Late Dakshinamurthy Pillai remains a peerless giant in the world of percussion

It was during his few years in Thanjavur that thavil maestro Yazhpanam Dakshinamurthy Pillai saw his career peak. It was also in Thanjavur that he got rather disillusioned with the music field.

Nearly four decades after his passing away, Dakshinamurthy Pillai remains a peerless giant in the world of percussion. “He was a rare phenomenon. He came, he conquered and he perished,” said Yazhpanam Ganesan, summing up his cousin Dakshinamurthy Pillai’s life.

“Just as he conceived complex rhythmic permutations and combinations, his fingers would effortlessly execute them with utmost clarity,” said Mr. Ganesan, himself a Nagaswaram artist. But until date, the family of Dakshinamurthy Pillai has not been able to retrieve a single recording of his performance in Tamil Nadu.

“We don’t have any video recording, either,” said Yazhpanam Udayasankar, carrying on his father’s legacy. He is the only one among Dakshinamurthy Pillai’s five children to stay back in Jaffna, as a thavil artise. “My brother who lives in Canada also plays the thavil.”

A self-taught genius

Dakshinamurthy Pillai — a largely self-taught genius — went to Thanjavur on the insistence of Needamangalam Shanmugavadivel, a thavil wizard in his own right. “Appa [father] made very good friends there like musicologist B.M. Sundaram, AKP annan (thavil exponent Haridwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel) and Kaliyamurthy annan. They were all passionate musicians, constantly exchanging ideas,” said Mr. Udayasankar.

Dakshinamurthy Pillai had the highest regard for Nagaswaram giant T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai’s music. “He has played for stalwarts like Karukurichi Arunachalam on many occasions,” said Jaffna-based violinist Uthirapathi Radhakrishnan, a nephew of Dakhinamuthy Pillai. He would bring artists from Tamil Nadu to Jaffna for performances as well.

Despite such strong links and artistically rewarding exchanges, the pressures of being a performing artist began daunting him, notes Mr. Udayasankar. “He had no personal rivalry with any artist. They all supported him, but somehow, things did not work out for him.” After some failed attempts at treating his depression Dakshinamurthy returned to Jaffna. He died when he was barely 42. “It is a tragedy that such a genius went unrecognised — both in India and in Sri Lanka,” said Mr. Radhakrishnan.

All that the family has in his memory are a few black and white photographs, one family photograph that looks recently colour-processed. “I was only seven when my father passed away,” said Mr. Udayasankar.

Documentary

In an era when photographs were rare and audio or video recordings even rarer, much of Dakshinamurthy’s contribution on either side of the Palk Strait was undocumented. Only recently, film maker Amshan Kumar started working on a documentary about the maestro. While one part has been shot in Tamil Nadu, the crew will travel to Jaffna early next year for the remaining portion.

The family has another source of hope. Actor Sivaji Ganesan was a big fan of Dakshinamurthy’s performance.

“At his request, my father played at his daughter’s wedding. If only I could contact his family, I will ask them if they have a video recording of that concert. Watching my father play will be a dream come true,” Mr. Udayasankar said.