One of the greatest vaggeyakaras after the Trinity, Sri Patnam Subrahmanya Iyer was born in Thanjavur in 1845. He belongs to ‘Sishyaparampara’ of Sri Tyagaraja. His father was Bharatam Vaidyanatha Iyer and his grand father was Bharathan Panchanatha Sastry, who was ‘Asthana Vidwan’ in the palace of Maharaja Sarabhoji of Thanjavur. He started his music lessons from his maternal uncle Melattur Ganapathi Sastry. Thereafter, he took advanced training from Manambucchavadi Venakata Subbaiyyar, a direct disciple of Sri Tyagaraja.
Patnam Subrahmanya Iyer made tremendous amount of practice with such determination and discipline. He is a born Tamilian belonging to deep south, yet became a master of telugu in order to master the kritis of Sri Tyagaraja.
He was very fond of singing the following kritis of Sri Tyagaraja:
‘Darini thelusukonti’ – Sudha Saveri
‘Nadopasana’ – Begada
‘Vidamuseyave’ – Kharaharapriya and
‘Bhavanutha’ – Mohana
He was an adept in performing elaborate alapana even in rare ragas such as Narayani, Simhavahini, Kannada Mandari. He composed kritis in these rare ragas. His music was feast to the ears and provided great delight to scholars and connoisseurs alike. He had rare talent in singing thanam and Pallavi. He used to compose Pallavis extempore, in complex thalams.
His special love for the raga ‘Begada’ deserves special menton. He had a special talent in elaborating this raga and no surprise that he was called ‘Begada Subrahmanya Iyer’.
In one occasion he sang this raga for 3 consecutive days at a palace of Maharaja of Mysore – elaborate alapana of the raga on the first day, thanam on the second day and Pallavi “Rama namame jeevanamu o manasa” along with swarakalpana on the last day. The royal audience were spell bound at this rare feat.
On another occasion, at the Mysore Palace he was asked to sing a Pallavi in Kannada Gowla and in appreciation, the Maharaja gifted two gold bracelets to him. He was similarly bestowed princely honours in the palaces of Vijayanagaram, Thiruvananthapuram, Ramanathapuram, Vrushachalam etc.
His ultimate mastery over ‘laya’ was shown by composing Pallavi in ‘Simhanandana’ thalam which has as many as 32 mantras (128 aksharas) per ‘avrithani’.
He composed over 100 kritis in Sanskrit, and Telugu. His style was that of Sri Tyagaraja. In addition he composed many Varnams, Thillanas and Javalis. He used to first sing his compositions before his peers and only after getting applause from them, he was teaching them to his students. He composed the famous kriti ‘Raghuvamsa Sudhambudhi Chandrasi’ in the rare raga ‘Kadana Kutuhalam’ and the china swaras composed by him for this raga are an example of his unparalleled talent as a composer par excellence. He was called ‘Junior Tyagaraja’.
His mudra as ‘Venkatesha’. All his popular compositions are in Telugu – notable ones are: ‘Nee padamula’ in Bhairavi, ‘Ninnu joochi’ in Sourashtra, ‘Mari vere Dikkevaru’ in Shanmukhapriya ragam. ‘Inthakante’ in Kannada and ‘Paridanamichite’ in Bilahari.
He was a great guru as well. His prominent shisyas were:
Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar (“Poochi Iyengar”)
Kakinada C.S.Krishnaswamy Iyer
Muthyalapet Sesha Iyer
Papa and Radha (Daughters of Salem Meenakshi)
Sri Iyer came to Madras city at the invitation of Salem Meenakshi to teach her daughters. As he stayed there for a long time, he came to be known as ‘Patnam Subrahmanyam Iyer’ and he came to be permanently known thus.
He was a great devotee of Vinayaka and he used to celebrate Vinayaka Chaturthi on a grand scale. He had no children and adopted his grandnephew. He passed away on 31st July 1902 at the age of 58. But his name and his compositions will live for eternity in the hearts of music lovers.