Valayapatti A.R. Subramaniam, this year's Sangita Kalanidhi designate, shares his passion for playing the thavil and more...
“I can play for several hours non-stop. There have been days when blood would ooze from cracks on my fingers while playing at temple festivals. I would apply boric powder on the bruises and continue to play,” begins Valayapatti A.R. Subramaniam, this year's Sangita Kalanidhi designate of The Music Academy, sitting in his room at Hotel Swagath, Royapettah, which has been his abode for over 40 years during his sojourns to Chennai.
Where did he get the energy for this sort of playing? Valayapatti attributes it to the strict discipline his father Valayapatti Arumuga Mudaliar had enforced during his childhood. “My father never tolerated even a wee bit of imperfection, be it while playing or washing clothes. A small aberration resulted in a lash or two from his tender whip. Dreading this, my brothers and I would be extremely careful in everything we did.” The neatly arranged sketch pens, newspapers stacked date wise, his photographs arranged chronologically on the table… they prove his disciplined upbringing.
“I started playing the talam for my father's concerts when I was seven years old. Those were golden days when nagaswaram concerts in temples would begin around 9 p.m. when the procession of the utsavar of the presiding deity of the temple commenced. It would end only the next morning. Till then, I had to maintain the talam continuously. Fearing a strike from my elder brother Velu's thavil stick, I would somehow manage to keep myself awake.”
Later, Subramaniam learnt nagaswaram and vocal for about two years before moving on to thavil. He reveres Mannargudi Rajagopala Pillai with whom he had his gurukulavasam. ”My guru insisted on layam being part of life. Be it massaging his feet or fanning while he slept, I had to maintain a rhythm.”
His emotional articulation only makes you wonder why he did not take up acting. Mention this and he is silent for a moment and there's a broad grin on his face. Valayapatti has great admiration for almost all the actors of yore such as NSK and M.R. Radha but the one closest to his heart is Sivaji Ganesan.
Admiration for actors
“I have had a close family connection with him and have played at his family weddings. Often he would tell me how much he envied me for, my thavil could be enjoyed universally without any linguistic barriers.” Showing photographs of himself with Sivaji, he continues, “I was inspired by ‘Thillana Mohanambal' to experiment with a new concept, ‘Nadhamum Natiayamum' in which my thavil plays a dominant role for specifically choreographed dances.”
He turns philosophical about awards and titles, treating them with a sense of equanimity. Valayapatti attributes this outlook to the influence of Kanchi Maha Periyaval. “I first played in his presence as a lad in the village of Ilaiyathangudi and again during his hundredth birthday celebrations.” An imposing picture of the sage adorns his hotel room and Valayaptti says for the past 20 years, he has never gone anywhere without this picture.
The works of Ramana, Vivekananda and Ramakrishna are his other choices. “They made me realise life's evanescence,” he says. That he knows by heart most of Kaviarasu Kannadasan's philosophical outpourings too is evident during the chat.
“Carnatic music lifts a person to a higher plane,” he says but is quick to add “too much of a crowd for Carnatic concerts is also bad, for the artist might tend to dilute standards”.
How did his father react to his success? “Impressed by my playing, leading vidwans who passed on words of appreciation to my father were admonished, fearing those will go to my head. And money only played a secondary role to him. To play for worthy nagaswaram vidwans was more important, remuneration was immaterial, he thought.”
Irrespective of the purpose of his travel, Valayapatti has to have his thavil by his side in his car. “If I have earned a name, it is because of the thavil. My heart is in it and I think that sums it up.”
His eyes turn moist and there is a long silence. This calm is broken by strains of a kuttu pattu from a marriage hall nearby. Valayapatti laments about these meaningless songs creeping not only into marriages but also temple festivals.
He feels that both the Government and society at large have a greater responsibility in fostering this art (nagaswaram melam) which might fade away sooner or later.
It is half past midnight, yet the man is full of energy, and goes on and on. As I take leave, I place his fingers on my head as a blessing, for these fingers have seen more than 15,000 concert platforms in a career spanning 61 years.
This has helped Valayapatti A.R. Subramaniam reach the zenith of his career, making him worthy of the Sangita Kalanidhi title.