Music

Nagaswaram giants of Tiruveezhimizhalai

The duo, Subramania Pillai and Natarajasundaram Pillai, were known for marathon performances of lyrical beauty

Subramania Pillai and Natarajasundaram Pillai.

Subramania Pillai and Natarajasundaram Pillai.  

The nagaswaram vidwans missed their train, and by the time they arrived at the Kattuputtur Zamin, they were half an hour late for their kutcheri at the wedding in the Zamindar’s family. The Zamindar asked them to leave. They suggested that they would play for half an hour, and he reluctantly agreed. But when the half hour was up, the Zamindar signalled to them to continue, and for the next three hours, they gave a scintillating performance. The Zamindar was late for lunch! He urged them to stay on and play the next day too! He even did a kanakabhishekam for them! The vidwans were the Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers — Subramania Pillai and Natarajasundaram Pillai. Recalling the incident, 85-year old Pandian, last son of Subramania Pillai, who still resides in Thiruveezhimizhalai, says, “There was a time when weddings in the 18 Vathima agraharams would be fixed only after checking when the Thiruveezhimizhalai brothers were free.”

The Thirveezhimizhalai duo were famous for their rendering of kritis. They had a huge repertoire of Tyagaraja kritis, for which they had to thank their younger brother Kalyanasundaram Pillai, who was a student of Naina Pillai. He and Chittoor Subramania Pillai learnt from Naina Pillai at the same time. During visits home, Kalyanasundram Pillai used to teach his brothers the kritis he had learnt. The duo’s rendering of the kritis was faithful to the nuances of the sahitya, not easy in any instrument.

Subramania Pillai and Natarajasundaram Pillai with Koranadu Govindaraja Pillai on the thavil

Subramania Pillai and Natarajasundaram Pillai with Koranadu Govindaraja Pillai on the thavil  

Their father Swaminatha Pillai, a nagaswaram vidwan himself, could also play the flute. He was the brothers’ first guru. In the early years, Subramania Pillai was a flautist and Nataraja Sundaram Pillai was a vocalist. “Subramania Pillai married my father’s sister Sethu Ammal,” says Sembanarkoil Rajanna, grandson of Sembanarkoil Ramaswamy Pillai. “ My grandfather suggested that Subramania Pillia take up nagaswaram, and this was how the Thiruveezhimizhalai nagaswaram duo entered the arena.”

Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, a good friend of Swaminatha Pillai, taught the brothers many kritis. Their first concert was in 1925. “Their father ensured that his sons were proficient in Sanskrit and Telugu, so that they could understand the sahitya. Subramania Pillai would insist that before taking up the instrument, a nagaswara vidwan must learn to vocalise the syllables. Otherwise, it would sound as if they were just rendering a string of swaras, and not a kriti,” says Rajanna.

Mridangam player Pandanallur K. Parthasaarathy, Rajanna’s grandson explains: “A certain flow has to be maintained by the players, so that the sahitya does not get mutilated. For this, the permutations and combinations of akaram and tutukaram must be proper. Tutukaram is the control of the sound using the tongue. Hukaram is produced by the throat. For tannakaram, which is essential for tanam playing, both throat and tongue are used.”

Kunchithapatham Pillai, son of Nataraja Sundaram Pillai, preserved some hand-written notes of the Thiruveezhimazhalai Brothers, and from one of them we gather that the brothers learnt how to vocalise syllables from their father. Their training under Umayalpuram Doraiswami Iyer, Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer, and Kumbakonam Janakiammal also helped. Subramania Pillai’s copper plate writing records that nagaswaram players competed in demonstrating their skills. In temple festivals, if one nagaswaram player played a raga or a pallavi, the next would also continue the same raga and Pallavi. If there was a slip, seniors would point out the mistakes. This helped players correct their mistakes.

Parthasaarathy recalls an incident he has heard from many people in Mayavaram. At least five melams would be engaged during the festival of Mayuranatha Swami temple. The utsavar would be taken to the banks of the Cauvery, with each melam playing for one stretch of the procession. One year, the Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers had to play during the procession from Pathamangalam Theru to Madavilagam, a particularly long stretch. For some reason, the procession took longer than usual, and the Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers ended up playing for four hours. They played an alapana of Sankarabharanam, and then played ‘Swararagasudha.’ And their Sankarabharanam alapanai became the talk of the town. “Vandadu varaamal vaasithaargal” — they played without repeating a single phrase —was the unanimous praise of all the stalwarts who heard them.

