A Great Exponent of Kamba Ramayana
We are now living in an age of television, radio, cell phones, computers etc. Life has become so hectic that there is an illusion that a day of 24 hours is not enough for any one of us. Each one of us seems to be racing against time all the time. In spite of all the technological advancements a question that often arises is whether we are in a state of well being in mind and body.
If we go back in time to study the way our forefathers lived, we can easily see that they were all leading a healthy and gracious life, free from any kind of tension. In the absence of TV and Radio, they sought peace and relaxation in music concerts or 'Kathakalakshepam' performances by great masters of this age-old art. Kathakalakshepam is an ancient and widely prevalent art form in all parts of India and more particularly in South India. It is a Sanskrit term which etymologically means spending time listening to stories (Katha - Story, Kala - Time, Kshepa - Literally to know). The underlying spirit of this art is 'Bakthi' or 'devotion to God' and the moral message is the triumph of good over evil. Musical compositions in several languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Hindi, Konkani, Tulu and Marathi were sung during the Kathakalakshepam recital with splendid ease, gusto and religious fervour by all the performing artists.
K. Subbiah Bagavathar (1895 — 1951)
South India witnessed the rise of many Bhagavathars in the field of Kathakalakshepam from the later half of the 19th century. The period from 1870 to 1940 could be described as the golden age of Harikatha and Kathakalakshepam, not only in Tamilnadu but also in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The Kathakalakshepam style of Thanjavur Krishna Bagavathar (1841-1903) became the standard for all other great Bagavathars in this field for the next 50 years. Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bagavathar (1866-1943), Mangudi Chidambara Bagavathar (1880-1938), Chitrakavi Sivarama Bagavathar (1869-1951), Soolamangalam Soundararaja Bagavathar (1890-1925), C Saraswathi Bai (1894-1974), N S Krishna Bagavathar (1892-1984) and several others in the first half of the 20th century were all inspired by the style and technique of Thanjavur Krishna Bagavathar.
Perumalanchi (Dhalapathisamudram) Kambaramayanam Kalanidhi K. Subbiah Bagavathar (1895 — 1951) also belonged to that great tradition. For a period of nearly 25 years, he gave scintillating performances of Kathakalakshepam based on Kambaramayanam, Periapuranam and Kandapuranam in many towns of Madras Presidency. In the later phase of his career, he was concentrating only on Kambaramayanam and thus he became famous in all the Southern Districts of Tamilnadu as an authority on Kambaramayanam.
K Subbiah Sastrigal was born on 19 June 1895 at Perumalanchi village between Nanguneri and Valliyur on the National Highway from Tirunelveli to Nagercoil. He was brought up by his mother Parvathi Ammal and grand mother Valli Ammal as his father Krishna Iyer was living far away from Perumalanchi at Ernakulam, running his textile and money lending business there. Krishna Iyer went to work in Ernakulam as a young boy and by sheer dint of hard work acquired a big shop of his own within a short time of 10 years.
Later when two of his sons (one of whom was K Subbiah Sastrigal) completed their elementary education at Perumalanchi village, he took them to Ernakulam and inducted them into his business. Misfortune fell on the family with the premature death of Krishna Iyer and the subsequent mishandling of his business by his eldest son. The business was wound up and the family returned to Perumalanchi penniless and desolate.
Subbiah Sastrigal, who was only nine years old in 1904, studying in 4th class in the elementary school at Perumalanchi, came under the influence of a great Sanskrit scholar, Kalakkad Muthuswami Sastrigal, who used to give lectures on Valmiki Ramayanam in the neighbouring villages at that time. Subbiah Sastrigal became part of his entourage and learnt several aspects of Harikathai and Kathakalakshepam from that great scholar. Simultaneously he also focused on physical development, learning traditional arts of physical culture like Silambam, Busky, and Dhandal, etc. He also started acting in Tamil dramas conducted by his friends in the neighbourhood. He was drawn towards Tamil literature by two of his classmates. Even before the I World War, when he was barely 19 years old, he started giving lectures on Kambaramayanam, Periyapuranam and Kandapuranam at Ernakulam. His lectures were well received by the people of Ernakulam and Cochin. In 1914 he started conducting the festival of Rama Navami in his native Perumalanchi village. He continued this festival year after year till his death in 1951. This tradition is still in vogue in that village even today.
