From vocal to mridangam to konnakol was a long journey that Pakkiria Pillai pursued.

Chances are that today’s generation would rarely get to witness a Carnatic performance where the konnakkol, the oral percussive art is demonstrated. Perhaps Tiruchi Thayumanavan is one of its few surviving exponents. Among the few names that stand out in history in the field of konnakkol, that of Pakkiria Pillai is perhaps the best known.

On November 3, 1937, The Hindu’s correspondent wrote to “announce the death of Sangitha Vidwan Konnakol Pakkiriya Pillai this morning at Mannargudi where he had been staying for sometime past.” An accompanying paragraph said: “…an able exponent of the art, the deceased had kept many an audience in Madras and elsewhere spell-bound by his performances. Before he took to konnakol, Pakkiri formed a member of the Nadaswaram party of the famous Nadaswaram vidwan, the late Chinna Pakkiri of Mannargudi, when Nadaswaram was not assigned the place of honour in Sabhas and congresses give to it today. Konnakol Pakkiri accompanied his namesake on ‘thavul’ and many still remember the harmonious combination the two Pakkiris made.”

Thereby hangs an interesting tale which is given in full detail in B.M. Sundaram’s Mangala Isai Mannargal, a seminal work on the lives of several nagaswaram and tavil exponents. Pakkiria Pillai according to Sundaram was born in 1866 to Chokkalinga Nattuvanar, a hereditary tutor of dance and his wife Parvati Ammal at Mannargudi. It was believed by the devout parents that he was born due to the blessings of Nagoor Andavar, whose dargah in Nagapattinam is famous and hence he was given the name Pakkiri. He was trained in nattuvangam by his father but he somehow never felt at home in it.

At the age of 18 he decided to learn tavil and trained under Swarna Tavilkarar and within a year had become so proficient that he became an integral part of the troupe of Mannargudi Chinna Pakkiri Pillai. It was a unique ensemble where the nagaswaram artiste, his tavil accompanist and the assistant, all had the same name that of Pakkiri. Interestingly, even the nagaswaram artiste’s wife was Pakkiri Ammal!

Sadly differences cropped up between the two Pakkiris, and they parted ways. Worse still, a challenge fought and lost against another tavil artist, Vazhuvur Muthuveer Pillai, resulted in the hero of our story giving up the tavil altogether. On the advice of Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai he decided to learn mridangam and sought the tutelage of the ghatam artiste Palani Krishna Iyer. The new guru however, was so impressed with Pillai’s voice that he began teaching him vocal music. At this Pillai became so dejected that he even contemplated suicide. Govindasami Pillai once again intervened and took him to the noted patron of Madras, Jalatarangam Ramaniah Chetty who in turn introduced him to Kanchipuram Naina Pillai.

A close partnership developed between Naina Pillai and Pakkiria Pillai who became a konnakol accompanist in Naina Pillai’s full bench ensemble in 1910. This happy relationship was to last till Naina Pillai’s passing in 1934. S. Rajam, who remembers attending concerts where the two titans performed, recollects that Pakkiria Pillai was also referred to as ‘Pallu’ Pakkiri as he had protruding front teeth. This caused members of the audience to be liberally splashed with spittle when he recited the solfa syllables but nobody minded as they were all enraptured by the way he accompanied Naina. It was said that even giants such as Govindasami Pillai and Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai who were acutely conscious of their own seniority gave way to him.

Pakkiria Pillai was greatly devoted to the rhythmic intricacies of the Tiruppugazh and set several of the verses to music, with complete fidelity to the chanda talas. He taught these to several musicians who came to him to unravel the mysteries of laya. In his last years, he built a mutt dedicated to Arunagirinathar at Mannargudi and conducted its consecration himself.

The last years of Pakkiria Pillai were difficult. Naina Pillai fell ill in 1931 and concert engagements dwindled. R. Rangaramanuja Iyengar wrote of Pakkiria Pillai that he was a living embodiment of the statement attributed Jesus Christ “You can serve God or Mammon.” He refused concert engagements where he felt either his personal dignity or that of music would be compromised. If anyone came forward to help him with money, he would sternly rebuff the offer. His true wealth was his iron grip over rhythm which led to Govindasami Pillai calling him Layabrahmam and other artistes as Layasurangam. From nattuvangam to tavil to vocal music to konnakol was a long journey and it was in the last that Pakkiria Pillai attained immortality. It is sad that the art that he made famous was to soon practically vanish from the concert arena.

(The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com)