The life and works of the legendary Shyama Shastri


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The life and works of the legendary Shyama Shastri

An adaptation from “kritimaNimAlai” authored by “sangIta kalA SikAmaNi” R.Rangaramanuja Iyengar and vInA vidushI Padma Varadan

Translated by Sai Prasad Viswanathan
This is a humble attempt to encapsulate some of the significant moments and compositions of Shri Shyama Shastri, who, along with tyAgarAja swami and nAdajyOti MuthuswAmi dIkshita, is considered to form the Carnatic music trinity. This article is dedicated to the noble soul Shri Shyama Shastri to whom the Carnatic music world will always be indebted.
His Ancestral Lineage:
Alas! The tanjore bangAru kAmAkshi amman temple got its rich due of fame. All carnatic musicians and devotees of this divine art will definitely visit this temple and decorate the Goddess here with a beautiful garland consisting of pearls of music. The ambA statue here is made of gold and dEvi here has a very pleasing face. Folklore suggests that Lord Brahma himself built this statue, installed it at the temple town of kAnchIpuram and worshipped it. The great BhagavadpAda, Shri Adi Shankara himself appointed a saint well-versed in the vEdas and religious rites in order to conduct the daily pooja for this amba. Till this date, the descendants of this same family conduct all the religious activities associated with this temple. For this reason, the members of this family consider the Goddess kAmAkshi herself as their ancestral treasure and wealth.

In 1565, after the Vijayanagara dynasty fell, the land passed in to the hands of Muslim rule. The Islamic army attacked this region and plundered the wealth. The divine land of kAnchI was about to become a war zone. Worried that the divine statues of kAnchI will be destroyed in this war, the pundits of this region got together and decided to take their upAsana dEvas and dEvis and vacate the town. In the year 1566, the family who were in charge of the bangAru kAmAkshi temple took all of the temple’s reserves, jewels and gems and buried it within the temple complex. The family then took the kAmAkshi idol and the chaturbuja utsava idol and left the city for safer grounds. This family crossed mountains and forests and after being in exile for 24 years finally decided it is safe and reached the city of Senji. The city’s king at that time, Santhana maharaja was a devout bhaktha and he welcomed the dEvi upAsakas with open arms. For 15 years, he provided the family with all the comforts and everything that they needed to do the daily poojas. In 1624, the WodeyarpAlayam Zamindar invited the family and he supported the family for 70 years. Today, at this location, we can still find the kAmAkshi amman mandapam.

The family of these upAsakas grew into a large number. The eldest son of the family got the preference to do the pooja and the others got equal rights and respect among each other. However the zamindar had preferences for a few in the family and he did not treat the others well. This created a rift in the family and these “lesser respected” members of the family moved to Anakudi, where the mirAsudAr Swaminatha Pillai welcomed them and supported them. Swaminatha Pillai was a very close friend of the marAtha kings ruling Tanjore at that time. He was very opulent, charitable, devout bhakta and was very passionate about music. The other part of the family which had stayed back at Wodeyarpalayam was also invited by Swaminatha Pillai and they carried the kAmakshi idol across the river and came to Anakudi.

Swaminatha Pillai continued to support the upAsakas family for 15 years. After Swaminatha Pillai’s death, the family moved to different places like Vijayapuram, Nagoor, Sikkil and finally settled down in the holy temple town of tiruvArUr. At this time, the eldest son and hence the upAsakar performing the pooja in the family was VenkatAdri Iyer. Viswanatha Iyer succeeded him in the following years and he was an expert in Vedanta and astrology. Both he and his wife were devout dEvi upAsakas. One day, there was a huge celebration for Lord Venkatachalapathy on his road. While Viswanatha Iyer and his wife were watching this procession, one elderly man in the procession shouted out to Viswanathan Iyer’s wife and told her “Next year, in the month of chithira, on krithika nakshatra Saturday, son will be born to you”. Just as the elderly man had said, the following year (1763), on the exact same day as predicted, a beautiful son was born in Gauthama gOthra to this couple. Since the child was born by Lord Venkatesha’s grace and since he was born on krithika nakshatra (similar to Lord Subrahmanya), the parents decided to name the child “Venkata Subrahmanyan” but called him by the nickname of “Shyama Krishna”. This child grew up to become our beloved Shyama Shastri, one of the most highly regarded composers of carnatic music. Ironically, his actual name disappeared into oblivion but his nickname became his composer mudra and will resonate till the existence of mankind.

