Centenary Tribute Music

The incomparable genius of Madurai Somu

Madurai Somasundaram performing at the Radio Sangeet Sammelan in 1973   | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

It is interesting how Madurai Somu got his name. Paramasivam was the tenth child of Sachidanandam Pillai and Kamalambal, born on February 9, 1919. Sachidanandam, a Bench Court clerk was the son of Srinivasa Pillai, well-known nagaswara vidwan and the family lived in Swamimalai. Sachidanandam got transferred to Madurai, where they lived on Sembu Kinatru Theru. Paramasivam and his elder brothers were attracted towards the martial arts school run by Muthu Vadyar. They learnt silambam, wrestling, etc.

Paramasivam was also drawn by the bhajans sung by Narayana Konar at the temple. He would sit with a sruti box accompanying the singer. His mother wanted him to learn the nagaswaram but Somu was keen on vocal music so much so that he would stand in neck-deep water and do sadakam.

Paramasivam was initiated into music under Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar, a disciple of Kancheepuram Naina Pillai. Then followed Thevara singing training under Madurai Latchumana Chettiar, a disciple of M.M. Dandapani Desikar and from Sesham Bhagavathar, Abhirami Sasthriar and Madurai Thiruppugazh Mani.

In 1934, Paramasivam rendered some devotional songs in front of the presiding deity Lord Muruga at Thiruchendur. With the blessings of Lord Somasundareswara of Madurai and his own mother Paramasivam became Somasundaram... Somu.

The incomparable genius of Madurai Somu

It was in the early 1930s... during the Navarathri celebrations, famous musician Chithoor Subramania Pillai had come to Madurai to perform. Young Somu was mesmerised by the music and wished to learn from him. On the auspicious Vijayadasami day, accompanied by his father and his maternal uncle Nagasundaram Pillai, Somu was initiated into the Gurukulam style of learning music under the tutelage of Chithoor Subramania Pillai. The Gurudakshina was a one-sovereign gold coin.

Starting as a tambura assistant, Somu made progress slowly but steadily. He sang raga alapanas if the guru permitted. Thodi, Kalyani and Khambodi were his favourites. Somu spent 14 long years in gurukulavasam and apart from music and values, he picked up Telugu, which Pillai spoke. This proved useful when he sang Tyagaraja kritis.

Happy with the way his pet student had blossomed, Pillai presented Somu with three pairs of dhoti, kurta and a shawl along with a tambura, blessing him to start performing on his own. A concert at the Kaali Amman koil in Sembian Lane, Madurai, and another one in front of Lord Murugan sannidhi at Thiruchendur were some of his early concerts in 1940.

In 1944, an afternoon slot at Rasika Ranjani Sabha saw the doyen Tiger Varadachariar appreciating Somu’s concert with his stylish “sobhaash” (sabhash) — something that Somu would cherish for ever. In 1946, Somu was conferred the title ‘Ranjitha Gana Mani’ by his guru, Chithoor Subramania Pillai. Probably that was the first title conferred on Madurai Somu.

The incomparable genius of Madurai Somu

In 1947, Madurai Somu married Saroja, a teacher at the Lady Wellingdon school, Madras. She was the grand daughter of Mahavidwan Thirukkarugavur Gurunatha Pillai and daughter of Sakthivel Pillai. The vidwan, who presented a concert at the wedding was none other than Chithoor Subramania Pillai.

Somu’s graph soared as he became one of the most sought-after musicians and titles poured in. In 1958, the head of Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam conferred the title Sangeetha Chakravarthy on Somu. In 1969, Gandharva Gana Mani by the Kanchi Sankaracharya, Isai Perarignar from Madras Tamil Isai Sangam (1971), Padma Sri in 1976, Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar (1978), honour of Arasavai Kalaignar from the Tamil Nadu Government (1979), Sangitha Kala Sikhamani from the Indian Fine Arts Society (1984) and Deiva Gnana Isaik Kadal from Deiva Thamizh Manram (1988). Besides, he held honorary posts in Madras, Madurai and the Thanjavur Tamil Universities in their respective music departments.

In 1958, Somu was engaged by the makers of the Tamil film Sampoorna Ramayanam, to render a few songs under the baton of K.V. Mahadevan. One of the famous songs was ‘Veenai Kodiyudaya Vendhanae...,’ sung in the film by Ravana. T.K. Bhagavati, who played the role could not get the lip movement for the fast swara suit of Somu. C.S. Jayaraman was roped in to sing the song. An offended Somu said to drop all his songs from the film.

