The Life of Papanasam Sivan

Author: Ashok Ramani

Papanasam Sivan was born as the second son of Ramamritha Ayer and Yogambal Ammal at Polagam in Tanjore District on 26.9.1890. His parents gave him the name of `Ramayya’. He came to be called Papanasam Sivan by the inhabitants of `Ganapathy Agraharam’ Tanjore district in 1912 when they were all attracted to the Sivan temple in that village at dusk, while Sivan was praying to the Deity singing `Arum Ponne Maniya’ with a voice full of fervor; they exclaimed that Lord Siva himself had descended to earth from Kailasam, as it were, in the shape of that youth.

He lost his father when he was six years old, and since the family was afflicted by adversity, Sivan, his mother and elder brother migrated to Trivandrum, the “Dharma Rajya”. They found subsistence in the `Ootpura’ of the Maharaja. While at Trivandrum, Sivan came under the influence of eminent musicians Noorani Mahadeva Bhagavathar, Samba Bhagavathar and Karamanai Neelakanta Dasar. While at Trivandrum, Sivan studied in the Maharaja’s Sanskrit college and obtained the title `Upadhyaya’. Beyond this he had no schooling at all.

Sivan’s mother, who had a gifted sweet voice for music, had learnt more than 600 songs of the famous composers of the day. Sivan imbibed this talent hereditarily from his mother and his material grandfather, who was also a good musician.

Having lost his mother in 1910, at Trivandrum, Sivan returned to his native district with his brother. He used to tour the district by foot and conduct bhajans in all the temple festivals. By singing his own compositions as devotional songs rapturously, he used to attract large crowds. Among them were the Saptha Sthanam at Tiruvaiyaru, and the Adi Pooram at Nagapattinam. From 1912 to 1959 without break he attended Saptha Sthanam festivities. During Margazhi, every year he conducted Giri Pradakshinam around the four Mada streets of Sri Kapaleeswarar temple at Mylapore, right from 1930 when he came to Chennai (then called Madras), till 1972. He passed away on 1-10-1973.

He started composing songs as early as in 1910 and he used to sing them himself. While singing he always closed his eyes and he had expressed that he was on such occasions in communion with god. It was in this decade that he came to be acquainted with Koneirarajapuram Vaidyanathaier, a faithful exponent of Carnatic music and acclaimed to be the greatest musician of the times. Vaidyanathier took kindly to Sivan and was overawed by his compositions in Tamil and Sanskrit hearing them sung by Sivan himself.

As a composer “Sivan ranks with the great giants who followed the trinity in the middle of the ninetheenth century”. He did not use any lexicon or dictionary for choosing rhyming words. Almost all eminent vidwans of yester years, viz. Ariyakuri Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and others have sung numerous compositions of Sivan in their performances. Sivan’s compositions cover a wide gamut of songs ranging from varnams, krithis, and operas to padhams and javalis. His daughter Dr.Rukmini Ramani has published his compositions in book form. Six volumes of his compositions have been published so far.

After about 10 years of relentless work and purposeful concentration, Sivan compiled and brought out a rhyming Sanskrit Dictionary titled `Sanskritha Bhasha Sabhta Samudhraha’ in 1952 (Vadamozhi Sorkadal). The last works of Sivan were `Sri Rama Charitha Geetham’, the Ramayana epic sung in 24 stanzas in 24 ragas and `Kaaraikkal Ammaiyar Charitham’. Both these operas have published in book form.

Sivan composed songs for films, for about 15 years from 1936, charging spiritual fervor into them and this was responsible for phenomenal success of many film producers. Reluctant as he was to mix with the motley crowd of artists, he was prevailed upon by a close friend and well-wisher a Cine Director late K.Subramaniam to agree to play a few roles in cinemas. He acted in 4 films, `Bhaktha Kuchela’, `Thiyaga Bhoomi’, `Bhaktha Chetha’ and `Kubera Kuchela’ all of which were hits. The roles suited him admirably and it was the unanimous verdict of critics that he alone could have lived in these roles.

Sivan was a recipient of a few titles. In 1950 the Indian Fine Arts Society honored him by conferring him the title `Sangeetha Sakithya Kala Sikhamani’. At the celebrations of the 60th birthday of Sivan, Kanchi Acharyal blessed him with the titled `Siva Punya Gaana Mani’. The Tamizh Isai Sangam honored him with the title `Isai Peraignar’. The Music Academy honored him with the title “Sangeetha Kalanidhi”. He was admitted as a `Fellow’ of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi. In 1962 Sivan received the President’s Award. Lastly in 1972, at the age of 82, the Indian Government conferred on him `Padma Bhushan’.

Sivan’s benefactors included Smt. Rukmani Arundale of the Theosophical Society and Kalakshetra, the late Sri. K. Subramaniam, Cine Director, late Sri.S.S.Vasan, Editor of Kalki Sri.T.Sadasivam, Smt.M.S.Subbulakshmi and the Hon. Former Chief Minister of Tamilnadu Dr.M.G.Ramachandran, Tamilnadu State Sangeetha Nataka Sangam and Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, to name a few.

Sivan led a very simple unostentatious life, was very pious by nature, timid and shy to the extent of self-abnegation. Sivan’s bhajanai tradition is continued even today his daughter Dr. Rukmini Ramani.

Photos: 1 – Papanasam Sivan, 2 – Ashok Ramani, who wrote the article and is Papanasam Sivan’s grandson.