Lalitha Ram's biography of the mridangam maestro to be released on Sunday, 11 December

Ramachandran's customs passage at the Chennai airport in 2003, after spending two years at the Washington State University, was smooth. He had nothing much to declare except two suitcases of recordings of old maestros of Carnatic music. His Masters degree in Material Sciences got him a plumb job in Bangalore while the material in the suitcase elevated him to the role of G.N. Balasubramaniam's (GNB) biographer in 2006. Now, his biography of mridangam maestro Palani Subramania Pillai is due to be released on December 11, besides a documentary on S. Rajam, the musician and painter par excellence.

“While working in the laboratory, my nights were spent listening to great maestros. Growing with my love for music was my interest in the lives of musicians. The two books helped me realise that the personality of a musician is inseparable from his music,” says Ramachandran, whose passion for Carnatic music turned him into a connoisseur during his college days between 1997 and 2001.

“Though I got admission in many colleges in and around Chennai, I preferred Shanmuga Engineering College in Thanjavur so that I could live in Chola Nadu where classical music thrived. Thiruvaiyaru was my favourite haunt.  I used all the free time I had to hone my knowledge of music and musicians,” says Ramachandran, who assumed the name Lalitha Ram, so that he always carries his favourite raga Lalita with him.

Lalitha Ram admits he is one of the many fanatic rasikas of GNB. He has listened to every single piece of the maestro's music and has collected every detail of his life. This knowledge found a calling when he was asked to pen the biography of the legend for Vikatan Pathipagam.

Then his attention was drawn to mridangam vidwan Palani Subramania Pillai (also known as Palani Subbudu), while constantly listening to his accompaniment of another great vocalist Madurai Mani Iyer.

“I was spell bound by Palani producing sangatis for the Bhimplas raga composition ‘Kanda karunai puriyum vadivel'. It needed some kind of super human efforts to bring out the feelings of the song in a percussion instrument. For the line ‘annai parashakti arul sudarvel', he would produce a long dheemkaram which would sound like Omkaram and I have no words to express my feeling,” exclaims Lalitha Ram.

However, the urge to write a biography was born while attending the centenary celebrations of Palani Subbudu. “I was thoroughly disappointed since there were not many people in the auditorium. There I decided to write the book to tell the world the greatness of this artiste, the foremost exponent of the Pudukottai school of mridangam playing, which adopted many nuances of tavil playing.”

Elaborating on the choice of the title for his Tamil book ‘Dhruva Nakshatram', Ram explains: “The name of the mythical Dhruva suits Subbudu perfectly. If Dhruva was ignored by his father, Subbudu, despite showing promise, received little encouragement from his father Palani Muthiah Pillai for he was a left hander and was considered unsuitable for mridangam playing. Like Dhruva, Subbudu also was ill-treated by his stepmother. His marriage was a failure. Despite the odds stacked against him, Palani shone like Dhruva.”

According to Ram, it was his style of mridangam playing, without any traces of imitation of other schools, that set him apart from his contemporaries.

“He was uncompromising. But for Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, he would have plunged into oblivion. Chembai encouraged him and allowed him to play more taniavartanams in a single concert and the music world lapped up Subbudu,” he says, while gratefully acknowledging the help rendered by K.S. Kalidas, Palani Subbudu's disciple.

In writing the biography, Ram has not confined himself just to the life history of Subbudu. He has portrayed him against the backdrop of the Pudukottai school of mridangam playing and its uniqueness while recalling the contributions of other exponents preceding him such as Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Mammontiya Pillai and his contemporary, Ramanathapuram C.S. Murugaboopathy.

 It is a pleasant coincidence that the coveted Sangita Kalanidhi award this year goes to Trichy Sankaran, the prime disciple of Palani and the inheritor of the Pudukottai school.