KARAIKUDI S. SUBRAMANIAN
The adoption at the Kalakshetra premises.
Left to right: Narayana Iyer (standing), Meenambal (Sambasiva Iyer's wife), KSS and Sambasiva Iyer
Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer Subramanian, born to Narayanan Iyer and Lakshmi Ammal (daughter of Subbarama Iyer) in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, is the ninth generation veena player in the illustrious Karaikudi Tradition.
KSS' exposure to music began in his early childhood by observing and learning from his mother, who taught vina throughout her life. Their household was practically a home to many students, who spent most of their day learning and practising under the supervision of Lakshmi Ammal. KSS too would join the daily practice and would often assist his mother in teaching the students.
In 1957, KSS, who is the third child and second son in a family of seven children (five sons and two daughters), was adopted by his grand-uncle Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer. At that time, KSS was the only male member of the family who played vina. As the tradition was patriarchal, passed on from father to son, and Sambasiva Iyer and his wife had no children of their own, they adopted KSS to continue the Karaikudi lineage.
After the adoption, KSS moved to Chennai and lived at the original Kalakshetra, Theosophical Society with Sambasiva Iyer, who worked as a principal there. He was undergoing vigorous training in the foundations of Carnatic music for one year until the demise of his adoptive father in 1958.
After completing his degrees in Chemistry (B.Sc., 1965) and English (MA., 1969) from the University of Madras, KSS pursued a PhD in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, U.S.A. He was awarded the Asian Cultural Council Fellowship (New York, 1983-84) and the Copeland Fellowship (Amherst College, 1986).
Immersing himself in Karnatak music from his early childhood, KSS' explorations of music are multifarious. He has served as Professor of Music at the University of Madras from 1986 to 2002. He has furthermore visited several universities as a visiting professor and guest lecturer. These include Amherst College (Valentine Professor of Music, 1990); San Francisco State College; National University of Singapore (1983); Leeds College of Music; York University, University of Michigan; University of Limerick; and University College Cork.
KSS is a Top-Grade artist of All India Radio, and he has performed in Europe, North America, Canada and the Far East. In 1975, Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin-Dahlem (now Ethnologisches Museum) invited KSS and his sister Rajeswari Padmanabhan to document their family tradition. They recorded the album Musik für Vina, Südindien (Music for Vina, South India), which later won Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik (the German Record Critics' Award) in 1980. Another album Sunada, which was produced by the label Music of the World, USA received the Naird Award (1993).
The Karaikudi Tradition is Veena tradition from Southern India passed on through a family line of several generations. The exact details of where, when and how the tradition emerged are unknown. There is only an oral record of the first two generations without any knowledge of names or details except for the information deduced from the practice of the ritualistic offerings - 'Tevasam', to the forefathers of Sambasiva Iyer and Subbarama Iyer (7th generation veena exponent in the Karaikudi Tradition). The oral records were only acquired through Sambasiva Iyer’s wife, Sugantha Kuntalambal. Malayappa belonged to the third generation and Venkateswara to the fourth. Other than their names, not much is known about these two generations either. Subbaraya – the grandfather of the Karaikudi Brothers – belonged to the fifth generation. He was the court musician in Sivaganga and later in Thirugokarnam, Pudukkottai. Subbaraya's son Subbaya was born in Thirugokarnam. Like his father, Subbayya was also patronised by the court of Pudukkottai under the rule of Ramachandra Tondaiman. The Kanakabhisekam (gold shower) was bestowed on Subbaraya and Subbayya by the royalty of Pudukottai court to honour their musicianship.
Subbayya married Subbammal and had two children Subbarama Iyer (1883–1938) and Sambasiva Iyer (1888–1957). Subbarama Iyer began learning veena from his father at the age of seven and began playing concerts at the age of 12. He was later joined by his younger brother Sambasiva Iyer. Subbarama Iyer was known for his unique way of holding the veena vertically (urdhva posture) while playing.
