Tiruvidaimarudur, a small town near Kumbakonam, would find a frequent reference in the speeches and conversations of late Carnatic vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

An equally brilliant raconteur, he used to describe the enviable musical atmosphere in this small town, where he spent his days as the student of Gotuvadyam exponent Sakaharama Rao. It was here that he had listened to great musicians, especially nagaswaram artistes, performing for hours together during the festival period at the Mahalingasamy temple.

It is also the home town of nagaswaram player P.S. Veerusamy Pillai, one of the three recipients of the Sangita Kalanidhi award of The Music Academy. Today, a music lover who visits this temple town is faced with a yawning emptiness as there is little that echoes from the glorious past. Music seems to have evaporated from the beautiful streets of Tiruvidaimarudur. Two old men, however, live here keeping a link between the past and present.

Tracing S. Ganesan, who kept talam for Veerusamy Pillai for 22 years posed no challenge. But no one in the town remembered Sakharama Rao, not even the eighty-year-old Ganesan, who has lived there since childhood.

“Music reverberated in these streets during temple festivals. But today, we have none but a couple of nagaswaram players who serve the Mahalingaswamy temple,” said Ganesan, while reminiscing his days with Veerusamy Pillai.

“I came here as a nine-year old boy and travelled across the country and abroad with Veerusamy Pillai. He was one of the artistes in constant demand and we would return home once in two or three months. A jalra (talam) is enough for one generation. But I had broken seven jalras. Then you can imagine how much he was in demand,” said Ganesan, who lost his four fingers when he accidently put his hand into the engines of the rice mill owned by Veerusamy Pillai.

Few nagaswaram players earned the kind of money Veerusamy Pillai did. He also owned a big house in Tiruvidaimarudur. It changed hands following his death and even accommodated the TASMAC-run retail liquor shops for some years.

“I wanted to buy the house but I could not,” said Ganesan, looking at the portrait of the nagaswaram vidwan without its glass frame and mired in cobweb.

A violinist is located

Even as he was recalling the incidents connected with Veerusamy Pillai, Ganesan suddenly mentioned an old violinist living in Mahathana Street.

“He might have some idea about Sakharama Rao,” he said. Inquiries revealed nothing, but a person said an old man living as a tenant in Vadakku Eda Street could be the violinist.

We knocked on the door and there was no response. A slight push of the door gave a glimpse of a sick woman lying on the floor. She could barely lift her head. The owner of the house came to the rescue and brought out a frail old man with a hearing aid.

It demanded enormous lung power to elicit a response from the man.

“Do you know Gotuvadyam Sakharama Rao?”

His eyes brightened up. “He was my uncle. I am his brother, Hari Rao's son and my name is Ramachandra Rao,” he said, with much enthusiasm.

Remembering the greats

Then Ramachandra Rao, without waiting for the next question, went indoors and brought a photograph.

“The man sitting with the violin is my father and the Gotuvadyam artiste is Srinivasa Rao, the son of Sakharama Rao,” explained Ramachandra Rao, a student of violinists Tiruvalankadu Sundaresa Iyer and Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai.

Another photograph, shows him playing with Rajamanickam Pillai.

“I have so many photographs. But I am too weak to maintain them,” he said.

When asked about the moustache of Sakharama Rao, he smiled and said, “As a child I used to pluck it and he would not hold me in his lap for the same reason.”

Yet another photograph was produced. In the frameless picture were Sakharama Rao — with his big moustache and instrument — Madurai Pushpavanam, violinist Tirukodikaval Ramasamy Iyer and mridangam artiste Azhagiyanambia Pillai.

“I used to work as a violinist in the studio run by director K. Subramaniam. Gotuvadyam Narayana Iyengar was also my colleague there,” he said.

“Now I have lost my hearing capacity and strength to hold the violin. My days are spent in taking care of my daughter.”

“You know she used to play the violin very well,” he said and showed a photograph of his daughter accompanying him.

“I have so many memories, but I am not able to recall all of them. I know Veerusamy Pillai learnt a lot by listening to my periyappa. I developed my music by listening to Veerusamy Pillai. Today I have my memories frozen in these photographs,” he said smiling, forgetting for a moment the ordeal he was going through in the last leg of his life.