Syama Sastri was born in Tiruvarur in Thanjavur district of Mysore State, into a scholarly and priestly Telugu brahmin family. His father Viswanatham was the hereditary priest responsible for the care and worship of the image of the goddess, Bangaru Kamakshi, whose temple is in Thanjavur. Syama Sastri’s father was 25 at the time of his birth and his mother, Vengalakshmi, 20 years old. A family tradition holds that she had received a prophecy of his birth from a devout neighbour. The infant was named Venkatasubrahmanya, but came to be affectionately known as Syama Krishna.
The family was comfortably settled and maintained a long tradition as devoted priests and scholars, but it was not known to have had any musicians before Syama Sastri. Sastri’s father ensured that he attained scholarship in Telugu and Sanskrit at a young age; his maternal uncle gave him a basic music eduction. When he was 18 years old, he moved with his family to Thanjavur. A sannyasin (renunciate) known simply as Sangita Svami (i.e music svami) who was fine, learned musician skilled in dance, was the family’s guest during the chaturmasya period one year. This is the rainy season when renunciates are expected to stay in one location and teach. Recognizing the young man as a most talented musician, he took great care to thoroughly teach the young man many advanced aspects of music during his four-month stay, and gave him several rare musical texts. He recommended that he listen to as many of the fine musicians of the area as possible, and suggested that he cultivate the friendship of the court musician Pachchimiriyam Adiyappayya.
Although he did not compose as many kriti-s as his two prolific contemporaries, Syama Sastri’s compositions are equally well known. It is said that he composed about three hundred pieces in all. He did not have many disciples to propagate his compositions, nor was the printing press an easy convenience during his time. More importantly, the scholarly nature of his compositions was not appealing to the layperson; they needed to be studied to be savoured. He composed in Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil and mostly on the goddess. He composed kritis, varnams and svarajatis with the ankita or mudra (signature) ‘Syama Krishna’. He was probably the first to compose in a new form of the svarajati musical genre. Prior to this the svarajati was primarily a dance form, and was close in structure to the dance varnam (padavarnma). His set of three famous svarajatis are intended to be sung in concert rahter than danced, and are sometimes referred to as “ratna traya” (three jewels). They are in ragas Bhairavi, Yadukulakamboji and Todi and share a common rhythm, mishra chapu tala.