With the expansion and increasing control of the British empire during the first half of the 20th century, the royal courts in the small states of India could no longer afford to patronise arts. The political changes affected artists all over India due to the absence of royal patronage. Leaving Thirugokarnam was inevitable for Subbarama Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer who were now left to fend for themselves. After moving to Madurai, where they continued to struggle financially, they moved to Karaikudi. The Nattukkottai Chettiyars (merchant community) in Karaikudi were interested in bringing them to their town and offered the brothers accommodation. Subbarama Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer gradually established themselves with the support and patronage of other interested merchants and soon became known as the famous "Karaikudi Veena Brothers". They were mostly accompanied by Pudukkottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, the legendary mridangam player who became their closest friend and whose mrdangam accompaniment to the ‘Karaikuid Veena brothers’ was often referred to as "the third veena".
Confirming to the norms of the time, the lineage was patriarchal, passed on from father to son. However, Subbarama Iyer had five daughters, Subbalakshmi, Sundari, Laksmhi, Shankari and Meenakshi. There was no son to carry on the paternal lineage. The younger ones of the five daughters, Lakshmi, Shankari and Meenakshi, belonged to the 8th generation as veena players who taught and performed. The veena lineage continued through their children, while Subbalakshmi’s son is the renowned mridangam player, Karaikudi Krishnamurthy.
Ranganayaki Rajagopalan and Lakshmi Ammal’s oldest daughter, Rajeshwari Padmanabhan, came under the tutelage of Sambasiva Iyer at an early age. Since Sambasiva Iyer had no children, in 1957, he adopted Karaikudi S. Subramanian, son of Lakshmi, the third daughter of his brother Subbarama.
The quintessence of the Karaikudi Bani remained with Sambasiva Iyer's two well-known disciples, one outside of the family, Ranganayaki (the senior-most disciple) and the other within the family, Rajeswari. After Sambasiva Iyer's demise, KSS continued to learn and perform with both his sister and Ranganayaki. This enriched his experience of the Karaikudi Bani from two different perspectives. Ranganayaki and Rajeswari have both spent their lifetime passing on the Karaikudi Bani in their respective ways through performance and teaching. The tradition is now continued by children and grandchildren of the five daughters of Subbarama Iyer independently in different parts of the world.
In his COMET methodology, Karaikudi S. Subramanian has integrated the rich Karaikudi Bani with a research base. COMET attempts to bring in all the dimensions of the Karaikudi style of veena playing in a systematic way. To know more about this, please visit the page "Karaikudi Veena".
As the ninth generation in a lineage of vina players, Dr. Karaikudi S. Subramanian has a vision to extend his musical learning through structured music education for everyone from kindergarten to graduation.
His innovative approach in music education comes from his intensive and extensive experience as a performer and an educator in the field of music for a span of more than six decades including nearly a decade long living in the USA to complete his PhD in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University.
With a thirst for philosophy and a ‘critical’ and curious mind, throughout his life’s journey with his music, he has sought to find meaning for tradition in a modern world. His answer is Brhaddhvani, a place where he can share, teach, inspire and facilitate the joy of music, in all its incarnations.
The ‘ida’ (introvert) of Brhaddhvani breathes the ‘tradition’, which he imbibed, cherished and nourished from his own family, coupled with the values he augmented from his intimate associations with the legendary Indian music maestros of the past and present, such as Mysore Vasudevachar, Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.D. Ramanathan, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Prof. T. Viswanathan, S. Kalyanaraman, Dr. Sripada Pinakapani, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Prof. Trichy Sankaran and the most respected erudite musician-scholar Dr. S. Seetha.
Dr. Karaikudi Subramanian’s contribution to music education is a pioneering attempt in music pedagogy. I have used his svarasthana notation in one of my publications on Pallavi singing.
Dr. Sripada Pinakapani
The ‘pingala’ (extrovert) of Brhaddhvani breathes the contemporary through the valuable academic associations with the finest of world music minds such as Professors John Barlow, Mark Slobin, David McAlleser, John Higgins, David Reck, Harold Powers, Eero Hameeniemi, Pia Srinivasan and Hans Neuhoff.