Spiritual and Musical Education:
Shri Shyama Shastri learnt Sanskrit and Telugu from his father. He was exposed to carnatic music by his uncle. Just as things were settling down, Hyder Ali attacked the region and wanted to take over the regime. All the temple upAsakas were afraid that he will destroy the temples and all the idols. Hence they took all the idols and moved to the nearest big city, Tanjore. The Tanjore Rajagopalaswamy temple and other temples in this area became the safe houses of all these idols that were moved from tiruvArUr. Shyama Shastri’s family too carried kAmAkshi’s idol and moved to Tanjore. Initially the kAmAkshi amba idol was placed in various different temples but finally a temple was constructed for this idol and the king of Tanjore, who was an extremely devout dEvi bhakta started allocating large sums of money for the maintenance and betterment of this temple. Sponsored and supported by the king of Tanjore, Shyama Shastri’s family flourished and lived a comfortable life.
Musical Training:

Shri Shyama Shastri was a born musician. Even as a child, he is known to have had deep passion for music. However none of his family members were musically inclined. Even the uncle who taught him the basics suggested that he should concentrate on other profitable matters and not spend his entire time on music. One day, Shyama Krishna performed the pooja for Goddess kAmAkshi. During the pooja, in his melodious voice, Shyama Krishna chanted the mantras in many different rAgas and garlanded the dEvi. The affluent people at the temple who heard his music during this pooja became extremely pleased and presented him with a shawl and wished him all the best. When Shyama Krishna went back home and showed the shawl to his uncle (and his guru), he became extremely angry that Shyama was not listening to his advice. His uncle then proceeded to tear Shyama’s music book into pieces and told Shyama that he will not teach him music anymore.
Sangeetha Swami:
This incident did not demoralize Shyama. He continued on his musical journey. Shyama was an extremely ardent devotee of Goddess kAmAkshi. When She herself was pushing him from within to sing, who or what can stop him from pursuing his music? Shyama managed to go to nearby temples and listen to other musicians perform. By listening to these musicians and by reading scriptures on music, Shyama was secretly practicing and tuning his mind. He will then go and sing in front of Goddess kAmAkshi everyday. There were days when Shyama used to drown himself in shrI vidyA upAsana and meditation and somehow get through all the doors and spend time in the main sannidhi, singing the praise of Goddess kAmAkshi. Seeing the talent of this genius, Goddess kAmAkshi sent a saint to tanjore.

In kASi, there was a musical saint. He was of telugu descent and used to sing in the sannidhi of Lord Visweswara. He passed through Tanjore on a pilgrimage to Rameswaram. Shyama Shastri’s father served the yogi and provided him with food. On one day, on seeing Shyama, the yogi ordered Shyama’s father “This child is a musical genius. You must arrange good training for him”. Shyama then informed his father of how his uncle had torn his music book and stopped teaching him. Shyama’s father also adviced him that music was not their traditional portfolio and that Shyama should learn and become proficient in Vedanta and scriptures. However, on repeated instructions from the yogi, Shyama’s father gave in and encouraged Shyama to learn music formally. Since Shyama’s family was very affluent at this time, he did not have to worry about working and earning money. Shyama hence started learning music formally from the musical saint from kASi. The saint was a musical genius himself. He had understood all the nuances of music and he passed on all the information to Shyama and trained him. The saint taught a few of his own compositions to Shyama. The saint’s knowledge rubbed off on Shyama very fast and because of diligent practice and being a genius himself, Shyama was able to learn very fast. In just 4 months, Shyama had learnt all the tricks of the trade from the saint. It was time for the saint to continue on his pilgrimage to kASi. With affection, he gave Shyama all of his compositions and advised him to continue delving deeper into musical bliss. He also advised him to attend the concerts of the samastAna’s vidwAn, Adiappayyar. The saint blessed him and told Shyama that he had the best wishes and blessings of Goddess kAmAkshi and that he will shine forth as one of the brightest musical gems.

