A judge dedicated to music

Justice T.L. Venkatarama Iyer’s pioneering research on Dikshitar and his patronage of music was legendary

There have been many lawyers and judges who have taken an active interest in Carnatic Music. A few performers and music scholars have qualified in law as well. But in the history of Carnatic Music there has been only one judge of the Supreme Court, who was a singer, a scholar, a music teacher and above all, a recipient of the Sangita Kalanidhi from The Music Academy. That was T.L. Venkatarama Iyer, whose 50th death anniversary was on January 2.

Born on November 25, 1893, Venkatarama Iyer came of scholarly stock. His grandfather Muthusubba Iyer was an expert in Sanskrit and Tamil in Punalveli in the Tirunelveli district. His father Lakshmana Iyer was a renowned Sanskrit scholar who settled at Harikesanallur. While the father took care of the boy’s Sanskrit learning, it was cousin Muthiah Bhagavatar who initiated him into music. This was not entirely to Lakshmana Iyer’s liking but lessons continued nevertheless.

Law and musical learning

Lakshmana Iyer was successively employed as Sanskrit professor at SPG College Thanjavur and Pachayappa’s College, Madras. The prefix ‘Suri’ was conferred on him by Sir K. Seshadri Iyer, Dewan of Mysore, in 1903 and he was awarded the title of Mahamahopadyaya by the government in 1911. Young Venkataraman was admitted to Pachayappa’s School and later to Madras Christian College. He eventually qualified in law and set up practice at the High Court of Madras. His musical learning was not neglected, for he trained under Manathattai Doraiswami Iyer. It was, however, a meeting in 1931 at Kovilpatti with Ambi Dikshitar, a descendant of the Muthuswami Dikshitar family, that proved the most important event in his life. His love for Sanskrit and music found common ground in the works of Muthuswami Dikshitar and he became a lifelong votary of the composer and his songs. He was instrumental in Ambi Dikshitar’s shift to Madras from Ettayapuram and even after the latter went back in 1933, continued to be his disciple till the guru’s passing in 1936.

Pursuing a passion (clockwise from left) Portrait of T.L. Venkatarama Iyer gifted to The Music Academy by DK Pattammal; Muthuswami Dikshitar; DK Pattamal 

By then, he had emerged as an expert on Dikshitar’s works and was a much sought-after teacher, his residence on Mylapore’s Sannidhi Street being the venue for lessons to artistes and lay students. He was also one of the early members of The Music Academy, where he soon became vice-president. At its annual conferences it was his voice, along with those of Cheranmahadevi Subramania Sastry and Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar, that staunchly highlighted the Dikshitar style of handling ragas, some of which were in sharp variance to the Tyagaraja school. In 1944, The Music Academy invited him to preside over its annual conference and conferred on him the title of Sangita Kalanidhi.

DKP’s moving rendition

Venkatarama Iyer was elevated to the bench, becoming judge of the High Court of Madras in 1951. Upon turning 60 in 1953, he was made a judge of the Supreme Court of India, and he carried his propagation of Dikshitar kritis to the national capital as well.

It was here that D.K. Pattammal at his request sang Dikshitar’s ‘Cheta Sri Balakrishnam’ (raga Dwijavanti) and moved Babu Rajendra Prasad, the then President of India, to tears. A few years later, when he was visiting Madras on Janmashtami, the President asked for “TLV’s disciple” to be invited to the Raj Bhavan. Pattammal sang ‘Cheta Sri’ once more.

Returning to Madras, T.L. Venkatarama Iyer persuaded Sangeet Natak Akademi to give a grant to The Music Academy to enable the latter to embark on a five-volume Tamil translation of Subbarama Dikshitar’s magnum opus, Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini. In 1962, during the centenary celebrations of the High Court of Madras, at the invitation of S. Ramachandra Iyer, the then Chief Justice, Venkatarama Iyer performed a full concert, the accompanists V.P. Raman (violin), N. Srivatsamani (mridangam) and K.C. Rajappa (kanjira) all being lawyers!

In 1965, when the then President of The Music Academy, K.V. Krishnaswami Iyer, passed away, TLV took over, simultaneously serving also as president of the RR Sabha. Under him, The Music Academy finally took the decision to award the Sangita Kalanidhi to women, the first recipient being M.S. Subbulakshmi in 1968. That was also the year when TLV’s biography of Muthuswami Dikshitar was published by the National Book Trust.

Two years later, it was Venkatarama Iyer’s favourite disciple, D.K. Pattammal, who was selected for the Sangita Kalanidhi. While the proud guru made it to the inauguration of the conference despite being terminally ill, he could not attend other events. On January 1, 1971, Pattammal received the award and drove straight to his house on Mowbrays (now TTK ) Road. The old man could not contain his joy. He died the next day.

The Chennai-based author,

a historian, writes on

music and culture.

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