Sunday, February 22, 2009

About Sri V.S. Gomathisankara Iyer

My grandfather Sri. V.S. Gomathisankara Iyer was a leading musicologist, musician, composer, teacher and a brilliant veena player. He was well known in the carnatic music circle for his contributions to the "tamizh isai" movement. His centenary year was observed in 2008, without much of an ado. I thought it would be a great tribute to him and a service to the carnatic music world, bringing to light some of his works (both, previously published as well as unpublished) in bits and pieces through this blog. Before that, it would only be fair that I give a brief introduction to Gomathisankara Iyer's life and a summary of his creative works.

Gomathisankara Iyer was born on August 21st 1908 into a family with rich musical heritage and traditions. His father Vasudevanallur Subbiah Bhagavathar (popularly known as "Pallavi" Subbiah Bhagavatar) was a well accomplished musician and a prolific practitioner. Subbiah Bhagavatar had his initial music training under Vellankudi Sami Bhagavatar and later spent four years in gurukulavasam training under Tiruvanandapuram Vedasri Parameswara Bhagavatar. By his early 20's, Subbiah Bhagavatar had started giving solo concerts in and around the Tirunalvelli district. It was during this period when Subbiah Bhagavatar came under the tutelage of Vaiyacheri Mahaa Vaidhyanatha Iyer (also known as Mahaa Vaidhyanatha Sivan) for advanced training in carnatic music; becoming his primary disciple and a very close associate to the Sivan family. Gomathisankara Iyer initially trained in vocal music under his father's guidance. He later switched to veena and underwent advanced training under Karaikudi Subburama Iyer (the elder of the Karaikudi brothers) with whom he stayed for a period of 3 years. By the mid 1920's he had given many concerts; both as vocal performances and veena recitals. In 1926, he was conferred the title of "vainika gAyaka" by the Zamindar of Illavarasanendal after a brilliant vocal performance, which was followed by a veena performance a few days later. The Zamindar himself presented him a very rare and exquisite veena. This instrument (well over a 100 years old) is still in our home in Chennai - well preserved in prestine condition and played on frequently. In 1931, only 23 years old, the young Gomathisankaran joined Annamalai University (which then was started as Raja Annamalai Music College and went on to becoming a part of the University some years later) as a veena teacher. Gomathisankara Iyer was associated with Annamalai University for the next 48 years until his retirement in 1979, as the Head of the Department of Muisc. In 1980, he moved to Madurai Kamaraj University with a UGC fellowship and retired from the University in 1983. During his lifetime, he has received many awards and recognitions of which the "kalaimAmani" award by the Tamil Nadu Sangeetha Nataka Academy and the "TTK Memorial Award" by Madras Music Academy are notable.

Gomathisankara Iyer's lifetime of works can be classified into three distinct areas:
  • Collection of biographies and anecdotes on stalwart musicians.
  • Original research works on carnatic music, "paNn aAraichi" and "tamizh isai".
  • Compilation of Tamil Songs and Compositions.
Vasudevanallur "Pallavi" Subbiah Bhagavatar collected and documented many anecdotes and events of significance that happened during his lifetime. In 1941, during an annual visit to his ancestral home in Vasudevanallur, Gomathisankara Iyer stumbled on piles of bits and pieces of paper that contained handwritten text in the "grantham" script. To his surprise, these were his father's handwriting and the papers contained volumes of biographical and anecdotal information on the great musicians of the yester generation. In 1970, Gomathisankara Iyer published these details in a book titled "isai kalai vallunarkal"- இசைக்க‌லை வ‌ல்லுந‌ர்க‌ள். This book contained elaborate details on Swathi Thirunaal and Aayilyam Thirunaal - two kings of the Travancore royal family, Coimbatore Raghava Iyer, Mahaa Vaidhyanatha Iyer and Madurai Ponnusamy Pillai, to name a few. Later, in 1971 he brought out a 2 volume series titled "isai ulagil mahA vaidhayanAtha sivan" - இசையுல‌கில் ம‌ஹா வைத்திய‌நாத‌ சிவ‌ன். There are completed manuscripts for at least 3 more volumes on many other greats of carnatic music. Gomathisankara Iyer has compiled the life history of Kodavaganallur Sundara Swamigal, a renowned savant and the philosophical guru of "Pallavi" Subbiah Bhagavatar, Mahaa Vaidhyanatha Sivan and Ramaswamy Sivan. This compilation is in 5 volumes and has never been published.

Gomathisankara Iyer made towering contibutions to "tamizh isai". Much of his original research works on "paNn" - ப‌ண் and "silappathikAram" - சில‌ப்ப‌திகார‌ம் have been published by Annamalai University and the Karanthai Tamizh Sangam. In 1977, Annamalai University published one such research article as a book titled "yAzh muri paNn" - யாழ்முரிப்ப‌ண். The "Bharata Shakti" journal and the Madras Tamizh Isai Sangam brought out many of his essays and short articles on the grammar of "tamizh isai". Madurai Kamaraj University brought out 2 books titled "isai-t-tamizh illakana villa-k-kam" - இசைத்த‌மிழ் இல‌க்க‌ண விளக்க‌ம் and "yAzh mANnpu" - யாழ் மாண்பு. He has written complete annotations for all information pertaining to music available in the "silappathikAram". These annotations run in excess of 1200 pages in manuscript form. Scores of articles on "silappadikAram", "tamizh isai" and in general the grammar of music are available as completed manuscripts, but are yet to be published.

