resist the pull no longer and decided to move to the city. Here he was taken care of by Mylapore Sundaram Iyer who made Sivan teach music to his elder son S Rajam. In 1933 Sundaram Iyer and his family travelled to Kolhapur to act in a film ? Seetha Kalyanam, and Sivan was roped in as music director. He became very successful in that profession, writing the lyrics and setting them to music. In fact out of his output of 2000 compositions or so, 800 first saw the light as film songs. ?Maname kanamum? is a song from the film Savitri, sung on screen by MS Subbulakshmi. Sivan bade farewell to films in 1950, but some of his songs came to the screen well after that.
Strangely, though it was his mother-tongue, Tamil was a rather late entrant into Sivan?s life. But once he had gained command of the language it became his medium of expression. His fluency in Sanskrit was great and he had even compiled a dictionary in that language besides translating Jayadeva?s Ashtapadi into Tamil. Around 50 of his compositions are in Sanskrit. One among these is ?Sri Valli Devasenapate? in raga Nata Bhairavi.
Sivan continued visiting temples and the shrines associated with Lord Subrahmanya were favourites of his and several were fortunate to have songs composed in their honour by him. ?Chittam irangadenayya? in Sahana was composed at the Tiruchendur temple. However, his favourites were Kapaliswarar and Karpagambal of Mylapore and they were adored by him in several songs. Each year, from 1922 till his death in 1973, Sivan led the Margazhi Bhajans around the four streets of Mylapore. These were occasions for several compositions and ?Engum niraindirukkum? in Kurinji even has a few lines in the charanam which are structured as though a singer is exhorting the laity to come together and sing of the deity at this temple.
When worldly matters and the necessity of bringing up four children weighed heavily on Sivan, he chose to express his worries in the form of songs. Many have a litany of human failings and ?Polla puli? in Mayamalavagaula is an example. Beseeching the deity for succour was another favourite theme as depicted in ?Kakka unakkirakkam? (raga Kharaharapriya). But Sivan was not above being cheeky with his favourite deities and could indulge in ninda stuti as well. ?Adum deivam? in Kamboji which describes the Urdhva Tandava of Lord Siva states that He was afraid of losing to Kali in the dance competition and hence indulged in an elaborate charade of dropping His earring, picking it up with His foot and then lifting the foot to His ear to fix the jewel there again. It is Sivan at his best, painting a wonderful word picture and in the best music possible.
Sivan was recognised and awarded in his lifetime, though such things meant little to him. His rise to fame came about due to the Tamil Isai movement of the 1940s when a group of Tamil lovers fought for restoring Tamil to an honoured place on the concert platform. Sivan?s songs were used for this and they were most appropriate for they were all creations of a man who loved the language. His ?Ganarasamudan? (raga Begada) addressed to the Tamil deity of Muruga (Subrahmanya) requests that he be given the talent to compose songs in Tamil. The anupallavi is in highly Sanskritised Tamil and the charanam in chaste Tamil. It is a classic in conception and execution.
Sivan, true to the title of Tamil Tyagayya, is one of the few composers whose creations can sustain an entire concert rather like the songs of Tyagaraja. The songs depict a wealth of emotions and are couched in wonderful lyrics set to the most delectable music. It would be no exaggeration to say that Sivan was the last of the great vaggeyakaras.