The greatest evidence of Oothukadu Venkata Kavi’s (1700-65) musical pedigree is ofcourse his compositions. Several references endorsing rich musical approach, practices and technical ornamentation terms such as aahatam and pratyaagatam are available on his compositions. According to Venkata Kavi’s belief, music should be optimised with a blend with spirituality (bhakti). Bhakti yoga sangeeta margame paramapavana mahume translating into devotion along music was the path to salvation has been his philosophy. As a matter of fact, this thinking is also resonated by Thyagaraja (1767-1847) as ‘sangeeta gnanamu bhakti vina sanmargamu galade’.
One of the pioneering composers that excelled in the sphere of Indian classical Carnatic music, Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiah Iyer composed at least fourteen to fifteen assembles extolling the greatness of his master, Krishna. It is also suggested that the musician could have had another human guru; at least as regards to spiritual purposes. The sources from that area avered that this guru was Bhaskara Raya, who enjoyed acclaimed authority of Goddess worship of his times. The immense scholarship obvious in the Kamakshi Navavarana krtis of Venkata Kavi dealing with avarana pooja’s (worship of Goddess Sri Devi) intricate details supports this fact.
Immense knowledge of music as well as musical nuances was possessed by Venkata Kavi. He deftly engaged an array of ragas ranging from the long-familiar ones such as Kalyani, Thodi, Kharaharapriya and Sahana, through simpler ones such as Kannadagowla, Malavi, Jayantashri and Umabharanam to a few that are hardly used in the present times like Balahamsa and Rasamanjari. In certain instances, works of Venkata Kavi are the first or the only ones available in a particular raga such as Padasevanam in Deeparam and Sri Shivanayike in Lalitagandharvam. His approach to even standard ragas such as Paras, Sahana, Arabhi and Nadanamakriya are distinctive as well as refreshing.
Venkata Kavi’s vision of the raga coupled with melody is considerable and apparent in the different styles he has adopted to compose various krtis in the same raga. The great man’s krtis in Madhyamavathi – Sundara nandakumara, Aadadu ashangadu vaa Kanna and Shankari Sri Rajarajeshwari, for instance discover different aspects of this graceful raga. Striking swaraksharas were also employed by him as a technique where the lyrics and the tune’s solfa notes were matched impeccably. Venkata Kavi also incorporated his several kritis with raga mudra (mentioning the ragas of the composition). Great examples for this fact are Navarasakannada and Shuddha Saveri. Several other compositions of his as well tag the names of a number of other ragas mentioned in certain other contexts.
Venkata Kavi is renowned for his profound scholarship in Sanskrit and Tamil languages. To be fair, his fluency in Sanskrit matched that of his command in Tamil. So immense was his vocabulary that words such as charatha (wandering), kalamba (arrow), shileemukha (bee) fall as just a few instances out of striking hundreds seen in his works. These are particularly unique in Carnatic literature. His ability to employ common words in uncommon contexts is also excellent.
The vivid imagination of Venkata Kavi paired with an eye for details have been matched by few Carnatic composers to be honest. The poetic ability of the master to realise unique scenarios or render singular twists to even very ordinary stories is apparent in hundreds of songs such as the raga Thodi marvel, Thaye yashodae, where the gopikas are seen complaining to mother Yashoda about her son Krishna. This song is embellished with eight charanams (stanzas) with each one describing young Krishna’s pranks very humorously. Not so familiar is Krishna’s reposte to every one of those charges in another piece – Illai illai in Mohanam. This composition also comes with eight charanams.
This quality of Venkata Kavi vividly sets him apart even in his common compositions such as Ennadan inbam kandayo (Devagandhari), Gajamukhaanujam (Kedaram) and Chindittavar nenjil iruppadu (Nattai). He lived in the present-day state of Tamil Nadu, in South India. Also known by the name Oothukkadu Venkatasubba Iyer, the master composed hundreds of compositions in Tamil, Marathi and Sankrit, of which around five-hundred are available. These were passed from generation to generation by his brother’s descendants.