Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Everyone knows great people. Those great people don’t know all who know them. But there are a few of these great persons who remember everyone who is introduced to them and make it a point to remember their names and other details.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, whose centenary falls this week, was one such person. Everyone interested in Carnatic music knows him well, his reputation as a great singer and a lifetime devoted to music and music alone.

My father and Bhagavathar were well known to each other ever since Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer became the asthaana vidwan of Travancore state, and the Principal of Swathi Thirunal Music Academy. Our home in Trivandrum was next to the Academy. In fact, this Music Academy was being conducted in the house which my father bought in 1941. Since then the Academy shifted to the present building.

Babuji was introduced to the Bhagavathar by my father during our wedding. Babuji, a great fan of the Bhagavathar, was really thrilled by this. Babuji use to walk six to eight miles to and fro to listen to the kutcheris of great musicians in his younger days. Babuji was influenced by two friends who were truly interested in music, and it was with these friends that he used to go for these concerts. In those days, most of these concerts were held at functions like weddings. The name of the Bhagavathar was the criterion by which the grandness of the wedding was assessed. Musicians like Semangudi, Madurai Mani Iyer and G. N. Balasubramaniam were the favourite ones.

In 1948, Babuji was coming to Madras from Delhi by the Grand Trunk Express. In Nagpur station, at the middle of the night, a few people entered the compartment Babuji was in. Once they settled down Babuji recognized them as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and his accompanying artistes. When Babuji introduced himself after saluting the Bhagavathar, the Bhagavathar said, “Oh yes, I remember you. You are Judge saar’s kadaikutty Mapillai (youngest son-in-law). And till the train reached Madras, Babuji was treated like Bhagavathar’s own son-in-law; not being allowed to spend any money on food, but sharing with him all that they had brought. Babuji was really touched by this gesture.

Whenever Bhagavathar came to Delhi, we never missed any of his concerts. And we used to meet him backstage, where he treated us as one of his family. It was at on e of these meetings the Bhagavathar told us that he had met my father only the previous week in Trivandrum, and as usual when they met, my father was profusely apologetic for not wearing his ‘poonal’. My father never believed in God, leave alone all the rituals that followed. But his greatness was he allowed my mother to have her own way in all the religious rites and rituals and took part in them whenever he was called upon to do so. The poonal would adorn his person at such times. And also on amavasai day to perform the ‘tharpanam’ and on those days he had to do the ‘sraddham’ for his ancestors.

After retirement, one of my father’s daily routines was to walk up to the gate at about 4 pm – the time the Music Academy closed for the day, to meet the Bhagavathar and exchange titbits of gossip. The Bhagavathar used to tease my father, who was 20 years his senior (my father’s 120th anniversary fell on July 16) by saying “Hey Brahmin, why don’t you wear your ‘poonal’?” At home, my father was always bare-chested, as was the custom in those days. On days he remembered, my father would call my younger brother to bring the poonal to the gate saying, “Here comes the Bhagavathar, and if he sees me without it, he will take my life out.”

Bhagavathar had great respect for my father’s judgement in music. People used to come to my father with youngsters good at singing and playing instruments, with requests to get in a word of recommendation to the Bhagavathar. My father always used to help them, and one or two of these, recommended by my father and accepted by the Bhagavathar became world famous artistes in their later life.

The only thing that my father objected to was the Bhagavathar’s habit of claiming one rupee for each autograph he signed. He was collecting for some charitable purpose or committee, I don’t remember which. When my daughter Raji got that autograph after paying that rupee, she had a tough time facing my father and giving an explanation.
Click on picture to enlarge

The last time we met the Bhagavathar was at Malai Mandir in New Delhi in early 1980. when he saw me he asked me about my welfare, and surprised me by saying, “Come on, child, tell me, Do you recognize me, you know my name?” as if I was a child of six or seven, whereas at that time I was above 50. He was really happy when I did namaskaram to him. He spoke to me about my father, his ideas and ideals. I was really touched by his affection, not only for my father, but also for his children.

Semmangudi photograph: Courtesy Internet

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


We were in Chingleput for only six months - June to November 1956. Here Babuji’s designation was RDO (Regional Development Officer). This was a very coveted and much envied posting. Babuji was very busy and mostly on tour here. He had Kanchipuram, Thirukazhukunram, Mahabalipuram and Madurantakam under his jurisdiction. He was away from home almost three or four days every week. He also had to act as District Magistrate. He enjoyed his work so much, when the six months were over, we felt we had been there for only six weeks.

The bungalow we lived in was away from the town, and on a small hillock, surrounded by hills on three sides. It was very peaceful and quiet. Like all bungalows built by the British in the colonial days, this too was very big with five or six rooms in a row – huge and airy rooms, and with very high ceilings, and tall doors, the top halves of which were shuttered, and the bolts were almost four feet long. The verandah in the front was very big and wide, and extended from one end of the house to the other, and leading to every room. The kitchen, storeroom and work areas were at the back.

The teagarden bungalows of West Bengal, (which I was to see later whenever I visited my daughter near Siliguri) and the Traveller's Bungalow in the districts were all built in this style.

In this bungalow there was only drawback – there was no loo in the bathroom. It was away from the main house, but not open or exposed to weather – or pigs. Babuji wanted to rectify this defect before we left the place. He managed to get the Central Government permission to have the bathrooms provided with this facility too, so that future occupants could have this convenience. There was no running water either. A water tank used to come and fill the storage tanks with water daily. This was more than enough for our needs. And there was a retinue of servants to take care of all the carrying and distribution of water.