Dr. Karaikudi S. Subramanian speaks..
Brhaddhvani is the outcome of research on my vina tradition going back to 9 generations. Without this backdrop, the holistic concept of music education at Brhaddhvani would not have been possible. Studying one’s own tradition will not be valid without the objective observations, comments and guidance from experts and knowledgeable people in this area. Professors, Jon Barlow, David McAllester, Mark Slobin, T. Viswanathan, Jon Higgins, Harold Powers and David Reck were my markers in making me an objective observer of my own tradition. My work could be best summarised as an "insider-outsider perspective" of a tradition. At Wesleyan, I gained the experience of teaching veena to students from different musical backgrounds. Furthermore, I had the opportunity of playing vina with unimaginable combinations of instruments such as church organ, carillon, piano, saxophone, French horn, chi’n and with instruments in other cross-musi-cultural situations. All this gave me insights into the traditional vina and its potential as a unique world instrument.
Dr. KSS’ approach seems to weave a beautiful contemporary approach and understanding through the pluses and minuses of both gurukula and institutional systems, a rare feat indeed!
Prof. David Roche
I had the opportunities to interact with various musicians and musical instruments with the pure objective of understanding the music cultures and their musical expressions. This broadened my mind and I began seeing the pitfalls as well as the strength in veena and my musicianship. When I had to learn the Tyagaraja composition ’Tappibratiki’ in Todi for my performance with Dr. T. Viswanathan, I discovered both the pitfalls and strengths in my tradition. Similarly, the perspectives of Ethnomusicologists, David Reck and Richard Wolf on Karaikudi vina tradition were very valuable and gave me further understanding of my tradition from objective and critical points of view. My practice of Japanese Koto strengthened my spiritual convictions in playing instruments. My understanding of Chi’n gave me the metaphorical expressions of the ancient instrument players. I began understanding the musical instrument as the extension of the musician’s body.
All the above and much more are the underlying spirit behind Brhaddhvani as a world music institute and COMET as a unifying music educational principle. Brhaddhvani is not an imitation of anything. It is the original work of a musician from a tradition going beyond and back to the tradition.
Editor of Rishabham, the second in the series Carnatic Music Theory and Notated Songs, published by Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, Singapore (1982)
Gandharam, the third in the series Carnatic Music Theory and Notated Songs, published by Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, Singapore (1984)
An Introduction to the Vina, Asian Music, Vol. 16, No. 2, published by: University of Texas Press (1985)
South Indian Vina-tradition and Individual Style, doctoral dissertation, in three volumes (712 pages) submitted to Wesleyan University, published by Micro-films University, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA (1986)
Text, Tone, and Tune: Interrelationships Among Text, Tune and Tone in Karnatak Music, published in Text, Tune and Tone – Parameters of Music in Multicultural Perspective, a collection of papers presented at the seminar organised by the American Institute of Indian Studies, New Delhi (1986–1987)
Birth Centenary of Sangita Kalanidhi Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, published by India International Rural Cultural Centre (1988)
Sino – Indian Musical Symbolism, Report of Seminars, The Bulletin of The Institute of Traditional Cultures of South and South East Asia, Madras, University of Madras, a comparison between Chi'n and Vina as representative instruments of two cultures, (1989–1990)
Manodharma Sangeetham of Dr. Sripada Pinakapani translated to Tamil, published by Brhaddhvani (1992)
Semmangudiyin Kural, published by Brhaddhvani (2008)
Reminiscences: K Sambasiva Iyer and Mysore Vasudevachar, published by Nirmalam, the Genius of S. Sarada (2008)
Continuity and Change in Music Tradition in Contemporary South India – A Case Study of Brhaddhvani, VWB, Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002, Indiana University, Music Archiving in the World: Papers Presented at the Conference on the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv (2009) (available online)
COMET, the creative pedagogy, within and beyond Karnatak music, papers presented at the international seminar on Creating and Teaching Music Patterns conducted by the Department of Instrumental Music, Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta (2013)