The earliest memory I (Gayatri) have of Semmangudi Thatha is his concert I attended when I was probably three or four years old! He was singing Deva deva Kalayaami in Mayamalavagowla and the niraval that he sang at Jaatha Roopa is distinctly etched in my memory. Incredible though it is, I can still recall it after so many years!! My father was an avid carnatic music fan and the radio always was tuned into any carnatic music broadcast there was. And whenever Semmangudi Mama's nasal voice filtered in through it, I used to jump in joy. I was too small to appreciate the nuances, the subtleties and understand the greatness of his music. But perhaps the joy I felt was instinctive, there was something about the voice and the music that thrilled me to no end!! In fact, it was a game with my family, to tease me when the radio played his music. Appa, though he was a big fan of Semmangudi mama, jokingly used to tell me," ayyayo, idha paaru, andha thatha mookk-aala paadaraa...nannaave illai!" And watch me in amusement as I cried my protest against his criticism.
Memories of the Jaatha Roopa niraval sustained us during the arduous Sabari mala trip that I took with my father when I was six. My father and a close family friend Rajamani started singing the line, sitting in a sleepy village hamlet in Kerala(Erumeli) . I suppose the memories of Semmangudi Thatha's rendition must have been fresh in my mind, for I joined in the niraval with joy. What a wonderful way to beguile the hours of the day.....
We were not to know how much this legendary musician's style would impact our music until much later. Our guru Sri T.S. Krishnaswami had already instilled in us the importance of the vocal approach, a strong bowing and effective fingering technique and above all, the values and aesthetic sense that strongly anchored our music. Years later, when we shifted to Chennai, we approached Sri P.S.Narayanaswamy and had the privilege of being his disciples. In a sense, looking back, we feel that it was meant to be. When we started learning from PSN Mama, we were established violinists, playing the dual role of accompanying violinists and duet violinists. But in more ways than one, we were absorbed into the wonderful bani of Semmangudi under the tutelage of PSN. Each composition that we learnt was a glimpse into the dynamics of the style, the intricacies of the adukku sangathis, the sense of proportion or alavu as it is said in handling sangathis, above all, the predominant sense of beauty and sophistication in kirtana construction. Gradually, this approach became the bedrock of our musical impulses, and what we gained was a firm foundation and clear-cut approach that would define and strengthen our individual style.
What is amazing about the Semmangudi Bani is the universality of the style. The path can be trodden by anyone and the music will shine. Be it a Chetasri, Marubalga or O Rangasayee, the songs have been polished and structured to such beauty and perfection that they are like ripe mangoes- easy to eat and easy to love!! Perhaps one of the reasons why Semmangudi's music has such beauty is that he had a difficult voice to start with. But to overcome this, he created a style that had such musical depth and beauty that one never notices the voice! Especially when songs like Ksheenamai Thiruga were presented by the great doyen, supported by the sonorous voices of his disciples like Palai Ramachandran and V.Subramaniam, the listeners were transported to another plane. Another quality is the sense of proportion he had in his manodharma. Be it raga, niraval or swara, it was never overdone. I remember a recording of his, the famous recording in which he has sung with M.S.Subhalakshmi. He sings a niraval for the line Paluku palukulaku for Ramanee samaana in Karaharapriya- I must have heard this several hundred times! Every time he stops the niraval and goes to the swara suite, I cry out," Please, don’t stop, some more!" How much we can learn from this sense of alavu that Semmangudi demonstrated so beautifully.
Every aspect of his style and music has something that we can learn from. The swaras are so aesthetically presented, his kalpanaswaras are like raga explorations in their melodic sweep, free flowing and filled with raga bhava . And what variety he brought to bear in his raga expositions! Each time, he would explore a different facet, it was never a formulaic pattern of starting from the lower register and working upto the tara sthayi and winding up in the usual fashion, Depending on the song and his mood, the raga pattern varied.... sometimes dwelling in the middle register and just skimming the tara sthayi, sometimes taking off in the upper reaches. Each time was a different experience.
One of his greatest qualities as a musician was his total dedication and commitment. He had the spirit of a true seeker and saadhaka- never content to rest on his laurels and achievements. He worked on his music constantly, constantly re-inventing it; which is why his music always had that rare quality of freshness. Till the very last, he was always notating songs, reworking compositions, singing.
Words are inadequate to express the depth of the joy that we have experienced from listening to his concerts and the many things that we have imbibed in the process. We prostrate before him and pay homage to him.