The greatness of the music of Carnatic vocalist T.M. Thiagarajan, whose birth centenary falls on May 28, was predicted even when he was a boy by theatre personality Avvai T.K. Shanmugam. He had just joined as a child artiste in Shanmugananda Sabha while it was camping in Thanjavur, and Shanmugam has recalled his talents in his memoir Yenathu Nataka Vaazhkai.
“I was attracted by his voice and knowledge in music. In the play Abimanyu Sundari, he was given the role of Sundari. Teaching songs to him gave me immense pleasure. He rendered the songs with sangathis never used by anyone in the past,” writes Shanmugam.
He also predicted that he would not stay long in theatre. “In Valli Thirumanam, he was cast in the role of Valli. When he sang the virutham ‘Yentha maanida vedar Neerkaan’ in Sankarabharanam, I would also be there as hunter. I would lose myself in his music. I thought he would one day leave theatre and become an outstanding singer. My hunch did not go wrong,” Shanmugam further writes.
Thanjavur Mahalingam Pillai Thiagarajan, known as TMT in the music world, was born into a family of traditional musicians. His father Mahalingam Pillai was a mridangam player, and his younger brother Thampusamy too, showed enormous talent as a percussionist, but he died young.
TMT grew up at a time when the streets of Thanjavur were filled with music and the milieu is captured by T. Janakiraman in his masterpiece Mohamul. “Is there any other place than Thanjavur where one could listen to pure music for free? The utsav organised by Vasu at Hanuman temple in Venkatesaperumal Street, the utsav at Sivagangai Hanuman temple, the Kanda Sashti festival, organised by textile shop Sambu Iyer at Mela Veedhi Viswanathar temple, the Ramalingar puja organised by Rajamanickam Chettiyar, the aradhana for the idols worshipped by Tyagaraja at Vagappaiyer Street and the festival at Kali temple in South Main Street, to cite a few. There is no dearth of music throughout the year,” writes Jankiraman.
TMT’s residence itself remained a miniature Thanjavur, and he had explained it while reminiscing about G.N. Balasubramanian’s (GNB) first concert at Thanjavur, where it was not easy for a musician to pass muster. Besides TMT’s father, there was Thanjavur Vaidhyanatha Iyer (Palghat Mani Iyer’s guru), Melattur Sami Iyer, Gottuvadhyam Duraiappa Bhagavatar, Kittu Iyer, Srinvasa Iyengar and Mannargudi Rajagopala Pillai who all would be present in those concerts.
“There were ten of us who would sing at my residence every day. Mridangam support would be offered either by Palghat Mani Iyer or Thanjavur Vaidhyanatha Iyer. Someone else would play the kanjira. Whoever visits Thanjavur would come to our house and perform,” he recalled.
Probably TMT’s is the best ever tribute to GNB’s music, overflowing as it does with his unreserved admiration. “We did not touch tambura for six months after listening to him. When Vaidhyanadha Iyer asked why we were not singing, I told him that there was no point because who was going to listen to us after listening to GNB,” TMT wondered in response.
A student of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, he worked with the maestero in Thiruvananthapuram while he was setting to music the keerthanas of Swathi Thirunal. Later, he taught the keerthanas to almost all the musicians including GNB. He also learnt keerthanas from GNB, particularly ‘Sarasamukhi’ and ‘Jaya Devi’ in Gowda Malhar.
A Sangita Kalanidhi , TMT’s open-minded approach to other schools of music made him the ‘musicians’ musician’, and few musicians could match his repertoire though he was not a very popular artiste. Singers made a beeline to learn from TMT. He was also the first principal of the Government Music College, Madurai.
“When we were in Thiruvaiyaru, he told us that he would sing the keerthanas that are chosen not by other singers. It testified to his repertoire,” once said mridangam exponent Karaikudi R. Mani .
TMT was not only a performing artiste but also had an in-depth knowledge of musical tradition and theory.
Vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyan, whose grandaunt and parents were admirers of TMT, vividly recalled the outstanding Thodi alapana rendered by the maestro at the Music Academy in 1976. Sanjay, who would go from sabha to sabha to listen to TMT, said he always looked forward to his concerts because he would sing something new.
“ there will be a different sangathi, or swaram. When he sang there was something unique about it. l,” he added. Anyone who has had an opportunity to listen to TMT would vouch for it. There is a concert of his performing with another vocalist Tiruvarur V. Namasivayam, with Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin and Ramanathapuram C.S. Murugaboopathy on the mridangam. A brief alapana of Chakarvaham and an elaborate RTP in Kiravani speak volumes about TMT’s music. He has also paired with Thanjavur Sankara Iyer.
TMT set to music Thevarams and pasurams . ‘Vaananai mathisoodiya mainthanai’ in Kiravani and ‘Karpooram narumo’ in Khamas remain favourites of singers even today. His book Isai Malarkothu contains 26 rare keerthanas with notations. “Once I asked him to teach me some big keerthanas. He wondered what I meant by big keerthanas. I told him I want to learn songs such as ‘Naa jeevathara’, ‘Tarini Telusukondi’ and ‘Koniyadi’. He immediately wrote notations for the songs and started teaching me,” said nagaswaram player Injikudi M. Subramanian, who learnt from TMT at the Annamalai University. “It was he who taught me ‘Vella mudiyatho’ in Saranga,” TMT had told Injikudi that he had made it a point to learn as many songs as possible in as many languages because he wanted to live up to the reputation that TMT knew everything in music.
“As a guru , he adopted teaching methods to suit his students. To me, it is the greatest qualification of a teacher,” said the famous nagaswaram artiste. A music lover, after listening to TMT’s concerts and his speech on GNB, will be impelled to take a trip to Thanjavur and visit the streets that once resonated with music. Though Thanjavur has ceased to be what it was TMT’s contribution to Carnatic music will remain an eternal inspiration.