Being a general physician by profession, Śēshādri’s role in the ‘Bhajana Sampradāyā’ is very significant. it is all the more important to look at how his life style changed from his mid thirties onwards and how he balanced his time between providing physical medicines to sick people and providing mental solace for one and all through his ‘Bhajana’.
It is even more fascinating to find out that Śēshādri did not satisfy himself with being just another ‘Bhajana’ performer. Rather he created a unique style of ‘abhinaya divyanāma Bhajana’ with ‘vēsham’ (attire) and carved a niche place for himself in the ‘Bhajana’ tradition.
Dr.C.R.Śēshādri’s father was C.R.Rāmaswāmy and mother was Kāvēri Ammāļ. Rāmaswāmy had a medical degree (LMP – Licensed Medical Practitioner) and was serving the Telungu Rajyam (now Andhra Pradesh) Government Hospital for some time. When he was asked to serve the Army camp, he decided to opt out and decided to settle at Kāvēri Ammāļ’s native place, Chittūr located in Pālakkād (earlier known as Palghat) district in Kerala State. The local village people requested Rāmaswāmy to start a medical clinic in the village since it was not available at that time. It was Judge Srī.AnanthaKrishņa Iyer, who was a prominent resident of the village, who offered Rāmaswāmy some land to start the clinic which Rāmaswāmy eventually bought.
Rāmaswāmy Iyer was a well learned man and was proficient in Sānskrit. He was very orthodox and performed daily ’pūja’ and visited the village temple every day. Reciting the Rāmāyaņa was an integral part of his daily routine. Kāvēri Ammāļ had her training in vocal music and she encouraged all her children to learn Carnātic Vocal music from one Rāmanatha Bhāgavatar. Rāmaswāmy Iyer’s father, Ranganātha Iyer was a lawyer by profession. Ranganātha Iyer was also a composer and had composed many songs in Tamil and a book was also published back in 1920s. Unfortunately the print or the copy is not available currently.
Rāmaswāmy had eight children consisting of four sons and four daughters. Śēshādri was the second son, born on 27th June, 1921, under ‘Uttarattādi’ star. He belonged to ‘Srīvatsa Gōtra’ and was a Tamil Brāhmin. Śēshādri went to the Chittūr Boy’s high school and he was an active member in the cricket team. He had learnt Sānskrit and adhered to the daily routine as a young Brāhmin boy. Though he had some training in music, he learnt more from listening to his sibling’s musical lessons and practice. Śēshādri was able to learn most of the ‘kīrtanās’ and ‘varnams’ just by listening to his sisters. Owing to the importance given to Carnatic Music, all the children of Rāmaswāmy had the in-born taste to play harmonium. Two of Śēshādri’s uncles, Srī.Bāla Viswanāthan and Srī.Krishņaswāmy, were great flute artistes. Both of them were radio artistes and this also had an effect on Śēshādri that he learnt to play flute all by himself.
After finishing his matriculation, Śēshādri applied for an engineering seat at the famous Banāras Hindu University. It was God’s will that he got admission into the medical college and he willingly took up the medical line. He was a first batch student at Stanley medical college, Chennai. He used to represent the college as a cricket player along with late Srī.M.O.Pārthasārathy, who also became a great ’Bhajana’ exponent and was the founder of ‘Dāsānjali’, a movement for the purpose of propagating ’Bhajana Sampradāyā’.
The famous Tamil writer Lakshmi was also a batch mate of Śēshādri at Stanley. After completing his MBBS, Śēshādri joined his father Rāmaswāmy in Chittūr and started serving the village and nearby locality. Soon, he mastered the art of curing and blossomed into a well sought-after general physician. His dedication to his profession was immaculate. He used to attend to all patients ranging from minor ache to deliveries of babies. Following the footsteps of his father, he made it a point to put commercial aspects as secondary to service.