Soon thereafter he was invited to give lectures on Kambaramayanam in Kathakalakshepam style by the leading citizens of Kallidaikurichi village in Tirunelveli District. In 1916 he was invited by K R Venkatrama Iyer, one of the foremost lawyers of Madurai, to come to Madurai for giving Upanyasam on Kambaramayanam for 2 days. Around this time, he attracted the attention of Mayavaram Krishna Iyer, who was then personal assistant to Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar. Krishna Iyer engaged the services of Subbiah Sastrigal for giving lectures in Kambaramayanam at his residence in Madras on a princely salary of Rs.100 per month in 1917. In the meantime he also learnt Astrology, Prasnam, Devi Puja and several Vedic Homams from two great Gurus. During this period he devoted most of his time for the mastery of our scriptures and epics in the true Vedic tradition.
When Sringeri Sri Chandrasekara Bharathi Swamigal came to Tirunelveli District in 1927, he joined him and went along with to Kaladi and later to Sringeri. He was then 32. When he expressed a desire to renounce the world, Chandrasekara Bharathi Swamigal advised him to continue as a Grahastha and also to pursue the vocation of Dhramapracharam through Kathakalakshepam. As a mark of gratitude to his Guru, Subbiah Sastrigal started celebrating the Samadhi Day of Sai Sri Narasimha Bharathi Swamigal who had discovered the sacred relics of the birth place of Sankara at Kaladi (predecessor of Chandrasekara Bharathi Swamigal) as 'Guru Aradhana Day'. He kept the Paduga of Swamiji given to him by Chandrasekara Bharathi at his residence for Abishekam and Rudra Japam with Vedic pundits every day. This practice he continued till his death in 1951.
Later, with the active patronage of Appaswamy Iyer of Kallidaikurichi village in Tirunelveli District, he gave several Kathakalakshepam performances in Tirunelveli District in the late 1930s. From 1935 to 1951 he gave outstanding Kambaramayanam Kathakalakshepam recitals in Tirunelveli, Cheranmahadevi, Ambasamudram, Koilpatti, Madurai, Karaikudi, Manamudurai, Devakottai and Sivaganga. He was an itinerant Kathakalakshepam artiste moving from town to town, along with his entourage, bag and baggage, giving the message of our timeless Sanathana Dharma derived from Kambaramayanam. He was a specialist in presenting Kambaramayanam episodes relating to Paduga Pattabishekam; Vaali Vadam and Vibeeshana Saranagathi. He had mastered the art of Kathakalakshepam and used to present his programmes according to the level and taste of the audience, although the theme would never change. For instance, if children dominated the audience then humorous stories would be told in an exciting manner; it would be philosophical in tone and content for an audience of elders and senior citizens. Subbiah Sastrigal while narrating Kambaramayana, used to quote extensively from Thirukkural, Avvaiyar, Thayumanavar, Kalidasan, Ezhuthachan etc. to attract the audience and to make the narration interesting. His histrionic talents like varied tones, modulated gestures, rising and falling movements of all parts of the body, ever changing facial expressions reflecting the different emotions of navarasa helped him to bring out the true spirit and purpose of all the Ramayana stories.
Every one in the audience who heard him found it easy to throw himself heart and soul into the very essence of the story from Kambaramayana. Every individual in his audience after listening to his melodious exposition of Kamba Ramayana could exclaim with confidence: 'Though I am a hard-hearted man, yet Subbiah Sastrigal's presentation and exposition bring tears into my eyes! I stop; I cannot go on, I have to turn aside for a while and wipe my tears and then turn to him again'. Such was his emotional impact on the audience everywhere. Many great Tamil scholars like Prof. A. Srinivasa Raghavan, Bhaskara Thondaiman and Radakrishnan Pillai of Nagercoil were great admirers of Subbiah Sastrigal and used to go to his residence while he was in Madurai in 1944-45 for literary discussions relating to Kambaramayanam.
In every public performance on every platform for nearly three decades Subbiah Sastrigal proclaimed with majestic authority the following message: 'Where else in the world's literature can we find such examples of men and women, far from the multitude and towering above all mankind like Himalayan peaks? Learnt at the mother's knee, with reverence and love, the Ramayana has inspired great men to heroic deeds and also enabled the humble to face their trials with fortitude and faith. Kambaramayana is a noble poem possessing in a supreme degree the characteristics of a true epic, great and fateful movement, heroic characters and stately diction. Even a casual reader can feel the overwhelming power and incomparable vastness and sublimity of the poem. How does it teach us Sanathana Dharma? By its gospel of Dharma, which like a golden thread runs through all the complex movement in the epic; by its lesson that hatred breeds hatred, that covetousness and violence lead inevitably to ruin, that the only real conquest is in the battle against our lower nature'.