Rajam sir was an artist of the Ajanta style, an actor in period films, AIR A grade artiste, an uncompromising yet unconventional carnatic musician, an encouraging teacher and above all, a simpleton from Nadu Street, Mylapore. He was born on 10th February 1919 and today is the centenary of this legend.

In this blog post, I just attempt to cite some anecdotes from what I have read and heard about sir.

Excelling the Teacher

Rajam sir learnt music right from his childhood from various eminent musicians of that time such as Ambi Dikshitar, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Papanasam Sivan, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bagavathar, Gowri Ammal and so on, thanks to his advocate father Sundaram.

He performed his first concert at Greamspet during a Navarathri festival. He was scheduled to sing after his guru Ariyakudi’s concert. Noticing that there was none to play the tambura for young Rajam, the guru himself magnanimously volunteered to play for the disciple.

Another episode when Rajam sir participated in a Purandara Dasar competition conducted by the Music Academy, he did not realize he was competing with his teacher Lalithangi (mother of MLV) from whom he learnt Purandara Dasar compositions. They both were tied to the first place and Rajam sir won during the tie breaker conducted between both.

He was an artiste before he pursued to become and artist and one has influenced the other heavily in his works.

Visualising the Trinity

We owe it to Rajam sir for the way we see the Trinity of Carnatic Music today. In the age of Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Syama Sastri when the camera had not even been invented, there were only faces of them painted and handed down. When Rajam sir was commissioned to draw the Trinity, it was these faces he used as base, but what he brought out through his art was an entire personality for each one of them – be it Thyagaraja with his unjaviruthi attire, and his chapla kattai, Muthuswamy Dikshitar with his veena (Vainika Gayaka Guruguha), upturned yali face and rudraksha necklace, Syama Sastri with a black complexion like his name, red shawl and a vethala paaku box showing his habit. Even the choice of Gods drawn behind each composer highlights their compositions – Rama for Thyagaraja, Navagraha for Dikshitar, Ambal for Syama Sastri.

“A portrait should denote the life and circumstances of the period” – Rajam.

Personified Swaras

Harikesanallur Muthiah Bagavathar, in his book Sangitha Kalpadrumam personified and described all seven swaras as devathas and gave details about their birth star, color, vehicle and other characteristics. Rajam sir has painted each devatha with its details and it is on display currently at the offices of Sruti Magazine.

Musicals and AIR

Rajam sir’s advent at the AIR was first through a musical production of Silappadhikaram called “Nachapi Kavyam Navaneetha Vadhyam”, where musicians like MM Dhandapani Desikar, Madurai Somu, PA Periyanayaki played key roles in the opera. Rajam sir played King Nedunchezhiyan and the musical had over a 100 ragas and no dialogues. In his own words, the opera was like “a good operation, but patient died”. Though the production was not a big success, it paved way to his long association with the AIR.

Unconventional Music

Koteeswara Iyer was the first person to write individual compositions in all the 72 melakartha ragams, and publish a book called “Kandha Ganamudham”. All the songs were brought to life aurally in the radio by Rajam sir along with PS Vaidehi. He added sangathis to the original notations of Koteeswara Iyer and also sang aalapana, neraval and swaram for all the 72 ragams including vivadhi, a concept which musicians at that time did not delve into.

Giving no heed to superstitions about the vivadhi ragams being taboo, he would perform at least one vivadhi krithi in his concerts. He also taught these compositions to his disciples and emphasised that they spread the same.

When I began learning Akshaya Linga Vibho from aunty (Dr. Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam), she fondly reminisced what her guru Rajam sir used to say about the song. Many lines in pallavi and anupallavi of the composition begin with the harsh syllable of “ksha”, which is very hard on the ears. So he would specifically ask his students to sing these lines softly, just as he observed Veena Dhanammal sing during many of her Friday chamber concerts. For an orally rich tradition like carnatic music, the handed – down stories like these make the compositions extra special.

An Artist’s view of Music

“Paintings should be symbolic representation of nature and not a mere reproduction of it” – Rajam.

Illustration of Antha Rama Sowndharyam by S Rajam

I found this art of Rajam sir, when I was writing another blog post, Kedaragaula. When I learnt Antha Rama Soundharyam in the said ragam, I used to visualise as a cartoon, how Rama’s each part is equated to something exaggerated. I was amazed when I found that such an imagination has been brought to life by Rajam sir!

I have not had the fortune of meeting Rajam sir or listen to his concerts live. But I am fortunate to learn this style of music from his disciple Dr. Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam and most of what I learnt about Rajam sir is because of being associated with his Centenary celebrations this year.

When I attended the lecdem about Rajam sir this year at the Music Academy, there is one thing I found common in what the speakers had to share – everyone had a fondest, craziest, funniest anecdote to talk about him.

If his persona in hearsay itself could be so interesting and inspiring, then there is no wonder people who know him are full of awe for this multifaceted genius.


Lecdem at the Music Academy celebration Rajam Centenary, 2018-19

S. Rajam – Sakala Kala Acharyar, movie by Lalitha Ram