While Śēshādri was busy attending to his medical practice, his younger brother KalyānaKrishņan, who was a chartered accountant by profession, had the opportunity to get associated with various Bhāgavatās during his days of work at Bangalore and Trivandrum. KalyānaKrishņan used to conduct ‘Bhajana’. One day Śēshādri and KalyānaKrishņan were discussing about KalyānaKrishņan’s CA exam which he had taken sometime earlier. KalyānaKrishņan said that the exam was so tough that if at all he passes it will be only because of the blessings of God in appreciation of his time spent doing ’Bhajana’. Śēshādri did not quite understand the significance of that then. When KalyānaKrishņan’s CA result was announced, he was one among the six candidates who had passed. KalyānaKrishņan acknowledged this fact to Śēshādri who was enthralled at the kind of benefit the ’Bhajana’ had to offer to anyone who does it with faith and devotion. Within a short time, it so happened that Śēshādri had to go to Coimbatore to attend a medical conference and KalyānaKrishņan also went along with him to attend a ‘Bhajana’ somewhere nearby. Upon reaching Coimbatore, Śēshādri came to know that the medical meeting had been cancelled and he had no other go but to accompany his brother KalyānaKrishņan to the ‘Bhajana’. This was the first time that Śēshādri got the opportunity to sit in a ’Bhajana’ session. Owing to musical mind, Śēshādri was so fully absorbed into the ‘Bhajana’ that it made him realize that he had wasted time so far, without participating or performing any of these ‘Bhajana’. It came as a jolt to him and he realized that he should make it a point to attend such programmes more frequently. Upon return, he had the chance to get associated with Nūrani Appu, who was a famous Bhāgavatar, performing ’Bhajana’. Śēshādri started accompanying Appu on flute and sat through the entire ’Bhajana’. This also gave him a chance to get familiarized with all the kīrtanās that are usually sung for ’Bhajana’.
One day, during one of the scheduled ’Bhajana’ program, due to some unavoidable circumstances, Appu Bhāgavatar could not perform. Since the audiences were waiting, Śēshādri’s close friend, Srī.Balarāma Iyer, prompted Śēshādri to take the lead and sing the ‘Bhajana’ himself instead of playing the flute. Since Śēshādri knew the ‘Sampradāyā’ and the ‘kīrtanās’, he managed to sing as it was destined. This event was followed by another instance where Śēshādri had the chance to listen to Srī.Pittukkuļļi Murugadās. He noticed that Murugadās’s voice reverberated even more when it was accompanied by the harmonium. This aspect caught on Śēshādri and he made it a point to spend some time with the family music teacher Kōttāi Srīnivāsa Bhāgavatar and learnt the fingering for playing harmonium. All these were happening at Śēshādri’s age of thirty five. Within no time, Śēshādri mastered the art of singing while playing harmonium and the net effect was that he was able to create his own style and attract people. Thus he started leading the ‘Bhajana’ and formed a group called ‘RādhāKrishņa Bhajana Samāj’. Śēshādri’s neighbours and best friends P.V.Śeshan and V.ŚivarāmaKrishņan also acted as pillars for Śēshādri’s dream of propagating ‘Bhagavan Nāma’. Apart from members from Sheshadri’s family, members from Śeshan’s and ŚivarāmaKrishņan’s family also would take part in the ‘Bhajana’, regularly. In due course, Śeshan and ŚivarāmaKrishņan and their family members became part and parcel of Śēshādri’s ‘Nāma prachārana’ mission.
