Sports is competitive by nature. But the arts are not supposed to be. Competition however has been present in most art forms and carnatic music is no exception. Rivalries were famous and stories of the famed feud between Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan and Patnam Subramanya Iyer is well documented especially by someone like my good friend Sriram V. As one grew up one heard elders talking a lot about competition and rivalries between musicians. This was mostly the case when two of them were equally talented and popular and fans decided to take sides and pit one against the other. Musicians also decided to play along and lines were clearly drawn. I am not going to be drawn into putting names into these rivalries but I will just mention some stories I have heard to illustrate this and also show how they handled this competition among themselves.
The earliest stories that I heard were that of the Maharajapuram-Ariyakudi rivalry. Maharajapuram would dismiss this I believe in his casual manner making a joke out of it since he always considered himself as a “Maharaja”. The GNB-Semmangudi was even more bitter between the fans more than anything. In fact I never realised that Musiri/Semmangudi were kind of a nexus with GNB at the other end. Once I experienced this when I sang a concert in Kallidaikurichi, a classic battlefield with well defined groups of GNB and Semmangudi followers. I had sung Tiruvadi sharnaam in Kambhoji (a Musiri patent) and a rasika (GNB fan needless to say) came up to me and said “Don’t you not know Ivanaaro???” Ivanaaro was I believe GNB’s Tamil Kambhoji answer to Tiruvadi sharanam. That was when I first realised that the musicians were fighting their battles with music and nothing else.
My guru once told me that GNB started singing Sarasasama dana in Kapinarayani and gave it up after Madurai Mani Iyer made it famous. Similarly he also sang Saarasamukhi regularly with detailed alapanas of Gaudamalhar. I have heard V Sethuramiah, the violinist, once talk at a GNB day function and say that GNB sang an elaborate alapana at a concert where Muthiah Bhagavatar, the creator of the raga was present. Bhagavatar was amazed at the creativity and depth to which GNB expanded his own creation. Again there are no recordings of Gaudamalhar by GNB, probably because he gave it up after MMI made it famous.
Another example is Semmangudi and GNB beginning concerts with Dikshitar compositions in Chakravakam – Semmangudi sings Gajananayutam and GNB sings Vinayaka vigna nasaka. A few years back I had an interesting conversation with AKC Natarajan. He told me that in the fifties there was a competitive rivalry between him and Karakurichi Arunachalam. The latter had then begun popularising Tamaden swami in Todi. AKC wanted do something and he said that it would not be right for him to play the same song! So he went to MM Dandapani Desigar, who taught him his own composition Tirumagale in Todi with a ton of sangatis! The lesson I learnt from this story is that they had so much musical integrity and honesty and believed in their own worth and skill. They never had to resort to doing the same thing as the rival/peer. It was not like opening another PCO down the road because the first one starts making money!
In those days without the advantage of digital communication artistes knew so much about their peers and kept working hard to refresh and renew themselves. Today it is the opposite. Many musicians find it very easy to download a peer’s hit song and re-present it and the result, the original guy loses his pioneer status because now there two people who have done the same thing you see! Copying is quick and blatant in the modern age. The successful ones will not be the ones who innovated first, but the ones who don’t stop innovating! There was so much respect for effort among peers in those days. It is another matter when someone like GNB or Semmangudi acknowledge a senior like Ariyakudi as a mentor and then copy or get ‘inspired.’ But today such ‘inspiration’ is only plagiarising because it is never acknowledged.