Chinnappa Devar’s ‘Deivam’ with Kunnakkudy Vaidyanathan’s music brought Madurai Somu back to Tamil cinema. And live. Kannadasan was the lyricist and Kunnakkudy Vaidyanathan composed it in the raga Darbari Kanada. Though he refused initially, Somu was tempted by the fact that this song was on his beloved Muruga. The song — ‘Marudhamalai Maamaniye Murugaiyya’ — went on to be a superhit and remains a jewel in the crown of Madurai Somu. Again, in 1983, for Devar Films’ ‘Sashti Viratham’ Madurai Somu rendered the song ‘Thunaivan Vazhith thunaivan’ penned by Vaali and composed by Shankar-Ganesh duo. Jointly with Hareram, Somu composed music and sang for an unreleased film, Avalukkagave Naan. The song, ‘Maamava Meenakshi’ penned by Somu himself in Kalyani gets a royal treatment from the singer. An exquisite offering to Goddess Meenakshi, Somu’s delineation of the notes leaves the listener enthralled, elevating the composition to great heights. With this Somu bade goodbye to the tinsel world and returned to the Carnatic music stage.

The incomparable genius of Madurai Somu

Somu had a flair for Hindusthani music and was an ardent fan of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Once, when Somu was performing a concert at Mumbai Shanmukhananda Hall he was thrilled to see the Ustad right in the front row enjoying his music. Somu sang a few pieces in Hindusthani ragas and that in the Ustad’s style, much to his delight. The doyen then presented an expensive shawl to Somu and blessed him.

During a Chennai music season, Somu had performed his concert for Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in a grand manner. After two days, it was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s concert. As the doyen was unwell, he personally requested the sabha secretary Yagnaraman to fix Madurai Somu in his place... for the second time. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer rang up Somu and insisted that he should perform in his place. Somu obliged, with apprehension. But what a concert that was! The audience was spellbound and none of them could ever think that it was the same artiste who performed a couple of days back. It was so fresh and energetic without any repetition of songs. Extremely happy with the rasikas’ response the sabha handed over the remuneration to Somu, who went to Semmangudi’s house and handed over the remuneration. Srinivasa Iyer initially refused but took a small portion of the remuneration and returned the balance. Somu considered this as a blessings from the doyen and safeguarded the amount till his last breath.

In the year 1978, Somu performed a kutcheri in Sri Lanka. The concert started at 10 p.m. and went on till 4.30 a.m. On behalf of the musicians of Sri Lanka, the organisers conferred on him the title, ‘Geethamrutha vaarithi.’

Once Somu was travelling in a Passenger train while returning to Madras after a performance at Thanjavur Punnainallur Mariyamman temple. Rasikas from the adjacent compartments who came to know that their favourite musician Somu was travelling in the same train, started thronging to Somu’s compartment. One of them said, ”I have heard you sing..” Kodi malaigalile kodukkum malai endha malai” 50 times.” Pat came the reply from Somu...”Don’t worry. Listen to it for the 51st time...right now” and he sang the song immediately. Another person said, “Anna I heard your “Aadal Kaaneero... Tiruvilaiyaadal kaaneero” recently... that was simply fabulous.” Somu started that raagamaalikai piece and rendered Mohanam, Kalyani, Khambodi and Sankarabharanam. Then he said “This raagamaalikai has 21 ragas in it. It will take minimum of 45 minutes to complete. Now I have given a sample, the rest in my next kutcheri. Now let us have dinner..!” and put an end to the listeners’ requests with his trademark laughter.

“Idhayam Pesugirathu” Manian was an ardent fan of Madurai Somu’s mesmerising music. In order to sing at Manian’s wedding reception, Somu cancelled a concert. He performed again for his friend, when Baala Jothidam was launched.

The long list of Somu’s ardent fans include M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Cho Ramaswamy, lyricist Vaali. And what did Somu like best? In an interview to a Tamil magazine he says:

“I developed an interest in Todi after listening to the nagaswaram wizard Thiruvavaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai. I became his ardent fan. Sadguru Tyagaraja’s “Enduku daya raadhu” is my favourite kruthi in this raga. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s Kalyani can be compared to the batting of G.R. Visvanath’s while GNB’s Kalyani reminds me of Gavaskar. I like both. “Sive Paahimam” by Tyagaraja Swamigal and my own composition, ‘Ma Madurai Meenakshi’ are my favourite Kalyani pieces. In Manirangu, my Guru Chithoor Subramania Pillai excels. None can come near his pitch, swara passages and delineation in ‘Raa nidhi raadhu...’”

Somu nuggets

Kazhugumalai Kandasamy was a prime disciple of Madurai Somu.

The long list of Somu’s ardent fans includes M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Cho Ramaswamy and lyricist Vaali.

Kunnakkudy Vaidyanathan brought Madurai Somu back to Tamil cinema after an initial disappointment. ‘Marudamalai Mamaniyae...’ became a chartbuster.

Chithoor Subramaniam Pillai used to address Somu as Somaiyya.

After Kancheepuram Naina Pillai and his own guru Chithoor Subramania Pillai, Somu was known for filling up the stage with violin, mridangam, ghatam, ganjira, morsing, konnakkol, tambura and vocal accompaniments...” A Full Bench Kutcheri indeed.

Somu attained the lotus feet of his favourite deity Sri Raja Rajeswari on December 9, 1989.


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Corrections & Clarifications: Paramasivam was born on February 9, 1919 and not in 2019 like previously mentioned. The error is regretted.

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 5:55:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/the-incomparable-genius-of-madurai-somu/article28376662.ece

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