Madurai Somu: The grandeur lay in his simplicity

Musical dialogue Madurai Somu with Ramanathapuram Ganesa Pillai (violin). Others on stage at Murugan Ashram, Thanjavur, are Thanjavur Nagarajan (mridangam), Mayavaram Somu (ganjira), Pudukottai Mahadeva Iyer (morsing).  

“He was simple and down-to-earth,” says Magitha, granddaughter of Madurai Somasundaram, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. Daughter of Shanmugam, mridangam artiste and son of Somu, she is married to Valayapatti Malarvannan, thavil vidwan and son of legend Valayapatti Subramaniam. “He was travelling most of the time or performing concerts even when in town so much so that his family, including myself, had little quality time with him. But I vividly remember him always clad in white khadi dhoti and jubba. He was so casual that once he came to pick me up in school without wearing a shirt. That surprised everyone,” recalls Magitha, who has heard a lot about her famous grandfather from older family members and senior vidwans. Shanmugam, a disciple of mridangam expert Thanjavur Murugaboopathy, accompanied his father for 15 years. Magitha’s sister Bhavita is an accomplished musician and Arya, son of the couple Magitha-Malarvannan, is a budding musician.

According to Magitha, Madurai Somu’s arangetram happened under unusual circumstances — at Chennai’s Gokhale Hall. His guru, who was supposed to sing, came down with fever, and Somu was asked to perform in his place. This took violin Mayavaram Govindaraja Pillai and mridangam Palani Subramania Pillai by surprise. The audience was in for an aural feast with Somu rendering kritis and elaborate raga alapanas, especially in RTP.

Both giants appreciated young Somu but declared that they would not accompany him in any of his future concerts. And they kept their word, in spite of Chittoor Subramania Pillai having a talk with them regarding the issue.

Somu was 27, when he got married. This milestone prompted his guru to encourage Somu to be an independent performer. Murugaboopathi arranged programmes for Somu in Kerala, Karnataka and all over Tamil Nadu for the next few years. The remuneration was ₹500 (vocal artiste ₹500, violin and mridangam artistes ₹400 each and Upapakkavadyam ₹200). When the organisers called on Somu for fixing kutcheris, he always said that both the Somus (himself and Mayavaram Somu, ganjira) would be there, leaving the violin and mridangam artistes to the choice of the organisers. Somu was mostly accompanied by maestros, including Viswanatha Sharma, Lalgudi Jayaraman, MSG, T.N. Krishnan and M. Chandrasekharan on the violin and Murugaboopathi, T.K. Murthi, Palghat Raghu, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Vellore Ramabhadran and Thanjavur Nagaraj on the mridangam. Mayavaram Somu and Shyam Sundar would play the ganjira.

Until wee hours

Concerts spanning four hours are touted as special these days. But it was routine for Somu. Sample this: The year was 1982. Somu performed 7-10 a.m. at a marriage function in Chennai. On the same day, he performed at the Mayilam Murugan temple’s kumbabishekam and rushed to Thanjavur to perform at the Murugan Ashram. The concert, which started at 10 p.m. went on till 3 a.m.

Generally, he devoted 45 minutes to raga alapana and RTP and about 90 minutes for niraval and swaram. It was his mastery over every department of music, which made his concerts special. He adopted the nagaswara style thanks to the training he had in the early years.

Somu was so prolific that between 1968 and 1980, on an average, he performed 30-40 concerts in a month, which is by no means an easy task. His busy schedule virtually prevented him from visiting his house not to speak of meeting near and dear ones. The family members and disciples would take his children to the Madurai railway station to see him. Later, his grand children were taken to the Chennai railway station to have a glimpse of the great grandfather.

Somu, a trained pugilist, was a gifted composer too. He would compose songs during the course of a concert, sing them and get ovation. ‘Sangitam Elidillai, Cheppadi Vidhai Illai’ (Music is not easy, nor is it magic) went the sahitya of a song he composed in his concert at Srikandeshwaram Temple in Thiruvananthapuram (1966).

Madurai Somasundaram was adored and honoured with several titles. The only regret of this doyen’s family and admirers is that he is one of the few genius musicians, which the Music Academy did not decorate with ‘Sangita Kalanidhi.’

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 8:15:53 PM |

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