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Shyama ShastriIndia Post on Syama Shastri - Click for another picture of Shyama Sasthri

Actual Name        : Venkata Subrahmanya

From                  : 26th April, 1762   To : 6th Feb, 1827

Father                : Visvanatha Iyer

Mother                : Vengalakshmi

Place of birth        : Thiruvarur in Tanjavur Dist of Tamilnadu


His Compositions and My Rendition


Shyama Shastri was the oldest of the Trinity of Carnatic music. He was a contemporary of the other two, Tyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar, and was a personal friend of the former. Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri were good friends. They often met and spent hours together singing. Shyama Shastri had deep regard for Tyagaraja.

Venkata Subrahmanya, affectionately known as Shyama Shastri, was born to Visvanatha Iyer and Vengalakshmi on April 26, 1762 in a Tamil - speaking brahmin community known as auttara vadama. His parents though scholarly, had no particular interest in music. His forefathers were archakas in the temple of Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi.

At the age of seven, his Upanayanam was performed. Initially his father taught him devotional songs and has given sound education in Sanskrit and Telugu languages and attained scholarship in these languages at a very young age. Finding the aptitude for music, his mother requested her cousins to teach him the fundamentals of music. However this got no further than the elementary stage in music education.

When he was eighteen years old, his family moved to Tanjore. There, they got a chance to host a sanyasi (monk), Sangitaswami, a master of dance and music, who was spending some four months in Tanjore. The sanyasi was quick to discover Shyama Shastri's keen intellect, melodious voice and musical talent and foresaw greatness in him. He obtained the father's consent and taught Shyama Shastri all aspects of raga, tala and swara prastharaas. The teacher found that the student could absorb even the intricate details very quickly, all in a matter of four months or less. Sangitaswami presented Shyama Shastri with a few rare treatises on music and certified that the student had gained full knowledge on the theoretical aspects of music. He advised his student to seek the friendship of and listen to the music (but not learn anything from) one Paccimiriyam Adiyappayya, a composer of the famous bhairavi ata tala varnam, viriboni, and a court musician in Tanjore. Shyama Shastri duly did as he was advised. The influence of Adiyappayya is reflected in his svarajati kamakshi in Bhairavi raga.

Over the years, Shyama Shastri became a well-known and respected musician, scholar and a composer. He was quite admired and respected by Tyagaraja and it appears that the two of them often held scholarly and lengthy discussions on their latest compositions.

He frequently accompanied his father to the temple. Gradually his faith in the Goddess grew. Shyama Shastri, like his father was the archaka (priest) in the Bangaru Kamakshi Temple in Tanjore. He was a very pious and genuine devotee of Goddess Kamakshi. He is believed to have lost consciousness of the outside world on several occasions as he prayed to the Goddess. On such occasions, he would sing his kriti-s extemporaneously.

Although he did not compose as many kritees as his two prolific contemporaries, Shyama Shastri's compositions are equally well known. It is said that he has composed about three hundred pieces in all. He did not have too many disciples to propagate his compositions, nor was the printing press an easy convenience during his time! More importantly, the scholarly nature of his compositions was not appealing to the layperson; they needed to be studied to be savored. He composed in Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil and mostly on Goddess Devi.

He is said to be the architect of the swarajati musical form. His set of three famous swarajatees is referred to as ratna thrayam. These are in Bhairavi, Yadukulakambodhi and Todi. These stand unparalleled both for the delineation of the raga bhava and the fecundity of musical ideas.

Shyama Shastri's compositions are usually in common ragas, except for a few in ragas such as Manji, Chintamani, Kalagada and Karnataka Kapi. His favorite ragas seem to have been Saveri and Anandabhairavi, judging from the number of kritees composed in these ragas.

Anandabhairavi, an old raga that was frequently used in folk music, seemed to acquire a new stature after he composed masterpieces such as mariveregati, himachala tanaya, Oh jagadamba, pahi sri giriraja and even a couple of varnams in it. His rare originality was in swara sahitya compositions and the use of swarakshara. In other words, swara and sahitya having identical sounding syllables such as 'padasarara' corresponding to the swaraas pa da sa in the kriti, devi ni in Kambodhi.

Shyama Shastri would perhaps stand out most for the "rhythmic beauties" employed in his kritees, such as the use of five-syllable words like sarasamukhi, varamosagu, kamalamukhi, etc. These correspond to the rhythmic phrase "ta dhin gi na thom". His kriti-s feature the abundant use of the misra chapu tala (4+3). He also features dual rhythms as in sankari samkuru in raga saveri, with the inherent rhythm of rupakam and a suggestive rhythm of adi tala. "Shyama Shastri had a rhythmical frame of mind and he was always swimming in the ethereal regions of rhythm and tala prasthara. No other composer has composed songs answering to the rhythmical beauties referred above.

Shyama Shastri, though not a prolific composer, has been given a permanent place in the musical Trinity due to the quality, depth, variety, scholarliness and bhakthi bhava in his compositions.

Once, Kesavayya, a great musician from Bobbili, challenged the Thanjavur court musicians in handling intricate talas. Before facing him,. Shyama Shastri went to the temple, meditated and sang "Devi brova samayamide' meaning "Devi !  now it is the time for you to protect me". With confidence, went to the court  and defeated the challenger.

Once, on the advice of a saint who heard Shyama Shastri singing Brhadamba in Pudukottai, went to Madurai to sing in praise of Meenaksi Amman and  composed "Navaratnamalika' (nine kritis). These include kriti-s such as saroja dala netri in Shankarabharanam, mayamma in Ahiri, meena lochana brova in Dhanyasi , etc.

At Nagapattinam, Shyama Shastri defeated in a contest Appukutti Nattuvanar who was proficient in music. Consequently Appukutti forfeited his tamboura and tala for ever.

Most of Shyama Shastri's compositions are in praise of Devi Goddess Kamakshi. He composed about 300 songs. Though a Tamil, he had chosen Telugu language as the medium for his songs for the inherent beauty of that language. There are a few Sanskrit and Tamil songs too.

"If you would sense the thrill, you have to go to the chapu tala for it and if you would like to enjoy its maximum effect you would find it in the compositions of Shyama Shastri", writes the Late T. V. Subba Rao.

Shyama Shastri style is neither simple as that of Tyagaraja nor difficult as that of Muthuswami Dikshitar.
His compositions are replete with the natural pathos and tenderness of a child crying out to reach its mother. He has composed kritees, varnams and swarajatees with the ankita mudra (signature) 'Shyama Krishna'.

Shyama Shastri had two sons, Panju Shastri and Subbaraya Shastri. The former became a priest and the latter was a versatile musician (and a disciple of Tyagaraja). Through Panju Shastri, the family tree grew and produced quite a few scholars. Shyama Shastri's great grandson lived till the age of 94 passing away only in 1950 AD. Through him many incidents of Shyama Shastri's life are known. He was reportedly a tall and a rather stout person with a fondness for betel leaves! Shyama Shastri, like Tyagaraja and Dikshitar, was well-versed in astrology.

Like his great contemporaries, he too correctly predicted the time of his passing. He passed away on February 6, 1827, six days after his devoted wife passed away.