Thavil vidwan Iluppur Panchapakesa Pillai reached great heights in a short span.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, while listing the names of percussion artists of the past, included Thavil Iluppur Panchapakesa Pillai, “who also played the ganjira.” He added a warning that it was “not proper to refer to him familiarly as Panjami as many do.”

That was the measure of respect in which he held this long forgotten maestro.

On March 27, 1935, the Teppakulam (Trichy Rock Fort) correspondent of The Hindu reported with regret the “death of Mr. Panchapakesam Pillai, otherwise known as ‘Thaval Panchami' a reputed South Indian drummer, and brother of Iluppur Natesan Pillai, a well-known nathaswaram player, at his residence in Rock Fort, Trichinopoly, on Saturday at the age of about 35 due to heart failure. He leaves behind him his wife and children, and a large circle of relations and friends. The late Mr. Pillai had also a good knowledge of Carnatic music.”

While the import of that rather cryptic last line is not entirely clear, what is certain is that The Hindu correspondent was wrong about his age. Pillai was only 30. A news item dated March 30 sets it right. The Saraswathi Gana Sabha of Madurai on March 28 had passed a “resolution expressing their grief at the sudden demise of the Thavil Panchapikesam Pillai of Trichy at the early age of 30.” It is quite clear that even when he lived, the maestro had to put up with several spellings for his name!

Pillai would have been one of the long-forgotten stars of our music were it not for B.M. Sundaram's comprehensive work ‘Mangala Isai Mannargal,' which gives the life-story of the maestro. The rest of this write-up takes its facts from that book.

Tailammal who lived in the Malaikottai area of Tiruchi, was a music tutor. Of her five children, Pillai was the youngest, born on August 4,1905.

An expert at six!

When he was barely six, Pillai was taken to a wedding, where his brother was scheduled to play. A performance by another troupe of senior nagaswaram artists was in progress and the thavil accompanist was having difficulty in understanding the beat to which the pallavi was set. In a trice, the young Pillai came forward and offered to explain.

In the stunned silence that ensued, the thavil was placed before him and he beat out the rhythmic cycle, perfect to the last syllable. It was clear that the thavil was his instrument.

Debut performance

After tutelage of a year-and-a-half under a couple of gurus, Panchapakesam Pillai was ready to conquer the world. He was all of eight! The debut happened at the Malaikottai Manikka Vinayakar temple where Pillai accompanied his elder brother.

From the age of 12 or thereabouts, he became part of Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai's ensemble.

The latter was the asthana vidwan of Mysore and one Navaratri, Pillai's thavil was heard by the Maharaja and he was richly rewarded. It was also during one of his performances while accompanying Ponnuswami Pillai that he noticed a young boy faultlessly keeping time long after everyone else had given up.

After his performance, he caught up with the lad and taught him for a short while. The student was the future mridangam maestro, Palani Subramania Pillai.

At the age of 18, he joined the legendary Tiruvavaduturai Rajarathinam Pillai. But the financial waywardness of the superstar of nagaswaram was not to his liking and he broke away. From then on, he became a freelance thavil artist, accompanying several nagaswaram performers. Suddenly, at the age of 22, Pillai became a vocalist.

He was successful there too and even cut gramophone discs but the world of nagaswaram missed him. At the request of Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, he returned to the thavil.

During his short stint, he set chittaswarams to some Tyagaraja kritis such as ‘Niravadi Sukhada' and ‘Palukavemi Na', notes that are still sung today. Pillai was also well-known for his mastery over the ganjira.

He was one of Naina Pillai's famous full-bench concert accompanists in this capacity. Sundaram also says that Pillai composed songs, leaving behind a corpus of eleven pieces.

In 1932, Panchapakesa Pillai performed for several days in Madras. But the strain was too much and he was diagnosed with heart trouble. He was advised rest for a year at the end of which he resumed his thavil career. But the strain of carrying the heavy instrument and performing were to prove too much.

The end came in the midst of a temple procession in 1935 on March 23. Pillai was rushed back to Tiruchi but to no avail. In his short lifespan, Pillai had achieved so much.

What if he had lived? Today, not even a photograph of the maestro is available.

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