Pachchimiriyam Adiappayya:
Adiappayya was a prolific composer and used to compose krithis with the mudra “shrI vEnkaTaramaNa”. He is the composer of Viriboni, the famous Bhairavi aTa tALa varNam. He was an expert in singing rAga Alapanas, a master of tALa prakaraNam and a scholar who had analyzed complicated gamaka patterns. Some of his famous disciples were Pallavi gOpAlayyar and Sanjeevayyar. He was the astAna vidwan of the tanjore court. His son, vInai krishnayyar was a famous composer too. vInai Krishnayyar was a very close friend of Shyama Krishna and the two of them used to spend a lot of time together singing and analyzing music. Listening to the two sing together, krishnayyar’s father, Adiappayya asked Shyama to come home often. On further interaction with Shyama, Adiappayya realized that the 12-year old Shyama was a musical genius and told him that he was an incarnation of Goddess kAmAkshi herself and started addressing Shyama as “kAmAkshi”. He treated Shyama as his own son and the two discussed music for hours together. Shyama used to chew a lot of beetle leaves. One day, while Shyama and Adiappayya were discussing as usual, a piece of beetel he was chewing flew out of his mouth and stained Adiappayya’s silk dhoti. Shyama apologized profusely and rushed to clean the dhoti with water. However Adiappayya stopped him and told him that it is kAmAkshi’s prasAdam. Such was the bhakti and love that the vidwan had developed for Shyama. As years rolled by, Shyama started composing songs in praise of Goddess kAmAkshi.
Physical Appearance:

Shyama Shastri was an exceptionally handsome person. He was around 6 foot tall and was well-built. He had ambAl kumkum on his forehead, sparkling kadukkans on his ears, rudrAksha around his neck and rings on his fingers and carried a cane with a silver handle. He always wore a white silk dhoti and a majestic shawl to cover his chest. His very presence commanded respect. His mind was drenched in bhakti for Goddess kAmAkshi and he lived a very simple life.

He did not even search for students and as a result, he had taught very few students in his life. Singing the dEvi’s praise in the form of his 300 compositions was everything that he yearned for in his lifetime. He was not interested in earning money by performing concerts or by associating himself with the raja’s court. He did not travel much and spent most of his time at home with Goddess kAmAkshi. However, he used to travel frequently to tiruvayyaru and spend time with sadguru tyAgarAja swami, the other musical genius who forms a big part of the Carnatic music trinity. The two of them used to discuss about music for hours together and share each other’s knowledge through their compositions. Some of his pilgrimages include a trip to Pudukkottai where he composed in praise of brhadambA and his trip to Madurai where he composed the set of nine krithis in praise of Madurai mInAkshi ambA.

Characteristics of his Compositions:
Shyama Shastri’s compositions have a lot of poetic essence associated with them. His compositions in telugu, Sanskrit and tamil can be sung properly only by a person who has undergone rigorous training and has learnt these krithis from a guru. There is a famous story according to which some of tyAgarAja swAmi’s disciples, having heard a few of Shyama Shastri’s krithis, sung a few compositions for the sadguru. After listening patiently for few minutes, tyAgarAja swami is known to have asked his disciples to stop singing and ordered them not to “murder” these gems of Shyama Shastri by singing the krithis without any rAga bhAva or kAla pramANa.

Shyama Shastri has composed masterpieces in rAgas like Anandhabhairavi and sAvEri. It seems that these two rAgas were his favourite. He had composed many krithis in rare rAgas but did not pass on these treasures through disciples and because of this, many of his krithis got lost over time and many other compositions did not become as famous as tyAgarAja’s compositions. Since Shyama Shastri composed these krithis in high state of devotion and consciousness combined with pristine rAga lakshaNa and tALa, only a person who is advanced in music can bring out the beauty ensconced in his krithis. The more one sings his krithis, the more bliss one can experience. His various compositions like marivEre gati, himAcala tanaya, O jagadambA in Anandabhairavi; shankari shankuru and durusuga in sAvEri, ninne nammi naanu (tODi), brOva samayamu (punnAgavarALi), nannu brOva (lalitA), pAlinchu kAmAkshi (madyamAvati), sarOja dhaLa nEtri (shankarAbharaNam), dEvi brOva samayamidE (cintAmaNi), talli ninnu (“kalyANI”); his swarajathis in tODi, bhairavi and yadukula kAmbOji and his book named “tALa prastAram” are the treasures he has left behind for generations to come.

