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Updated: December 14, 2010 19:42 IST

Pages ago - A trail-blazing nagaswaram genius

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T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai.
T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai.

Among the wind instruments of South India, the nagaswaram has always enjoyed a very good patronage. No auspicious function is complete without nagaswaram music. There is no pleasanter musical experience than to listen to nagaswaram being played in the stillness of the night three or four furlongs away. It forms a part of the ritual at home and in the temple. Probably the first music that a child hears, barring of course a mother's lullaby in a South Indian home, is nagaswaram. There are hundreds and hundreds of nagaswara vidwans. Any village may have a player attached to the local temple, but only a few have come to the top. Among them T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai is one of the most outstanding. He has not earned fame by pandering to popular tastes. On the other hand, he appears to be a puritan among puritans. That was the firm impression he left on me during the course of my conversation with him.

He said that one of the reasons why a nagaswara vidwan did not enjoy the same status as any other musician was the former's inability to resist the temptation to play cheap tunes, merely because they are popular. “In my opinion, if a nagaswara vidwan cannot render big pieces of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar as ‘Sadhinchene', and 'Sri Subrahmanyaya', he is not entitled to respect. ‘Mohudi' (snake-charmer's tune) may be appealing to some but there are occasions when it should be played. I do not like a musician who reduces the standards just to become popular. I have quite often incurred the displeasure of my well-meaning friends by not obliging them with light music.”

In several ways, Rajaratnam has blazed a new trail. He claims he was the first to have introduced the all-wood pipe. In earlier days, the wider end of the pipe was made of metal. He has a special pipe which is longer than the usual types. Rajaratnam said that such a length was necessary if the musical syllables had to be rendered powerfully and correctly. There may not be unanimous approval of a tambura sruti for nagaswaram. But he was the first to introduce the change. He said that he got this idea while playing with the late Veena Dhanammal at Tiruvaduthurai - Rajaratnam's place. Dhanammal was an admirer of his music. At a performance in Soundarya Mahal in 1939, he had a tambura for the first time. Rajaratnam said that to play with tambura sruti was very difficult. There was no harm provided the player could correctly keep the sruti and play. In fact, he said, it would be an excellent combination if nagaswaram was introduced in a veena duet. He was anxious to try this himself and hoped to have a performance in Madras to the accompaniment of two veenas.

T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai was born in 1902 in Tirumarugal near Nannilam. His uncle Tirumarugal Natesan was a famous nagaswara player. In his seventh year, Rajaratnam learnt vocal music from Tirukodikaval Krishna Aiyar (the famous violinist) and Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Aiyar, a leading singer. He said he considered a few years' practice of vocal music necessary before one took to nagaswara. In his tenth year, he gave concerts to the accompaniment of Azhaghanambi Pillai on the mridangam. At that time the Pandara Sannidhi (Mutt) at Tiruvaduthurai had no nagaswara vidwan. So His Holiness suggested that Rajaratnam Pillai might take to nagaswaram—the profession of his ancestors. Rajaratnam obeyed. Sri Markandam Pillai took him under training, and taught him fundamentals. Rajaratnam had a remarkable swara gnana, having been trained by masters like Krishna Aiyar and Vaidyanatha Aiyar. After hardly six months he was able to perform like an accomplished player.Thus began a successful career. People went miles to listen to his playing. For some time Rudrapati Pillai accompanied him on the tavil. The most popular tavil player was, however, Malakkottai Panchapakesan, affectionately called Punchami.

The Rajaratnam-Punchami combination became very famous and for eight years till Punchami's death, the pair were perched on the crest of fame.

Rajaratnam tried his hand in films also. But his effort, “Kalamegham”, though it contained many inspiring songs, failed to click owing to technical deficiencies.

Rajaratnam is the recipient of many titles - Nagaswara Chakravarti, Isai Mannar, Sangita Ratnakara (awarded by His Holiness Sri Sankaracharya).

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