'There was again a world of difference between my guru and Mahavaidyanatha Iyer in the care they took to preserve their voice. The latter went to extremes... [H]e was afraid that the tiny flame of the maṅgalārati would cause excessive heat in the body and a spoonful of teertha would bring on a cold! He stuck to a strict diet of rice and pepper rasam. He scrupulously avoided naps and practised brahmacharya.
'My guru was exactly the opposite, "Why on earth should one learn music of one has to starve like this?" he would argue. He ate... sumptuously without bothering whether the preparations were cooked in oil or ghee. He slept whenever he liked and as long as he chose to! He would go for his concert in the evening with absolute confidence and return victorious! He would ask with a smile, "Vasu! Who should dictate terms, the singer or his voice?"'
Carnatic music, like any other Indian tradition, suffers from a lack of reliable accounts of its composers and performers. And one of the greatest of Carnatic composers, Tyāgarāja's life is shrouded in legends. In such a situation, Nā kaṇḍa kalāvidaru, Mysore Vasudevacharya's collection of short bios of his contemporary musicians (set in early 20th century), is a wonderful surprise. I read its English translation, With Masters of Melody.
Himself a well-known performer and vāggēyakāra, Vasudevacharya's bios are filled with delightful anecdotes and peppered with a gentle humour. The quote given here at the beginning is his contrast of the rival musicians, Mahavaidyanatha Iyer and Patnam Subramanya Iyer (Vasudevacharya's guru and a famous composer). Also included are accounts of the great veena vidwāns from the
His accounts paint a bygone era - when the gurukula system was still in vogue, where learning was more by listening and osmosis than direct teaching; when the artists depended on patronage of kings and zamindars for their survival; of royal performances and the attendant palace intrigues:
Kuppiah and Appaiah were brothers who [...] once went to Tanjore seeking royal patronage. But, it was not to be as easy as they had thought, for the jealous musicians of the court kept a vigilant watch over those who came from outside lest the King's grace should slip through their fingers.
It was also the age when the artistes had to go against their families' preference for vedic studies and disdain for the pursuit of music.
Reading this book, I was also reminded of Semmangudi Srinivasier's reminiscences, tinged with his characteristic wry humour. I wonder if they have been preserved for the future, as they well-deserve to be.
If you are a Carnatic music aficionado, Mysore Vasudevacharya's With Masters of Melody is something you should not miss!