This year marks the birth centenary of N.P. Raghava Pillai
Natchiyarkoil, a small town near Kumbakonam, is better known as one of the 108 Vaishnava divya desams.
In the world of Carnatic music, its significance rests on the fact that it is the birthplace of thavil maestro N.P. Raghava Pillai (1910-1964).
He was a legend in his times, an outstanding percussionist and a great teacher. There were hardly any temple festivals or high-profile marriages in the state where he had not performed.
Raghava Pillai was the student of the celebrated Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai. Before coming under his tutelage, he trained for a couple of years' under Thiruvalaputhur Pasupathi Pillai.
So extraordinary were his skills in the intricacies of layam, that Meenakshisundaram Pillai, who could foresee a promising career for his student, wanted him to marry his daughter. Raghava Pillai was hesitant, but nagaswaram players Thiruveezhimizhalai brothers and others persuaded him to accept the proposal. The father-in-law and son-in-law combination made waves in the Carnatic music world.
“I heard them play for the Thiruveezhimizhalai brothers in Kumbakonam. It was brilliant. The nadam, tonal variations of light and shade moments and scholarship found full expression in their playing,” recalls mridangam maestro Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, who first listened to them when he was nine.
“He was a colossus. The coordination of both left and right hands was unique,” says Mr. Sivaraman reminiscing Raghava Pillai's performance at the maapillai azhaippu of the marriage of the late Palghat Mani Iyer's daughter in Thanjavur.
Clarinet maestro A.K.C. Natarajan, who had the opportunity to listen to Raghava Pillai when he was part of Thiruvenkadu Subramania Pillai's troupe, said clarity was his forte. The four sollus “tha, thi, thom, num” found excellent expression in his playing.
“Even after scaling the heights as a special thavil player, he never used his mastery to embarrass the second thavil player. In fact he would deliberately confine himself to the level of the second thavil player,” says Mr. Natarajan, adding that he was probably the last thavil player who made it a policy not to accompany any other instruments other than nagaswaram.
Music mastery apart, those who knew him say his greatness lay in his humaneness.
“He would never hurt anyone. I never saw him raising his voice, even in exceptional circumstances. I was not even 10 when I was learning under him. He would call me vaaya, pooya and not vaada, poda,” recalls Thanjavur Govindarajan, his disciple.
According to Mr. Govindarajan his teacher possessed all the qualities expected of a thavil player when it comes to physical appearance and musical qualities.
“You should have seen him standing with the thavil on his shoulders. Sporting a tuft and ear studs, he had the majestic look of a well-decorated temple elephant. His kala pramanam is something unique,” he recalls.
The late Valangaiman Shanmugasundaram and Perumpallam Venkatesan, a standing accompanist for Karukurichi P. Arunachalam for 12 years, were his other disciples.
Though he accompanied all the outstanding nagaswaram players of his times, he made a perfect collaborator for Arunachalam and Vedaranyam Vedamurthy. All India Radio (AIR) recordings bear testimony to this. The second thavil would be normally Venkatesan or Needamangalam Shanmugavadivel, whose premature death took a heavy toll on his health.
Mr. Vasudevan says his father shared a special bond with Karukurichi Arunachalam.
“In 1964, one Saturday he [Karukurichiyar] visited us after praying at Thirunallar. Before leaving, he told my father there was no need for him to accompany him in the next two concerts, as he would manage with others.
On Tuesday, we received the message about Karukurichiar's death. We did not inform my father who was not well at that time. He died that Thursday.”