He was born in about the year 1700 in Needamangalam to Muthukrishna Iyer. One of his descendants was Needamangalam Krishnamurthi Bhagavathar. His gurus were Needamangalam Rajah Bhagavathar and he founded the Rudrapasupathi Pillai sishya parampara. He composed many kritis in Sanskrit and Tamil, mainly on Lord Krishna. His songs were known to often exclude the name of the deity in favor of description. He died in 1765 in his hometown, Needamangalam.
He was a complete master of music in all senses of the term – melody, rhythm or lyrics and was fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil. He was proficient in a variety of musical forms such as the krti, javali, tillana and kavadichindu. He composed several types of krtis apart from the usual style of pallavi, anupallavi and charanam with the tune of the last few lines coinciding with that of the anupallavi. Venkata Kavi composed many songs with madhyama kala passages, some with more than one charana but with the same tune, others with multiple charanas in different tunes, some with just a samshti charana, some with gati bhedam and so on. He used talas and themes that few other Carnatic composers have used before or since.
It is hardly surprising that Ootthukkadu Venkata Kavi, also referred to as Ootthukkadu Venkata Subbaier accomplished so much. Legend has it that he had his musical insights from Lord Krishna himself, in the Kalinga Nartana Temple in Ootthukkadu, which was then known as Dhenushwasapuram.
Venkata Kavi was born to Ramachandran and Kamalanarayani and was very interested in music and culture from a very early age. His brother Krishna Iyer had already established himself as a wonderful singer and won rewards from the King of Tanjore. Venkata Kavi was very keen on learning music formally and is supposed to have approached Krishna yogi, a great artiste of his times. But when the yogi declined to teach him for reasons best known to himself, a disappointed Venkata Kavi went back home where he was advised to seek the grace of the Lord Himself. The intensity of his prayers were answered by the Lord himself. Venkata Kavi’s own words lend credence to this fact in his piece in Sriranjani ‘Guru padaravinda komalam ennul kondapode kolahalam’. In the anupallavi, he declares:
paramayogayagam vedam padittilen
Padittadu pol nadittilen
Parvai onrile vilainda bhagyamidu
Yarkkumidu aridanadu parimala sad (guru padaravinda komalam).
‘I have never studied the scriptures or yoga nor pretended to have done so. I received my whole fortune in the benevolent glance of my guru.’
Venkata Kavi composed at least 14 songs only on the greatness of Guru. A few of them seem to suggest that may also have had another human guru but external information on this aspect is not readily available at this point in time.
The greatest evidence of his musical pedigree is his compositions. His works reveal his high quality musicianship. There are several references to good musical approach, practices and even technical terms of ornamentation like aahatam and pratyaagatam. There are references to hundreds of ragas and numerous talas in his krtis. Some of these are so intelligently woven in that they never seem like dry facts but shine with larger than life images.
Venkata Kavi believed that music had to be blended with bhakti in order to shine. His theme ‘bhakti yoga sangeeta margame paramapavana mahume’ is exactly seen in the work of another great composer, Tyagaraja in his sangeeta gnanamu bhakti vina sanmargamu galade. Need more be said of great minds think alike? Venkata Kavi’s works reflect his philosophy; they are an ideal combination of music, devotion, intellect and a soul that was in a state of spiritual bliss.
It will be best to study every facet of his musicianship separately – melody, rhythm lyrics, themes, etc. but let me only attempt to give a glimpse for now.
Melody: Venkata Kavi had a vast knowledge of music and musical nuances. Venkata Kavi used a wide variety of ragas ranging from the well known such as Todi, Kalyani, Kharaharapriya, Shahana, through minor ones like Kannadagowla, Jayantashri, Malavi, Umabharanam and also a few that are seldom used today like Balahamsa and Rasamanjari. In some instances, his works are the first or only ones to be available in a given raga. Examples: Sri Shivanayike in Lalitagandharvam and Padasevanam in Deeparam.