The local ‘Bhajana’ mutt at the village Thekkegrāmam had a rare idol of ŚivarāmaKrishņa Chaitanya Murty a ‘panchaloha’ idol of Lord Krishņa, where two hands carry the stick and ‘kamandala’-denoting Śiva, two hands carry the bow and arrow-denoting Rāma and two hands playing flute-denoting Krishņa. It is also said that Srī Chaitanya Mahāprabhu showed this form to one of his disciples in his dream. Hence this idol is also known as Srī Krishņa Chaitanya idol. This rare idol generates so much energy that the ’Bhajana’ mutt will reverberate during the ’Bhajana’ time. The special day celebrations include Janma ashtami, the day of Srī Krishņa’s birth. The ’Bhajana’ in those days would start at 8 PM and will go on until 5 AM the next day. He invited several well known ‘Bhajana Bhāgavatās’ like Knott Annaji Rao (father of the famous ‘Bhajana’ performer Haridoss Giri), T.V.Nārāyana Sastry, Pudukkottai GōpalaKrishņa Bhāgavatar, Pudukkōttai Sanjīvi Bhāgavatar, Sadguru Abēdānanda, Srīnivāsa Rāghavāchār of Bangalore, Pittukkuļļi Murugadās, Bangalore Ramani Ammāļ to name a few. Śēshādri also played a major role in inviting musicians to perform concerts there as well. Śēshādri’s wife Padmāvathy was equally supportive in all his efforts and hosted the Bhāgavatās with utmost respect and care. It can be very well said that both Śēshādri and Padmāvathy had the aim of serving the Bhāgavatās and they fulfilled their obligations by leaving a permanent hallmark in the minds of Bhāgavatās, devotees and relatives. The ‘Bhajana’ mutt has witnessed thousands of ‘Rādhā kalyāņams’, ‘Divyanāmams’, and discourses such as ‘saptāhams’ and ‘Navāhams’ and it shines as a source of abundant spiritual energy for many devotees. The yearly Gokulāshtami celebrations are still being held in this Chittūr village with pomp and flash.
Śravaņam is the first form of ‘Bhakti’ where mere listening to Divine stories will lead one to salvation. Śēshādri developed the habit of listening to more spiritual discourses as and when he got a chance. At any given opportunity, Śēshādri used to discuss topics related to spirituality, with people around him. Śēshādri made it a point to attend any discourse that took place anywhere within a thirty mile radius from his home in Thekkegrāmam, Chittūr. The prominent Bhāgavatās who were famous for such discourses were as follows:
|Sengālipuram Anantarāma Dikshitar||Embār Rāghavāchāriar||Needamangalam Krishņamurthy Bhāgavatar|
|Srī.Krisha Prēmi||Srī.T.S.BalaKrishņa Sāstrigal||Chittūr.BālaKrishņa Sāstrigal|
|Smt.Kamalāmurthy||Srī.Suka Brahmam||Thirumuruga Kripānanda Vāriar|
|Dharmapuram Svāminathan||Ānjam Namboothiri||Thoopul Lakshmīnarasimhan|
|Srī.S.Jayarāma Sarma||K.V.Jagannāthan||Sundara kumār|
|Neelabāla Sarma||Yagnarāma Sarma||Srīkānth Dās|
|Muralīdhara Dās||Chittūr.R.Krishņa Iyer|
Since there are many villages within Pālakkād District and each village having a minimum of one temple, the opportunities for any spiritual functions and programmes were a galore. In those days, most of the festivals or important events connected with each temple would be marked by a weeklong or nine-day long celebration consisting of ‘Bhāgavata Saptāham’ or ‘Navāham’. It was also to be noted that Śēshādri would accompany some of these Bhāgavatās on stage to play harmonium.
Apart from getting engulfed into the spiritual topic and discourse, Śēshādri would always analyse on the various points the Bhāgavata might have touched upon during his or her discourse. These thoughts would get stored in Śēshādri’s treasure house of spirituality. It eventually paved way for Śēshādri’s ‘Vesha Bhajana’. Śēshādri would continue to attend the seven or nine day discourse without fail and he made it a point to invite the Bhāgavata to his own house and honour them appropriately. Thus Śēshādri developed the ‘sēva’ aspect of serving Bhāgavatās as appropriate as possible. Some of this acquaintance paved the way for future opportunities where Śēshādri would invite them to conduct a discourse either in his house or in the ’Bhajana’ mutt according to the convenience. Since he had the capacity to monetarily support such ventures, he wanted to make sure that it is done for the welfare of the society as much as possible. He inculcated this habit among all those who lived closely with him. Śēshādri was very keen on encouraging upcoming ‘Bhāgavatās’.
