For five generations these musicians from Sembonar Koil have preserved a precious legacy playing the nagaswaram.
Guru bhakti and practice are the two most important aspects to be successful.
Sembonar Koil, a hamlet near Mayiladuthurai (Mayavaram), is synonymous with the nagaswaram, having produced five generations of vidwans. A talk with the fourth generation nagaswara vidwans 88-year-old S.R.G.Sambandam and 77-year-old S.R.G.Rajanna revealed the rich heritage the family has nurtured. The duo's paternal grandfather Ramaswamy Pillai was the asthana vidwan of the Mysore Samasthanam and the first nagaswara vidwan to cut a 78-rpm record. Uncle S.R.Dakshinamurthy Pillai had two sons who were also performing as Sembonar Koil Brothers, of which only S.R.D.Vaidyanathan is alive.
Fifth generation musiciansSambandam's sons have taken over the baton from him and are now playing as fifth generation musicians. Rajanna's sons, however, are not pursuing this line of music. Why? Rajanna felt that if his sons took up nagaswaram, it would cause ego problems and rift in the family. But he did not fail to give them a sound knowledge of Carnatic music. Their father and uncle were the first ever siblings duo to perform together. Sambandam and Rajanna did gurukulavasam and learnt music from their maternal grandfather Pandanallur Gurusamy Pillai and later from their maternal uncle Venugopal Pillai who had acquired a rich experience by accompanying the famous Tiruvengadu Subramania Pillai in his concerts. Both of them mentioned with reverence and gratitude the support of Tiruvavaduthurai Adheenam, Dharmapuram Adheenam and Tiruppananthal Math to nagaswaram and its growth. They were happy that the Tamil Nadu Government was running nagaswaram and tavil schools all over the State. The brothers recall fondly the opportunity they got to rub shoulders with greats such as T.N.Rajarathinam Pillai (grandfather had insisted that they listen to TNR, whose music would hone their skills), Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers, Keeranur Brothers, Tiruvidaimaruthur Veerusamy Pillai, Tiruvengadu Subramania Pillai, Karukurichi Arunachalam, MPN Brothers and A.K.C.Natarajan. Tavil vidwans Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Nachiar Koil Raghava Pillai and Valangaiman Shanmugasundaram Pillai accompanied them in concerts. Apart from Valayapatti A.R.Subramanian for whom they have great regard, they have great respect for Haridwaramangalam A.K.Palanivel, Tiruvalaputhur T.A.Kaliamurthy, Tirukkarugavur T.D.Sivagurunathan and Tirupungur Murugan. It was Tiruppananthal Marimuthu Pillai who was the permanent tavil for them for more than two-and-a-half decades.Their grandfather had made an innovation called Rakthi Melam which they consider an invaluable family asset. It is a musical form which is played in Misra gathi in Thatthagaram. No lyrics and no specific raga. People thronged to attend their concerts to listen to Rakthi melam played after the main item.Those were vintage days when they played mallari alongside other nagaswara vidwans signifying the commencement of the procession of the Mayuranathar and Abhayambika, presiding deities of Mayuranathaswamy temple, Mayiladuthurai or when MS sang the Oonjal songs at the wedding in the family of Pakkirisamy Pillai, even as they played the same.They also fondly remember the days of playing Theertha Mallari during Kadai Mugam, which falls in the Tamil month of Aippasi. Max Mueller Bhavan has made a recording of the brothers as early as in 1980. The brothers consider playing in Kerala temples as a great experience in view of the complete silence that prevails there during concerts. They have travelled abroad widely and were the first to present Vadya Vrinda on Singapore radio to the accompaniment of flute, violin, and tabla.Not having completed school is perhaps the only regret they have in life, the impact of which they felt more while travelling abroad. According to them, guru bhakti and practice are the two most important aspects to be successful. They were made to practise from 4.30 to 6.30 a.m. on a daily basis. The practice, which included vocal too, would continue after a two-hour break. They had to practise seated in front of a large mirror. This helped them correct the mistakes in postures and expressions and polishing them.
Postures, expressionsThe nagaswaram had to be held straight and parallel to the ground. At no point of time while playing, should the `anasu' touch the ground. The accent was more on learning the sahityam properly and then playing it on the nagaswaram. They have great admiration for the way Pandanallur T.R.Dakshinamurthy Pillai used to practise for hours together without any semblance of tiredness. Similarly, they used to be awestruck on seeing their father and uncle try some abiprayam and prayogams late night after returning from their concert.The Kalaimamani award in 1980, the T.N.Rajarathinam Pillai Memorial award, Tiruvengadu Subramania Pillai Centenary award and the recent one from Valayapatti Nadhaalaya Trust are noteworthy among the many titles and awards that they have won. Playing as brothers is advantageous and their advice is that siblings should always play as a duo. Good and clean habits and a disciplined life would help one overcome the strains, they say. That nagaswaram runs in their veins becomes evident when they inform that Sambandham's ward Mohandoss, who is now playing with his brother S.R.G.S.Vasanthakumar, has never had any formal training in nagaswaram and that it all came just like that. Thus the legacy continues.