Astrological Powers:
Due to his intense dEvi upAsana, Shyama Shastri followed the path of divine guidance and had the power to make all his wishes and words come true. He was an expert in astrology and hence was extremely accurate in his predictions. There are a few famous stories corroborating this fact. Once, a friend rushed into Shyama Shastri’s house and reported that an astrologer had predicted that he will die in 10 days. Shyama Shastri immediately looked at his horoscope and his face and told him that he will live for 10 more years and it happened exactly the way he said. On another occasion, on seeing a friend’s face, Shyama Shastri told him that he has only 8 more days to live and that once again came true. Once while walking through a trade fair along with Adiappayyar, a shop owner made fun of Shyama Shastri and angered him. He cursed the shop owner that he will burn to ashes. As soon as he uttered those words, the shop caught fire and everything including the shop owner burnt down in a matter of minutes. Such was the power of his thoughts and words.
Poppili kEsavayyA:

The Carnatic music trinity lived during the years when fine arts were flourishing. The kings and emperors were huge patrons of art forms like Carnatic music and Bharathnatyam. Swathi tirunAL was also a contemporary composer of the trinity’s era. He was a king who was an ardent devotee of Lord Padmanabha and composed many krithis of exquisite content. He respected and patronized all the artists in his kingdom. Seeing this, King SarabhOji, the ruler of tanjore at that time also wanted to follow the same tradition. Being a rasika of art forms, he patronized and provided money and other facilities for the artists of his court. However, the Carnatic trinity of tyAgayya, MuthuswAmi dIkshita and Shyama Shastri never once stepped inside the raja’s court. They were steeped in bhakti and these material comforts provided by the king did not appeal to them.

In the same era, a musician by name “Poppili kEsavayya” emerged as a leading artist recognized by many of his peers as one of the most talented musicians of that time. However, kEsavayya’s fame got to his head and he was very arrogant. He used to openly challenge fellow musicians and composers and threaten them to become his slave if they lost in a music contest. He travelled to different kingdoms and “defeated” many musicians in these contests and gained more popularity and got more arrogant. He arrived in the tanjore district and headed straight to tiruvayyAru. There he met saint tyAgarAja and challenged him to a contest. tyAgaraja swami accepted the challenge and defeated kEsavayya without much trouble. Unable to bear this, he felt ashamed and left tiruvayyAru and came to tanjore city. He decided that if he defeated the musicians of tanjore, the mecca of Carnatic music, it was equivalent to have defeated all the musicians in the world. With this new found vigor, kEsavayya went to king sarabhOji’s court and openly challenged all the musicians of his court. He defeated all the musicians in the king’s court and claimed himself to be the best musician in the world. King SarabhOji was very worried that this will become a black mark in his rule of the great city of tanjore. Hence, he sent a messenger to Shyama Shastri’s house and requested him to represent the city and sing and defeat kEsavayya. Since the city’s tradition and name was at stake, Shyama Shastri acceded to the king’s request and accepted the challenge from kEsavayya.

On the day of the competition, Shyama Shastri prayed to Goddess kAmAkshi and meditated upon Her. After meditating for a long time, he composed “dEvi brOva samayamidE” in cintAmaNi and sang it with complete bhakti. After completing his pooja, Shyama Shastri went to the king’s court (for the first time). A large crowd had gathered to watch this spectacle. kEsavayya started singing and displayed his tremendous talent and knowledge by singing fast sangathis and swaraprasthAras. He weaved magic through his manOdharma and skilful exhibition of gamakAs and brighAs. After finishing, he taunted Shyama Shastri and asked him if “He even wanted to attempt singing after this display”. Shyama Shastri just prayed to the Goddess and uttered Her name as he strummed his tanpura. He sang at an absolutely different level and the quality of his music was overwhelming. Shyama Shastri unleashed his kalpana and with his swarasanchArAs easily defeated kEsavayya. kEsavayya bowed in complete awe and left the court. The king thanked Shyama Shastri for standing up for the city of tanjore and praised him as a “mahAvidwAn”. King sarabhOji then showered Shyama Shastri with gifts, money and valuables. Shyama Shastri gave all the wealth to the kAmAkshi temple and continued in his humble, simple way of life.