Babuji’s sense of humour made him very popular here, too. Once in court in his role as a magistrate, he was listening to the argument of the petitioner’s lawyer. He claimed that the guilty party had raided his client’s orchard. His statement was that the defendant had stolen tamarind, coconuts and mangoes. ‘Puli kili adicchu, manga thenga thirudi’ was how he put it. Babuji in response said, “I understand ‘puli adikkarathu and manga thengai adikkarathu’ but how can he adikki a kili?” This generated laughter in the courtroom with the advocates’ remark “Your Honour is very humorous.”

Another event I remember. Babuji had this habit of playing with his glass paperweight while listening to the proceedings in court. Once the paperweight slipped form his hand and fell on his foot. The advocates showed much concern, and one of them asked, “Is your Honour hurt?” Prompt came the reply from Babuji, “My foot”.

It was during this time, the Chinese Prime minister Chou En Lai visited India. One could hear the slogan “Hindi-Cheeni bhai bhai” all over India. The Chinese Premier’s itinerary included a visit to Mahabalipuram also. Babuji was asked to make the necessary arrangements for the visit and also to treat the Chinese Premier to some tender coconut water. That put Babuji in a dilemma – how to offer the tender coconut water to the VIP. Pour in a glass ? No that would take away the natural charm and ruin the taste. One can’t just ask the head of another country, a VIP guest, just to tilt back his head and pour the contents down his throat. Even if so, his face and upper garments would also get a taste of the ‘ilaneer’. This was not possible. All of a sudden Babuji hit upon the idea of inserting a straw into the coconut. This was well applauded and commented upon, for this was a new idea then. The Chinese Premier’s visit went off well and Babuji was really happy.

In those days, Mahabalipuram could be reached only through Chingleput and Thirukazhukunram from Madras. It was really a beautiful place, with no crowds, and not at all commercialized. Not many people around, so peaceful and untouched by what one calls civilisation. We were able to spend very quiet and peaceful evenings, sitting on the beach and watching the ever moving sea. Tourist attractions had not started yet, but for VIPs. Two years ago, when the whole family was there for a night’s stay for a get-together, I could see the difference – five star hotels, swimming pools and lots and lots of shops. I felt the beauty of this place was really mutilated.
In the picture, Babuji with the baby, Raja, and below, Bala, the gatekeeper

In Thirukazhukundram, at the temple on top of a hill, two eagles made regular flights to this temple to partake of the morsel of rice that was given by the priest of the temple. They flew down from the north and after eating the rice used to fly south. The legend is that that these two eagles were cursed souls, who had to visit Kasi and Rameswaram every day for 10,000 years to be redeemed from their curse and resume their original form. From Rameswaram they would fly to Kasi for the morning pooja, after a bath in the Ganges and flew to Rameswaram for the evening pooja. They were treated to their food at Thirukazhukundram everyday, and they would regularly turn up at the same time. We have watched the birds on several occasions. Now I hear the birds are no longer seen for the last ten years. Maybe the period of the curse came to an end by the 20th century.

Kanchipuram was a very small township then, mostly occupied by temples and their priests, the weaver of silk saris, and nothing much more. We were able to pray in the temples in peace, because there were no crowds. Once on a tour to Kanchipuram, Babuji was introduced to the musician M. D. Ramanathan. They were standing by the roadside, when Babuji expressed his desire to listen to MD’s singing. Without a second thought the musician sat upon the verandah of a nearby house and sang two songs. Babuji never forgot the spontaneity of the young singer, who later became very famous.

It was while we were here that Babuji came to know Miss George. Anna Rajam George was the first woman IAS officer. She was a very strict officer who followed the rules to the very last letter. Officially Babuji had trouble with her - whatever Babuji wanted to be done, she would object to by pointing to the rules and regulations. Babuji had to meet her in the Saidapet office at least once a month and he used to dread these visits. But believe it or not, back in Delhi Babuji and Miss George became the best of friends – she also became a part of the family, for we both got along very well, too.

Maiji and Miss George at Viji's wedding in 1974, New Delhi
In 1975, she married R.N. Malhotra, her long time friend from their training days, then moved out of our orbit. I met her only once after Babuji passed away, when I was staying with Viji in Bombay. Miss G, as we called her, and her husband were working in Bombay then He was the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and Miss G as the Chairman, Port Trust of India. They came to pay their condolences, and spent some time with me.

Babuji’s presence of mind and quick action saved my life when I was stung by a black scorpion one night. Babuji immediately removed his ‘poonal’(sacred thread), not from his shoulder, but from its normal resting place – a nail on the bedroom wall. He tied the 'poonal' tightly around the big toe where I had been stung, and drove me straight to the doctor. I was given anti-venom injection, and asked to drink plenty of water. The saying goes that the black scorpion’s venom is much more powerful than a black cobra’s. Next morning, the doctor was really surprised to see me alive. On being told that I had taken gallons and gallons of water during the night, he said that was what had saved my life. The scorpion’s venom dehydrates the victim to death.

The children Raji , Bala and Viji had a wonderful time attending Tamil medium school. A horse-driven carriage was arranged to take them to school and back. The kids enjoyed these rides more than the school lessons. In their spare time they used to roam all over the hills, and collected seeds like kunthumani (black-eyed red seeds)- very attractive to look at and manjadi – red seeds.

Our stay in this place though very short is very well etched in my memory. We had a lot of guests here, mostly Babuji’s relatives from both his parents’ side, and me meeting them for the first time. A few of our friends from Delhi also dropped by en route to Delhi after their holiday at home down south. All said it was an enjoyable six months we had. After six months of this wonderful life Babuji was posted in Saidapet Collectorate and we moved over to Madras.

The picture below and those of the children above were all taken by my brother Moorthy who visited us.