Gomathisankara Iyer himself was an accomplished composer. He has composed several varnams (ata thAla varnams, pada varnams and thAna varnams), some of which contain "Tirukural" verses. In total he has compiled 11 volumes (660 items) of varnams from various sources, of which 4 volumes (240 items) have been published in a series titled "thAna varna kadal" - தான‌ வ‌ர்ண‌க் க‌ட‌ல். Each published volume has a set of 60 varnams with swara notations. Remaining 7 volumes (420 items) are ready for publication. He has set to tune the 123 verses of "thevAram" by the 3 great saints. They have been compiled under the title of "moovar thevAram" - மூவ‌ர் தேவார‌ம் and contain notations of their corresponding "thevAra-p-paNn". Gomathisankara Iyer's "moovar thevAram" compilation is not yet published. Other unpublished works include, a compilation of "viduthi-k- kErthanai" - விடுதிக் கீர்த‌னை by Ramaswamy Sivan (Mahaa Vaidhyanaatha Sivan's elder brother), about 50 compositions of Aanai Aiyaa (some in Tamizh and some in Telegu) and 2 voulmes of Duraiswamy Kaviraayar's compositions.

However, Gomathisankara Iyer's great talent was in his ability to instantaneously reduce any kritis or songs to their corresponding swara notations on a single hearing. To this effect, he has set to tune the compositions of many great composers; literally running to mutiple thousands. A report out on the Annamalai University journal for the acedemic year 1963-64 says that 11 such volumes were authored by him until 1948, which the University has published. Among many other tamizh composers, the publications include compositions of "Yogi Suddhanandha Bharati", "Periyasaamy Thooran", "Muthuthaandavar" and "Gopalakrishna Bharati". There are seven volumes of "Yogi Suddhanandha Bharati" compositions alone. Many of the volumes were published by a private press associated with the Yogi's ashram. Many of them still remain to be published.

Gomathisankara Iyer was in tireless pursuit of authentic texts and traditional methods of rendering compositions. He acquired manuscripts of Gopalakrishna Bharati's "nandan charitra kErthanai" - ந‌ந்த‌ன் ச‌ரித்திரக் கீர்த‌னை and "natarAjar pAtu" - ந‌ட‌ராஜ‌ர் பாடு from Rajarathina Dikshitar in Chidambaram. Rajarathina Dikshitar, who was himself in his early 90's during this period, was the nephew of Poonuswamy Dikshitar - a direct disciple of Gopalakrishna Bharati. Kollangoodu Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar a "harikathaa" exponent was well known for his "rAmAyanam" discourses, which were based on Arunaachala Kaviraayar's "rAma nAtaka kErthanai" - இராம‌ நாடக‌க் கீர்த‌னை. It is presumed that Sivaraamakrishna Bhagavatar learnt these songs from the direct descendents of Arunaachala Kavi himself. Gomathisankara Iyer made close acquaintance with Sivaraamakrishna Bhagavatar and learnt the authentic version of these songs. Many of theses songs from the "nanthan charitra kErthanai", "natarAjar pAtu" and the "pAyiram", "bAla kAndam" and "ayodhya kAdam" of "rAma nAtaka kErthanai" are available with full notations in manuscript form and are yet to be published. In 1942, Gomathisankara Iyer met with Neelakanta Sivan's daughter Smt. Paarvathi Ammal. As she sang several of her father's compositions, Gomathisankara Iyer reduced these authentic versions to thier corresponding swara notations. A good number of these compositions are rare and almost out of practice today. There are 2 volumes of Neelakanta Sivan's compositions in existance and are unpublished.

This, so far, is a sketchy summary of Sri Gomathisankara Iyer's life and his creative works.


  1. Dear sir I am looking for a photograph of vasudeva nallur subbiah bhagavathar preferably with instrument or performing for use in a book on dhrupad where he has been referred to in the context of the patronage of music by temples in south India at the turn of the last century on the basis of the book of sambamoorthy. I shall be most grateful to hear from you on this. Any photo will of course be gratefully credited. If there is a photo. Of his performance in a temple or festival that would be perfect. My mail sankrityayan at gmail dot com.

  2. Dear sri.Shankar: I am writing to inquire if you have scanned copies of volume 13 (Ramanthan Chettiyar compositions) and volume 18 (Manikka Pattu -Shuddhanada Bharatiyar songs)? Thank for a response. Lakshman Ragde (

  3. I am really surprised when I search this blogspot.i think you are Chi.Balaji son of Sri.Kannan and Nagalatha.i am sita daughter of Periadesi mutha v n. vedanta desikan

  4. Dear sri.Shankar: In the Annamalai Tamizh Isai series of books, I have the following scanned volumes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 17 and 21. In addition I have vol 22 (Tiruppugazh) hard copy.
    Are there other volumes in this series? I do have two volumes under the title Isai Tamizh Veliyidu - volumes 26 (Ramasami Shivan) & 28 (K.Ponniah Pillai.
    Would you be kind enough to post the list of other volumes? Thanks.

  5. Hi Mr Shankar,
    I am P.Purushothaman from Singapore.
    I like to contact you about Tamil compositions and the books by Mr Gomathy Shankar Iyer.

  6. Does anybody happen to have copy of his "thanavarnak kadal" varnam compositions. He has done a lot of varnams using Thirukkural.
    I wish a copy of his books.