Appu kutti:
Around 1815, there was a jathi vidwAn in nAgapattinam. Just like kEsavayya, he was another talented but arrogant musician. He used to challenge all the musicians in the district and defeat them and humiliate them. When Shyama Shastri went to nAgapattinam for personal reasons, the musicians there requested him to take care of appu kutti’s menace. Acceding to their request, Shyama Shastri challenged Appukutti to a contest. Appukutti accepted the challenge and added a few stipulations to the contest. If Appukutti was to lose, he would leave the land and not return. If Shyama Shastri lost, he must accept sanyAsa. Shyama Shastri agreed to the conditions and the contest began. In just 5 minutes, Shyama Shastri sang one sangathi beyond comprehension and appukutti accepted defeat. Appukutti went to mysore and became the AsthAna vidwan there.
After losing to Shyama Shastri, Appukutti changed a lot and lost all his arrogance in the process. He became an ardent lover of Shyama Shastri’s music and started popularizing his krithis in Mysore. Listening to Appukutti sing these krithis, the Maharaja of Mysore fell in love with the devotion and the beauty in Shyama Shastri krithis. He requested Appukutti to visit tanjore and invite Shyama Shastri to Mysore so that the Maharaja can see this genius and pay his respects. So, in 1826, Appukutti visited Shyama Shastri’s house and explained how the Mysore Maharaja wanted to celebrate his genius. Shyama Shastri politely refused the invitation because he did not want to travel as he felt that his last few days on this earth were here.



Shyama Shastri’s personal life is pretty well documented because of his great grandson who died at the age of 94 as late as 1950. Shyama Shastri’s wife was an extremely caring and devoted lady. She was a dEvi upAsaka just like her husband and religiously observed the same rules and principles followed by Shyama Shastri. The couple had two sons- Panju Shastri and SubbarAya Shastri.


In 1927, Shyama Shastri, by his astrological skills had determined that he will not live for long. When she came to know about this, Shyama Shastri’s wife immediately prayed to Goddess kAmAkshi and requested her life to be taken away before her husband’s death. On February 1st, 1827, Shyama Shastri’s wife passed away. All their relatives came home and paid rich tributes to the noble soul. At that time, Shyama Shastri is known to have said “sAga anjinAL, seththu ArinAL” and all the people interpreted this to mean “She was afraid to die but she died and reached solace”. However, Shyama Shastri in his typical witty way had hinted at his death. Just six days after his wife’s death, on February 7th, 1827, Shyama Shastri meditated upon Goddess kAmAkshi for one last time and left his mortal coils. All the people then realized that what he had said was “sAga anjunAL, seththu ArunAL” meaning “5 days to go (for me) to die, six days would have passed (since her death).” All the musicians and composer in and around tanjore visited Shyama Shastri’s house and paid their last respects for one of the most prolific composers of Carnatic music. All the musicians sang his krithis in his remembrance and reminded themselves that a great musical genius had lived amongst them.


Shyama Shastri’s family tree grew threw his elder son, Panju Shastri. He became the eldest son of the family and performed the daily duties and pooja for Goddess kAmAkshi. At present, Panju shastri’s great grandson, natESa Shastri is the person performing pooja at the bangAru kAmAkshi temple in tanjore. Shyama Shastri’s second son, Subbaraya Shastri was yet another musical genius. Like his father, he has composed some amazing krithis. Subbaraya Shastri is known to have been the only person to have learnt music from tyAgarAja swami, nAdajyOti Muthuswami dIkshithar and his own father, Shyama Shastri. What great puNyam must he have done in his previous life to have learnt music from the carnatic music trinity!!


Thus, through his compositions, Shyama Shastri’s contribution to Carnatic music is beyond description. He has left an indelible mark in the field of this divine art. As a result his compositions transcend time and will be passed on from generation to generation. His name will resonate as long as the universe exists. shrI gurubhyO namah:

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