Shyama Shastri

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SHYĀMA SHĀSTRI (1762–1827), South Indian poet and composer. Shyāma Shāstri was the oldest of the three nineteenth-century South Indian poet-composers known as the the "Trinity." His compositions can be recognized by the name Shyāma Krishna, which he inserted in his lyrics as his signature (mudrā). Although barely fifty of his songs (tānavarnam, kriti, and svarajati) have been preserved, they form an important part of the South Indian concert repertoire.

Having grown up in a musical environment, he became an accomplished singer with the help of a visiting musician. Pacchimiriyam Ādiyappayya, a prominent court musician at Tanjāvūr, then became his mentor. (Ādiyappayya's majestic piece in Bhairavi rāga, "Viribōni," is widely regarded as the best tāna varnam ever composed.)

A hereditary priest, he was entrusted with the responsibility of the Kāmākshi Amman temple in Tiruvārūr, his place of birth, where his ancestors had fled from Kanchipuram in the wake of the fall of Vijayanagar in 1565. The temple idol of Bangāru Kāmākshi, kept in their custody, was installed in a new temple in Tiruvārūr. In his lyrics, Shyāma Shāstri addresses this goddess as Devī, or divine mother.

He chose common as well as rare rāgas for his compositions, most of which yield their essence in a rather slow tempo compared to that preferred by Tyāgarāja and most later composers. His pieces are equally appreciated for their subtle rhythmic features and the poetic beauty of his Sanskrit, Telugu, and Tamil lyrics. Ānandabhairavi, an important rāga, owes its characteristic form to four of his songs in the concert repertoire. He also developed the svarajati, a didactic musical form for which he provided three most impressive examples in the rāgas Bhairavi, Tōdi, and Yadukulakāmbhōji.

A specialist in rhythmic intricacies, he employed a technique known as "note-syllables" (svarākshara), meaning that some of the sol-fa names (sā, ri, gā, mā, pā, dhā, or ni), otherwise used to merely represent the notes of a given rāga, are so arranged as to coincide with some of the text syllables that constitute his lyrics. Shyāma Shāstri had a predilection for lyrics containing groups of five syllables (e.g., anudinamu) that, if articulated through rhythmic syllables ( jati), mimic a pattern commonly employed by drummers (ta din ki na tom). Another speciality is referred to as dual rhythms, namely the scope he provided for applying two different metric cycles (tāla) to some of his compositions.

Although primarily regarded as a scholarly musician and composer, he is also remembered for defeating Kēshavayya, a visiting virtuoso from Andhra who toured the land to challenge musicians patronized by local rulers during musical contests. This episode highlights Shyāma Shāstri's superior mastery of complex musical problems against the backdrop of his secure and uneventful existence, quite unlike the lives led by some his prominent fellow composers. Several of his descendants, including his son Subbarāya Shāstri (a disciple of Tyāgarāja and an important composer in his own right) are regarded as outstanding singers and vina players (vainika).

Ludwig Pesch


Govinda Rao, T. K. Compositions of SyāmāSāstri. Chennai: Ganamandir Publications, 1997.

Sambamoorthy, P. Great Composers, vol. 1. Chennai: Indian Music Publishing House, 1978.

Shankar, Vidya. Subbaraya Sastry's and Annaswamy Sastry's Compositions: Text, Translation, Transliteration, and Notation with Gamaka-Signs. Chennai: Parampara, 1989.