Sembanarkoil Rajanna recalls: “The Sembanarkoil school excelled in rakti melam and pallavis. My father played at a fast pace. The Thiruveezhimihalai Brothers played in a slow tempo. T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai was famous for his outstanding raga renditions. Once, there was a wedding in a zamindar’s family, and M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar and TNR were both to give concerts. Noticing that Bhagavatar had not been offered a seat by the zamindar, TNR just pulled up two chairs and said, “Why do we have to stand before the zamindar? If he is king of his zamin, you are king of the cinema and I am king of the nagaswaram.’”

Rajanna continues to reminisce: “Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers signed a contract with tavil vidwan Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai. One of the terms was that Meenakshisundaram Pillai was not to play for anyone else during the period of the contract. The women in our family said, ‘Why did our family not think of this? Now they are going to have a monopoly over that brilliant tavil vidwan.’ The Tyagaraja kriti ‘Chetulara Sringaramu’ was a staple in their concerts. And when Meenakshisundaram Pillai parted ways with them, they stopped playing ‘Chetulara’ and Tyagarajaswami’s ‘Koniyadina.’ Other tavil vidwans who accompanied them were Koorainadu Govindaraja Pillai, Nachiar Koil Raghava Pillai, Needamangalam Shanmugavadivel (son of Meenakshisundaram Pillai) and Thiruchengattakudi Uttirapati.”

Nagaswaram giants of Tiruveezhimizhalai

In 1956, Subramania Pillai was the first nagaswara vidwan to be awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi. At the Music Academy, he won the admiration of the audience by playing a chauka pallavi set in 64 kalais, in eight different speeds. He was awarded Padma Sri in 1974. Both brothers received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and were Isai Perarignars.

“The Thiruveezhimizhalai brothers never played solo. However, on one occasion, when the Dharmapuram Pontiff sent for them, it so happened that Subramania Pillai was in Madras. So Natarajasundaram Pillai asked me to play with him. I was so overwhelmed by his ‘Birana varalichi’ in Kalyani, that I wasn’t sure I could match him. That was the only time he played without his elder brother,” says Rajanna. “The brothers could play a pallavi in a complicated tala, consisting of 108 aksharas,” he marvels.

Rajanna says that the Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers disapproved of using the sruti box for setting the sruti for nagaswaram. They used only the othu, which is also a reed instrument like the nagaswaram. Resonance of othu matches the adhara sruti of nagaswaram perfectly. Those who heard the Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers play could never tell that two nagswarams were being played, because their music blended so beautifully, and the drone of a sruti box would have been incongruous. “When age caught up with the Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers, they decided to stop playing, and they gifted their nagaswarams to a museum in Delhi,” says Jayaprakash, grandson of Natarajasundaram Pillai.

Govindaraja Pillai and Dakshinamurthy Pillai, the first two sons of Subramania Pillai, also played together and people used to call them the Junior Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers. Dakshinamurthy Pillai was awarded Padma Sri in 2007.

The family manages a Mariamman temple in Thiruveezhimizhalai, and this is their family deity. Kalyanasundaram Pillai, the youngest brother of Subramania Pillai, composed a potri agaval in praise of Mariamman, which has been inscribed on the walls of the temple. “Kalyanasundaram Pillai also had to his credit many compositions for dance,” says Rajanna.

When Musiri Subramania Iyer wanted to introduce nagaswaram lessons in the Madras Music College, he roped in Natarajasundaram Pillai on the syllabus committee for both nagaswaram and tavil, and entrusted to him the task of making nagaswaram and tavils for the students. T. Sankaran, grandson of Veena Dhanammal, was a close friend of Natarajasundaram Pillai, and in 1977, Natarajasundaram Pillai and Sankaran organised a nagaswaram programme on ragam, tanam, pallavi. Nagaswara vidwans Thirucherai Krishnamurthy Pillai and Dharmapuram Govindaraja Pillai were invited to perform. Each had to play an alapanai of Husseini, and then play the pallavi ‘Netrandi nerathile neeradum karai thanile’ in misram. Natarajasundaram Pillai’s idea was to bring out the style of different nagaswaram schools.

Thiruveezhimizhalai Brothers were great devotees of the composer Tyagaraja, and were members of the Tyagabrahma Mahotsava sabha, Tiruvaiyaru. “My grandfather Nataraja Sundaram Pillai was reciting Rama nama even in the last moments of his life,” remembers Jayaprakash.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:37:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/nagaswaram-giants-of-tiruveezhimizhalai/article31107092.ece

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