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 in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, is a ninth-generation vina player from the renowned Karaikudi Tradition. His musical journey was nurtured by his mother, Lakshmi Ammal, who herself was a vina teacher. The household served as an abode for students dedicated to learning and practicing, under Lakshmi Ammal's careful guidance.
In 1957, KSS, the third child and second son in a family of seven siblings, was formally adopted by his granduncle, the legendary Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer. As the sole male vina player in the family, and given the patriarchal nature of the tradition, KSS's adoption was aimed at preserving and continuing the Karaikudi lineage, particularly since Sambasiva Iyer and his wife were without biological heirs.
Following the adoption, KSS moved to Chennai and resided at the original Kalakshetra, Theosophical Society, where Sambasiva Iyer served as a principal. There, KSS underwent rigorous training in the foundational aspects of Karnatak music for a year until the passing of Sambasiva Iyer in 1958.
Having completed his degrees in Chemistry (B.Sc., 1965) and English (M.A., 1969) from the University of Madras, KSS pursued his postgraduate studies in music at Wesleyan University, earning his Masters in Music in 1979 and completing his doctorate in Ethnomusicology in 1986. Between 1981 and 1983, he contributed to the Department of Extramural Studies at University of Singapore. In 1986, he commenced his tenure at the University of Madras, serving as a professor of music until his retirement in 2002. Additionally, he worked as Valentine Visiting Professor of Music at Armherst College in 1990. Throughout his career, he has been invited to various universities worldwide to deliver guest lectures, seminars, and workshops, including San Francisco State College, SOAS University of London, Leeds College of Music, York University, University of Michigan, University of Limerick, University College Cork, Dublin City University, and Maynooth University.
KSS has performed as a top-grade artist on All India Radio and in live concerts across India, Europe, North America, Canada, and the Far East. Moreover, he has accompanied renowned musicians, including K.V. Narayanaswamy, T. Viswanathan, his sister Rajeswari Padmanabhan and Ranganayaki Rajagopalan. Additionally, he has participated in cross-cultural performances alongside international artists such as Steve Coleman, Woody Shaw III, and Martin Hayes.
In the year 1975, the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin-Dahlem (now Ethnologisches Museum) invited KSS and his sister, Rajeswari Padmanabhan, to undertake the documentation of their family's musical heritage. The outcome of this project was the album "Musik für Vina, Südindien" (Music for Vina, South India), which received the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik (the German Record Critics' Award) in 1980. Additionally, his album titled "Sunada," produced by the label Music of the World, USA, won the Naird Award in 1993.
The Karaikudi Veenai Tradition originates from Southern India and has been passed down through several generations within the family lineage. The exact origins of the tradition are uncertain, with only oral records available for the first two generations. These records lack specific names and details, except for information obtained through ritualistic offerings known as 'Tevasam' to the forefathers of Sambasiva Iyer and Subbarama Iyer, who are the seventh generation vina players in the tradition. These oral records were obtained through Sambasiva Iyer's wife, Sugantha Kuntalambal.
The third and fourth generations were represented by Malayappa and Venkateswara, respectively, but little is known about them beyond their names. Subbaraya, belonging to the fifth generation, served as the court musician in Sivaganga and Thirugokarnam, Pudukkottai. His son, Subbaya, continued the musical legacy in Thirugokarnam, also receiving patronage from the Pudukkottai court. Both Subbaraya and Subbaya were honored with the Kanakabhisekam (gold shower) in recognition of their musicianship.
Subbayya married Subbammal and had two children Subbarama Iyer (1883–1938) and Sambasiva Iyer (1888–1957). Subbarama Iyer began his vina training at the age of seven under his father's guidance and started performing concerts at 12 years old. His younger brother, Sambasiva Iyer, later joined him. Subbarama Iyer was known for his distinctive style of holding the vina vertically (urdhva posture) while playing.
As the British empire expanded its control during the first half of the 20th century, the royal courts in India's smaller states could no longer afford to patronize the arts. This political change affected artists across the country, including Subbarama Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer, who were left without royal patronage. Consequently, they left Thirugokarnam, moving to Madurai, and eventually settling in Karaikudi. The Nattukkottai Chettiyars in Karaikudi offered them patronage, and with support from other merchants, the brothers re-established themselves and were recognised as the "Karaikudi Veenai Brothers" among connoisseurs. They often performed with Pudukkottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, a renowned mridangam player and close friend, whose accompaniment was referred to as "the third veenai".
Subbarama Iyer had five daughters, namely Subbalakshmi, Sundari, Lakshmi, Shankari, and Meenakshi. Owing to the patriarchal nature of the tradition, the daughters were not recognised as heirs to the lineage. Lakshmi, Shankari, and Meenakshi, the younger daughters, continued the vina tradition as the 8th generation players, teaching and performing. The vina tradition continued through their children, while Subbalakshmi's son, Karaikudi Krishnamurthy, has gained prominence as a distinguished mridangam player.
Ranganayaki Rajagopalan as well as Lakshmi Ammal’s eldest daughter, Rajeswari Padmanabhan, came under the tutelage of Sambasiva Iyer at a young age. As Sambasiva Iyer had no children, he adopted Karaikudi S. Subramanian, the third child of Lakshmi Ammal, in 1957 to continue the family lineage.
The quintessence of the Karaikudi Bani remained with Sambasiva Iyer's two prime disciples, one outside of the family, Ranganayaki (the senior-most disciple) and the other within the family, Rajeswari. After Sambasiva Iyer's passing, KSS continued to learn and perform with both. Ranganayaki and Rajeswari dedicated their lives to perpetuating the Karaikudi Tradition through performance and teaching. Today, the tradition is carried on independently by the children and grandchildren of Subbarama Iyer's five daughters in various parts of the world.
Karaikudi S. Subramanian's approach to music education is informed by his extensive background as both a performer and educator spanning over six decades. Having spent nearly a decade in the USA pursuing his PhD in Ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, he brings a rich blend of academic rigor and practical experience deeply rooted in tradition to his work.
Driven by a philosophical inclination and a naturally curious mind, KSS has consistently explored the intersection of tradition and modernity in his musical endeavors. In response to this exploration, he founded Brhaddhvani, a platform aimed at sharing knowledge, inspiring students, and nurturing a deeper appreciation for music in all its incarnations.
The 'ida' (introvert) of Brhaddhvani breathes the 'tradition,' which he has imbibed, cherished, and nurtured from his own family. Additionally, he has enriched his musical values through close associations with legendary Indian music maestros of the past and present. Among them are 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 esteemed 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 by fostering valuable academic connections with esteemed world music scholars, including Professors John Barlow, Mark Slobin, David McAlleser, John Higgins, David Reck, Harold Powers, Eero Hameeniemi, Pia Srinivasan, and Hans Neuhoff.
Karaikudi S. Subramanian speaks about his experience at Wesleyan..
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, Richard Winslow, 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 vina 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 vina 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)