Śēshādri’s ’Bhajana’ troupe consisted of members such as P.V.Sēshan, V.ŚivarāmaKrishņan and Śēshādri’s family members from the Thekkegrāmam. ŚivarāmaKrishņan played a very important role in being there with Śēshādri, providing physical support to each and every task that Śēshādri took up. Over a period of time, ŚivarāmaKrishņan groomed to be a great Bhāgavata by taking initiatives in the ‘abhinaya’ and adorning different versatile ‘vēshams’ as desired by Śēshādri.
Other Bhāgavatās who also became part and parcel of his troupe are from a nearby village called Lankēswaram and they were – Śangamēswara Iyer, Mani Iyer, Nārāyana Iyer, Krishņa Vādhyār, Venkitāchalam and an elderly person by name Śēsha Iyer, popularly known as Pātta Mēsh (Pātta refers to old person and Mēsh refers to him being a teacher). The mridangam support was given by another veteran player, Śankaranārāyanan and people called him as Bhajān māma. The troupe had two members from Pālakkād. One Subramania Iyer, who was running an oil shop in the Pālakkād Market was referred to as Ennakkada Ambi Māma and another Ranganāthan from Paļļippuram Village, who plays Mridangam. ’Bhajana’ session in those days would be from 8 PM to 5 AM the next day. Śēshādri felt the need to have two mridangists so that they can share and play to avoid over straining. Śēshādri’s dedication was such that he would not even change his legs once he has taken the seat with the harmonium. He played harmonium and sang continuously without any break. Owing to the sequence of ‘kīrtanās’ to be completed, he normally did not give chance to anyone in the audience to lead a song. This was done mainly to have the control of time.
Śēshādri conducted ’Bhajana’ at the ‘mutt’ on every Saturday regularly, which the local ‘bhaktās’ used to attend. Several kīrtanās and ‘Nāmavalīs’ on different deities starting with Vināyaka will be rendered. Before some ‘kīrtanās’, devotional verse that do not possess a set tālā and are solely sung with improvisation of one or more rāgās called ‘Viruttams’, will be sung. Then comes the ‘pūja’ and ‘upachāram’, which will eventually be concluded with ‘mangalam’. Krishāa Vādhyār, who was the priest at that time, will offer food to the deity and later distribute it among the devotees. Śēshādri’s wife, Padmāvathy will prepare some ‘neivedhyam’ (offering food items to God) and make it ready so that it can be distributed among the devotees.
Apart from the above sequence of songs, on special occasions like Saturdays during the month of ‘Purattasi’, the ’Bhajana’ will commence at 8 PM and will go up to 2 AM. Following the ‘pūja’ kīrtanās, the ‘divyanāma Sampradāyā’ will commence. This ‘Sampradāyā’ is all about invoking God into the lamp and circumambulating the lamp singing various kīrtanās and ‘Nāmavalīs’.
It is said that ‘Bhāgavatās’ should forgo their shyness and sing and dance during ‘divyanāma’. This tradition highlights the importance of ‘bhakti’ which will lead one towards salvation. Several ‘kīrtanās’ of Tyāgarāja, Nārāyana Tīrta, Vijayagōpāla svāmi, Badrāchala Rāmadāsa and so on are sung and enjoyed. The highlight of the event will be the group singing of Gōpikā Gītam, which, according to Bhāgavatam, is the lamentation of Gōpikā women when their Lord Srī Krishņa disappears. At the end of Gōpikā Gītam, Srī.Krishņa will appear in front of the Gōpīs and do the ‘rāsa līla’. This whole episode was a reminder to everyone that all ‘Jivatmas’ must long for their association with ‘Paramātmā’. Here ‘Gōpīs’ are the ‘Jīvātmā’ and Srī Krishņa is the ‘Paramātmā’.
