Veteran nagaswaram vidwan M.P.N. Ponnuswamy talks about his career, ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ and more.

The song ‘Nalandhaana’ was a real challenge while the thillana took about nine takes! - Ponnuswamy

“Madurai’s contribution to music has been phenomenal. Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer, Mani Iyer, Somasundaram (Somu), M.S. Subbulakshmi, Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan, T.M. Soundararajan and my grandfather M.K.M. Ponnuswamy Pillai are some artists who have been torchbearers of the Madurai tradition. I may have left out a name or two but I have to assert that Madurai does not lag behind Thanjavur in its contribution to music,” is how M.P.N. Ponnuswamy begins the interview as he welcomes you into his house in Madurai. His sweet smile bowls you over. The Meenakshi Amman temple with its tall gopurams is a stone’s throw from his house. “We owe it all to Her Grace and Blessings,” says the nagaswaram vidwan.

“My grandfather was the asthana nagaswara vidwan of the Mysore Samasthanam. His sons, my father Natesa Pillai and uncle Shanmugam Pillai played together but were never able to make it big. My elder brother M.P.N. Sethuraman and I started playing at a very early age. For about nine generations, nagaswaram has been the family’s life and breath. Most of our practice sessions were held at the temple of Raja Mathangi (the other name of Meenakshi). I was nine when I gave my maiden performance along with Sethuraman. We played together for almost six decades, till his last breath.”

Ponnuswamy has not hung up his boots after his brother’s demise and continues to play even now. Traditional phrases of Kedaragowla flow out of his nagaswaram as he poses for photographs. Incredible is his power of blowing at 76. When asked about the welded image of Sivaji Ganesan playing nagaswaram on the grill door of his balcony, Ponnuswamy’s eyes turn moist.

Hit in the making

He then narrates… “I still remember how our uncle interrupted our concert at a wedding reception in Karaikudi, to show us a letter from director A.P. Nagarajan informing us of our selection to play nagaswaram for the film ‘Thillana Mohanambal.’ Though our joy knew no bounds, we were nervous as we had no previous film experience. Rehearsals went on for about 15 days at Madras. Tyagaraja’s ‘Nagumomu’ was chosen. Pugazhendi, under the supervision of K.V. Mahadevan, set the sangatis. He was kind enough to take our suggestions too. APN told us to be prepared to play in Sivaji Ganesan’s presence. Kannadasan, Savithri, dance director K.S. Gopalakrishnan, KVM and APN were the only others present at the chamber concert that lasted for about three hours. Sivaji listened to us lying down, with his head on Kannadasan’s lap. Plenty of ‘sabashs’ and ‘balays’ came from him as and when we played sangatis or swara korvais. Only after that did APN confirm that we would be playing in the film. Sivaji insisted on being present during the recording of all the songs. Impressed by our English note, APN wanted to include it, and together with the other songs in the film it became an instant hit. ‘Nalandhaana’ was a real challenge, the thillana took about nine takes!”

The film, a runaway hit, did a lot for the brothers’ careers. At concerts the crowd would sit through waiting to listen to the songs from the film. What’s more, every song had to be played at least three or four times!

But how did they get this chance? “After a prayer, APN drew lots three times with the names of several nagaswara vidwans. Every time, our names got picked. An initially hesitant S.S. Vasan obliged APN with the rights of the story once he learnt that we were going to play for the film.”

Surprisingly, the brothers had never practised together! They came together to play only on the concert platform. Otherwise, they spent their time playing at the Meenakshi Amman temple during the puja kaalam. “In fact, we would try out innovations during the temple sessions. Chinna Thanga Bhattar taught me many kritis. I would memorise them at once, writing down the kriti was never done,” says Ponnuswamy.

The brothers have had their share of concerts abroad. During one of their many tours to Sri Lanka, they were playing at a temple festival. The crowd that thronged the auditorium did not move out and an announcement had to be made on the radio requesting those inside to allow other rasikas to get a glimpse of the duo.

The secret of his health and fitness? Ponnuswamy attributes it to clean habits. Continuing the legacy, Ponnuswamy’s grandsons are learning nagaswaram and violin. He is deeply concerned about the fact that thousands of temples in Tamil Nadu do not have a permanent nagaswara-melam to play during puja kaalams. He wants the State Government to take steps to recruit students graduating out of nagaswaram schools to these temples. He adds that the Government should also make use of the vast and rich experience of veteran vidwans by offering them consultancy work in the Government for the promotion of music throughout the State.

Ponnuswamy borrows Semmangudi’s words as we take leave. “Listen to nagasawaram as much as you can and you will see the change in your approach to music, and tremendous improvement in the overall perspective.”