Among the Trinity of South Indian Classical Music, Shyama Shastri is usually placed as the third and last after Thyagaraja and Deekshitar. However, this does not suggest that Shyama Shastri was the least of the trio with regard to his erudition and the contributions that he had made to enrich music.
His forefathers were Tamil Smartha Vadama Brahmins who worshipped Goddess Kamakshi of Kanchi. In the 17th century the family — as also many others — opted to migrate from Central India to Thiruvarur in the Cauveri delta in the South to escape the political turmoil.
Following the noble tradition of the Cholas, the Nayak and Maratha dynasties had ensured total peace and harmony in their kingdoms, and hence the Cauvery delta was considered a religious and cultural haven.
After staying in Tiruvayur for three decades, the members of the Shastri family shifted and settled down in Tanjavoor. In time they built a temple there and consecrated the idol of their family deity Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi in it.
Venkitasubramanian was born in 1762 on Karthika day in the month of Chaitra in Thiruvaruru. Eventually he got glorified as Shyama Shastri. The house where he was born is now reverently preserved as the Music Trinity Commemoration Sabha of Thiruvarur.
Though Shastri was not born in a family of musicians, he was fortunate enough to have had in depth lessons on all aspects of music under the tutelage of Adippayya as suggested by an ascetic called Sangeeta Swami. His compositions “Himaadrisute…” (the daughter of the snow clad Himalayas) in Sanskrit and “Biraana varalichi…” (I have placed my implicit faith in you) in Telugu rendered in raga Kalyani are proof of his erudition in both these languages. As an ardent devotee of Kamakshi, he is believed to have composed more than three-hundred keerthanas (songs) in praise of the Goddess, but only some thirty or forty are now available that bear the distinctive mudra (signature) “Shyama Krishna”. Most of them are in Telugu.
He wrote a few in Tamil as well. The one keerthana in raga Gowlipanth starting with the words “tharuna mithamma ennai rakshikka” (This is the favouralble time for you to protect me) is one of Shastri’s popular and important Tamil compositions. An unfinished manuscript of a keerthana that he wrote in Sanskrit and Tamil in raga Paarass was recently unearthed. In the Sanskrit part of this keerthana he eulogizes the Goddess by addressing her as “Kamakshee, Lokasaakshini kaamaari manohaarini” (Oh Kamakshi , the cosmic witness! the beloved of Siva! the enemy of Cupid!) and in the Tamil part he seeks her blessings with the words “…satatam yenne rakshippaaye”(may you protect me forever). Only the part in Tamil is currently popular.
Apart from keerthanas Shastri has to his credit Taanavarnas and Swarajathis (similar to Thyagaraja’s Pancharatna Krithis and Deekshitar’s Ragamaalika) in ragas Bhairavi, Thodi, Yadukula Kaamboji and so on. Ananda Bairavi apparently is the raga that he liked the best. Shastri had as well composed a few keerthanas in rare ragas including Chintamani and Kalagaadha. The nine keerthanas that he composed on Madura Meenakshi are famously known as “navaratnamaalika” (nine gems). In praise of Lord Subramanya as well he had composed keerthanas.
While Thyagaraja’s compositions were infused with devotion, philosophy and spirituality and Deekshitar’s were scholarly and musically accurate, Shastri’s compositions in comparison were filled with a passionate bhakta’s soulful prayers and ardent devotion.
As he was engaged as a priest in a temple, Shastri could not undertake extensive travels and lead the life of a mendicant as Thyagaraja and Deekshitar. His travels were short and more or less confined to the shrines of neighboring Dharmavathi near Thiruvavur, Akhilandeswari in Jambukesh and Brahannayaki in Tanjavoor.
In all his compositions, Thyagaraja laid emphasis on love and devotion. Deekshitar emphasized on raga. Shastri’s compositions stand apart for their precise taala (beat) aspect without disturbing or distorting their technical or virtuous qualities. Among the taalas, he apparently liked Mishra Chaappu. Mishra Chaappu normally is set to 3+4 kaala pramaanam (beating of time), but Shastri successfully tried it in opposite order (4+3) and called it Viloma Chaappu.
There is an interesting story relating to his mastery over taalas. An acclaimed musician named Bobbilli Keshavayyah challenged Shastri to render a pallavi set to 128 akshara kaalangal in taala Simhanandanam. Shastri not only rendered it, but instantly composed and rendered a new pallavi with 79 taalas and named it Sharabhanandanam.
In his composition starting with “vegamevaachi” rendered in raga Thodi, Shastri reiterated that he was only a worshiper of the Goddess and he did not know anything about mantra and tantra. In Shastri we see an ardent devotee in conversation with Goddess Kamakshi as if he were talking with his own mother. The keerthanaas
‘Brovammaa” (mother, please protect me) in raga Manchi and “Marivere gathi” (Oh mother! there is none other than you on this earth to save me) in raga Ananda Bhairavi are typical illustrations that prove the depth of his unstinting devotion and love.
1. Dr.T.M.Sarvothaman Nedungadi’s lecture delivered at All India Radio, Calicut (On October 10, 2012)
2. Musicologist Dr.V.Raghavan’s paper on Shyama Shastri
3. Compositions of Shyama Shastri by T.K.Govinda Rao
4. Edited by S.R.A. Das