Vidwan Kutty

Kerala India

1835 - 1887

Known by various names for the historic phases of his short life of 52 years (1835-1887), Vidwankutty or Justus Joseph (his birth name was Rama Iyer) composed over 300 hymns of musical excellence in Carnatic ragas, ranking no less than the Bhakti verse of Tyagaraja, Shyama Sastri or Mutthuswamy Dikshitar. The name “Vidwankutty,” meaning “bright kid” was reportedly a compliment from the Maharajah of Travancore who by chance had a few moments of joyous interaction with the boy Rama’s sparkling wit. Competing claims attribute the endearing name to Ram Iyer’s guru who used it to describe the speedy learner that Rama was. Whatever the case be, the name stuck for life. As the eldest of the seven children of Vekanteswara Bhagavatar, a temple singer, Rama also was well trained in the traditional arts, sciences, and performance music. A miraculous healing of his mother Meenakshi Ammal from a severe illness through prayer by Christians led the whole Iyer family to Christ. Vidwankutty, now under his baptismal name of Justus Joseph, trained for the ministry and was ordained pastor of an Anglican Church near Mavelikara, thereafter known with the titular tag of “Achen,” meaning clergyman, to his name.

His influence as a visionary spread rapidly throughout Travancore within a decade, with massive audiences following the simple lifestyle that his Revival movement had modeled. His songs were laden with scriptural nuggets, delivered in artistic perfection, and set to the highest norms of verse-making and music. There is hardly a denomination in Kerala that has not experienced the inspirational impact of ministry. Regrettably, however, Justus Joseph’s work and impact remain almost unknown to our age. Of his songs a small number may be found in hymnals, but the majority remains untouched.