TRIBUTE The thavil sounded uniquely musical in the hands of Raghava Pillai.
T he centenary of thavil wizard Nachiarkovil N.P. Raghava Pillai (1910-2010) is being celebrated on a grand scale on Sunday, November 14, at SET Mahal in Kumbakonam (on Kamarajar Salai near the bus stand). Born in Nachiarkovil to Nattuvanar Packiriapillai and Kannambal, Raghava Pillai showed unusual laya sense even when he was young.
The father wanted him to learn the mridangam but the son was inclined to the thavil. After initial training under Thiruvalaputhur Pasupathiapillai, Raghava Pillai came under the tutelage of N.T. Meenakshisundaram Pillai. The latter was astounded by the korvai that the boy played and exclaimed: “This is something I heard veterans play when I was a child!”
It was gurukulavasam for 11 years at the end of which a thavil vidwan of excellent calibre emerged. So impressed was the guru with his disciple's talent and demeanour that he offered his daughter Jayalakshmi in marriage to her. Pillai obliged after much persuasion. Marrying the Guru's daughter was against ethics, he argued.
It was not long before Raghava Pillai was accompanying leading nagaswaram vidwans including Sembanarkoil brothers, Tiruveezhimizhalai brothers, Tiruvavaduturai Rajaratinam Pillai and so on. Much sought after, he stole the show but the main vidwans had no complaints. Madurai MPN Sethuraman recalls the impact Pillai's thavil made after a session of 50 thavils. “The resonance is still ringing in my ears,” the vidwan says.
Feted at the global level, he found a special place in the hearts of the rasikas in Srilanka, who honoured him with several titles. The audience clamoured for thani whenever he was in the party. And these sessions would go on for hours with Pillai's thavil spinning musical magic.
Simple and humble, he delighted in encouraging budding thavil players. The long list of disciples includes Valangaiman Shanmugasundaram Pillai, Yazhpanam Dakshinamurthi, Perumpallam Venkatesan Pillai and Tiruvizhandur Venugopala Pillai.
A patriot to the core, it was khadar he always wore. His thavil moved celebrities in all fields such as cinema and politics. His presence was mandatory in the nagaswaram troupe that performed in their houses at functions. When he passed away in 1964, condolence messages poured in from all quarters.