(Palai C.K. Ramachandran learned music at a very young age from his first Guru, Shri Kumarakom Bhaskara Menon, who was a disciple of Shri Semmangudi Swami).
In the words of Ramachandran…I first met my Guru, Sangeetha Kalanadhi Dr. Semmangudi Srinivasan Iyer, during my entrance test at Thiruvanthapuram Swathi Thirunal Sangeetha Academy after I completed my 10th standard. He asked me to sing a piece as part of the interview process and subsequently admitted me to the second year of college. I passed my Gaana Bhooshanam course with flying colors. When Shri Semmangudi Swamy retired as the Principal, he asked me to accompany him to Madras, and thus my journey as his disciple began.
At Madras, I lived with my Guru in his house, and while undergoing the traditional form of Gurukula Vidyabhyasam, I took care of all of his needs and lived like his son for nearly 10 years.
Recognizing my thirst for music, he taught me over 500 krithis and made me sing with him in his kacheris (concerts) and I received the rare distinction of accompanying him on the tanpura for most of his concerts for 40 long years, till his very last concert. This long association enriched me with rich experiences, memories, and an incredible insight into the nuances of Carnatic music, such as the Sarvalaghu shudhamaaya swara prasthanam, the beauty, and purity of literature, the rendering of ragas with emotion, a deep knowledge of the science of music and other invaluable learning.
Swami was proud of his style of music that was based on the tradition of the great Thyagaraja, a musical style that was the purest form of classical music without any dilution. He took up the responsibility for passing this tradition to the next generation and had complete faith in their capabilities. This vision was the foundation of the distinct Semmangudi style or bani – a perfect blend of lyrics, music, and rhythm.
Swami had thousands of disciples ranging from expert writers, lyricists, and stalwarts that included the likes of Bharat Ratna M.S. Subhalakshmi. He was instrumental in publishing a lot of his associates’ works like books and also popularising them through his concerts.
The Travancore royal family bestowed him with a lot of recognition. Besides this, he was the recipient of a lot of awards and recognition, including the various Padma awards at the national level. As his disciple and the flag bearer of his distinct Bani, I was able to popularise Carnatic music across the globe with tours that ranged from popular cities in the US, UK, or UAE, to remote towns in Africa or the isolated islands of Lakshadweep in India.
I would like to pick up a few instances which made me feel very blessed to be a musician. The first incident was at the Ragasudha Hall, Madras, where I was the recipient of the first Maharajapuram Santhaanam award which was presented to me by my guru. During this function, he publicly acknowledged my 10 years of being his disciple and also the distinction of having accompanied him in most of his concerts. This public recognition was instrumental in me being declared as one of his prime disciples in the music world.
The second instance was during the birth centenary program of my guru at the Music Academy, Chennai, which was inaugurated by the then president, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. A few days prior to the function, he traced my number and called me and told me to narrate to him a couple of incidents about which he could talk at the function. He also requested me to send the book I had written on Swami to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan. To my surprise and happiness, Shri APJ chose to narrate an experience from the book and also said that the student-teacher relationship between me and my guru exemplified the true sense of the guru–shishya bond. This statement evoked an incredible response from the audience. On this occasion, Shri APJ appreciated and promoted my book titled Sadguru Sri Semmangudi Swami.
Some of the other memorable experiences I’ve had as my guru’s disciple include the recognition bestowed on me as an ‘Aastana Vidwaan’ at the Malibu temple in Southern California at a function where Violin Maestro Prof. TN Krishnan was the chief guest and felicitated me with a Ponnanda. I was also bestowed with the ‘Semmangudi award’ at the Thyagaraja festival in the US and many such recognitions were all due to the blessings of my guru.
I had the good fortune to popularise the Semmangudi Bani during my stint at the All India Radio as a top-grade artiste. My family and I feel blessed to have had his presence in our lives.
Palai C.K. Ramachandran