When Vaiyacheri dominated the music world

It is the birth place of Vaidyanatha Sivan and Ramasamy Iyer, both great musicians

Long before small villages in the composite Thanjavur district earned a name for themselves in Carnatic music, thanks to the musicians born there, Vaiyacheri held a pre-eminent position.

It is the birthplace of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer or Vaidyanatha Sivan (1844-1893) and his brother Ramasamy Iyer, both great musicians and Tamil scholars. They had performed all-Tamil concerts comprising songs from Thevaram, Thiruvasagam and Periya Puranam.

A narrow road between the Cauvery, on the one side, and emerald paddy fields dotted with teak and bamboo trees, on the other, leads to the village which is also the birth place of musicians Anai Ayya brothers and mridangam player Vaidyanatha Iyer, who was the teacher of Palghat Mani Iyer.

“He was incomparable. No one possessed the talent of Vaidyanatha Sivan, who travelled across Tamil Nadu and converted the places where he performed into ‘Gandharvalokha’. None with such a talent existed before him,” writes Tamil Thatha U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, who had listened to their concerts.

There is a portrait of Vaidyanatha Sivan at the Agastheeswarar temple at Vaiyacheri today. It alone reminds the people of the musician born there. The house where the brothers lived disappeared with time; just a few old bricks that were part of the foundation remain.

“I have seen the house. But years of neglect led to its destruction,” said Rajapaa, 71, who as a child had listened to concerts in Thiruvaiyaru.

Swaminatha Iyer, who has penned the biography of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, recalls one particular concert held at the Thiruvavaduthurai Mutt that stands testimony to Vaidyanatha Iyer’s greatness. “And then Vaidyanatha Iyer sang alone. He displayed a variety of skills. From the lowest notes, he traversed the base, mid-level and higher octaves with an admirable facility. His voice, much like nibble fingers sliding through the frets of the veena across octaves, glided through the notes effortlessly like a diving kingfisher. His music bore a stamp of victory that day.”

It was on this occasion that Melagaram Subramania Desikar, the head of the Thiruvavaduthurai Mutt, conferred the tile ‘Maha’ on Vaidyanatha Iyer in the presence of another musician Periya Vaidhyanatha Iyer after he rendered ‘chakravakam’.

“He elaborately rendered a raga and no musician could identify it. Desikar also asked Periya Vaidhyanatha Iyer and he, too, could not identify it. Then Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer said it was ‘chakravakam’, and its grammar had been explained in Sangeetha Ratnakaram.”

“He went on to sing to explain its nuances and everyone present enjoyed the occasion,” recalls Swaminatha Iyer.

Composer-singer Mysore Vasudevacharya in his book, Naa Kanda Kalavidharu, had recorded the ban imposed on him and other students by Patanam Subramania Iyer from attending the concerts of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer in Thiruvaiyaru. He and others would sneak into the concerts after Subramania Iyer slept.

Swaminatha Iyer says Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer would not sing continuously for more than one-and-a-half hours. He would begin with Vathapi Ganapathim and it would be followed by Ekkalathilum Maravene, a song from Periya Puranam. “He would perform siva katha for two hours. He would begin his raga alapana by singing the word ‘sankara’. He would avoid preparing his throat before the concert, spending a few minutes to align his voice with sruthi and drinking liquids frequently during the concerts.”

Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer was one of the violinists who accompanied him. Narayanasamy Appa had played mridangam for him.

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