Curtailed street name is all that is left

It was not easy to locate the house of Kanchipuram Naina Pillai

Published - May 18, 2017 04:18 pm IST

Street named after Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, now called Sangita Vidwan Naina (SVN)

Street named after Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, now called Sangita Vidwan Naina (SVN)

This column has in the past featured articles in praise of the redoubtable Kanchipuram Naina Pillai — the towering personality, who rendered complicated pallavis and sang with what is known as a full-bench of accompanists, sometimes numbering as many as nine.

He never recorded his music and so that is lost and what we can glean of that style is chiefly from the music of his disciples though it is said none of them really were true representatives of the way he performed. But what of Naina the man? What remains of places associated with him? For that we have to go to Kanchipuram.

T. Sankaran writes that Naina Pillai, though from a family dedicated to the arts, was boisterous in the extreme until he met a wandering mendicant, who was good in music. Lessons under this mysterious guru took place at the Pallava-built Kailasanatha Temple.

Magnificently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, this is a shrine still being worshipped though it does not draw much crowd. The silence here, broken only by the steady intoning of mantras by the aged priest, was perhaps the greatest attraction the place had for Naina Pillai. He probably practised in the numerous sub shrines that dot the outer periphery of the temple.

An interesting aside — the priest here claims that his father and Naina Pillai were the closest of friends. Not that he knows much about the musician.

Naina Pillai’s debut concert was at the Kacchi Anekathankavadam Temple. This is a shrine for Siva, located in the midst of a grove of trees as you come back to Kanchipuram proper from the Kailasanatha Temple. It is a Padal Petra Sthalam for Sundaramurthy Nayanar composed 10 verses on it.

The entrance to the temple is via a low gateway that forces pilgrims to bend. A large open courtyard filled with shade-giving trees surrounds the single corridor sanctum. Like the Kailasanatha shrine, this too is very quiet. It is perhaps for this peace that plenty of students in and around Kanchi flock to this temple. You can see them reading with concentration at various corners of the shrine. There is no music here today, but in Naina Pillai’s time it must have been a perfect setting for a performance — away from the hustle and bustle of the town.

Locating Naina Pillai’s house was not easy. Sankaran wrote that the street on which the house stood was named after Naina Pillai following his death in 1934. What is not known is that there are two Naina Pillai Streets in Kanchipuram and I spent quite a while walking up and down the wrong one asking if anyone knew of the residence of Naina Pillai the musician. It was an old man who could guess at what I wanted and directed me back to the vicinity of the Kailasanatha Temple. I needed to ask for SVN Road he said, those letters now standing for Sangita Vidwan Naina, the Pillai removed after Tamil Nadu abolished caste names when it came to public thoroughfares.

It did not help that SVN Road was broad and pretty long. I almost gave up before it struck me that the Kailasanatha Temple priest might know something about it. So back I went and the old man was most obliging. I had to look for a motorcycle repair shop and that was the house. He was correct. The residence is of the town house variety. I knocked with some trepidation but the lady who answered was kindness personified. Yes, this was Naina Pillai’s residence and for proof there was a photograph of him that hung along with the portraits of several gods and goddesses.

Tyagaraja aradhana

And so this was where all his disciples, beginning from N.S. Krishnaswami Iyengar, Chittoor Subramania Pillai, Brinda and Mukta and several others had come to learn music.

Incidentally, Naina Pillai also conducted a Tyagaraja Aradhana here and among the many who gave money for it was E.V. Ramaswami Naicker aka Periyar, who would later turn atheist and target Rama idols in particular! Such are the twists and turns of history.

There was just one aspect that bothered me. The house seemed smaller, when compared to what appeared in T. Sankaran’s writings. I asked the lady, and she pointed to the wall that ran front to back along one side.

The other part of the house lay beyond that wall and sometime after Naina Pillai’s passing, the place had been partitioned among his descendants. Certainly, there was no music left in either of the houses. Well, there is at least the street name, though abbreviated, that remembers him as a musician.

The author is passionate about Chennai history and Carnatic music and has several books to his credit

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