Saint Tyāgarāja, one of the greatest luminaries of Carnātic music declares that ‘music without devotion is not in conformity to righteousness path’ (Sangīta jñānamu bhakti vina sanmārgamu galadē). In the light of this, the ‘Bhajana Sampradāya’ assumes greater significance as a means to the ultimate goal of human life. Further, as a votary of this tradition, Saint Tyāgarāja has a distinct place among the music composers. His compositions, particularly the songs in Dōlōtsavam are very much an integral part of the ‘Bhajana’ tradition.
The preceptor-trio of the ‘Bhajana’ tradition viz. Bōdhēndra Svāmigal, Śrīdhara Venkatēśa Ayyāvāl and Sadguru Svāmigal of Marudānallur duly deserve the approbation of not only the musicians but also the spiritual aspirants. For, they have collectively formulated a music system which involves the participation of the performer and the listeners as well. It is indeed with a greater vision of national integration that Marudānallur Svamigal had taken elaborate care to include in this tradition, all the musical forms, like Carnatic, Hindustani and even of folk lore, besides involving many languages like Sānskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Marātti, Kannada, Malayālam and so on. Adding glitter to it is the fact that they represent various regions and states of India. Further these songs are on various deities.
To this tradition, Śēshādri’s contribution is two-fold. One is the innovation he brought about and the other is his zeal to take it to the common man, irrespective of caste, creed or gender. It may be said that the former was needed to serve the latter purpose. As part of innovation, Śēshādri introduced the ‘vēsham’ or visual representation of the deities and the various episodes connected to each. It was not an easy task as it would appear apparently. It was due to strenuous efforts of Śēshādri that the apt songs were selected from various sources to dramatise an episode, through music. Whether it is the dialogue between Prahlādā and Hiranyakasipu, or between Sage Visvāmitra and Rāmā or between Yasōdā and Krishṇa, apt and very relevant songs were traced to the compositions of Oothukkādu Venkatasubba Iyer, Arunāchala Kavirāyar or contemporary exponent of ‘Bhakti’, Śrī Krishṇa Premi. Śēshādri had realized that while there is scope in ‘Bhajana tradition’ to represent all the nine types of ‘bhakti’ like ‘Śravanam’,‘Kīrtanam’ etc., the visual representation in the form of ‘vēsham’ will have the added advantage in carrying the message of devotion to the masses and also in ensuring their sustained interest and participation in the rendering of the songs. Already the ‘Bhajana tradition’ combined the two concepts of the Supreme Being Brahman as the ‘Jyōti’ and ‘Sabdā’ or ‘Nāda’. Invoking the Lord into the lamp represents the former and rendering the songs, particularly the ‘nāmāvalīs’ represent the latter. To this dual combination which has been there for nearly four centuries, Śēshādri added the visual treat as well. It was with such a vision that he performed ‘Bhajana’ as a mission.
The importance given by Śēshādri to the ‘sāhityā’ of the songs was equally matched by his extreme keenness in adhering to the perfection of sruti and the pristine purity of music. Even though many people, trained and totally untrained in music, follow him in repeating the phrases or ‘nāma’, there has not been a single instance of lapse of sruti. While maintaining the purity of music was his watch-word, he never indulged in aggressive display of nuances of ‘gamakās’ since the very purpose of ‘Bhajan’ was to stir the feeling of devotion in oneself and in others as well. Besides, being a collective prayer, the collective devotional appeal of the ‘Bhajana tradition’ is remarkable. The innovative ‘Abhinaya’ in the ‘Bhajana tradition’ envisaged and propagated by Śēshādri was indeed a significant milestone in the path of ‘Bhakti’ movement, devotional music and spiritual emancipation.
(The biography contents taken from the dissertation work "ABHINAYA IN THE BHAJANA TRADITION OF Dr. CHITTUR.R.SESHADRI – A STUDY" by Meera Subramanian dated 30th August 2010).