Encore: Brilliant flautist, teacher and composer

Triuppamburam Swaminatha Pillai  

Think Tirupamburam (or Tirupambupuram to give its correct name) and nagaswaram is the first instrument that comes to mind. This is largely due to the fact that at least three generations of a family from that village made their name on that instrument. But what is interesting is the variety of instruments that was actually handled by seven generations of that family, thereby putting that little village on the musical map forever.

The Tirupamburam lineage traces its ancestry to a vocalist – Amritakavi Kuppiah Pillai, who had learnt music from Muthutandavar. His son Aiyan Pillai followed in his father's footsteps but grandson Sesha Pillai became an exponent of the Saranda, a now extinct musical instrument.

Next was Swaminatha Pillai, who, born in 1840, chose to become a nagaswaram artist. His son Natarajasundaram, born in 1869, followed in his father's footsteps and with his brother Sivasubramania Pillai, formed the first nagaswaram duo. Natarajasundaram Pillai is today better remembered for being the first to publish in the Tamil script Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis with notation.

Branching out

Given the array of musical choice, it was perhaps no wonder that Natarajasundaram Pillai's elder son Swaminatha Pillai chose a new line – that of a flautist. It was left to his brothers to continue the nagaswaram tradition.

Swaminatha Pillai was born on September 12, 1899, and was taught the flute from an early age. It is said that among those to first notice and praise his talent on the instrument was the hard-to-please Veena Dhanammal.

So impressed was Karaikkudi Subbarama Iyer (the elder of the Karaikkudi veena brothers) that he arranged a concert of the young lad directly after a concert by the veteran Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, with the same accompanists. While ganjira exponent Puduokottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai readily agreed, violinist Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai and mridangam artist Kumbakonam Azhagianambi Pillai refused to accompany what they felt was a mere stripling. It was left to Vaidyanatha Iyer and Subbarama Iyer to speak to them and overcome their objections. The concert was a success and established Swaminatha Pillai as a flautist of the first rank.

Known for his brilliant fingering, sweet melody and extensive repertoire, Swaminatha Pillai could have remained a performer. He was to shine as a teacher too. Between 1942 and 1947 he was a Professor and later Head of the Music Department, Annamalai University. It was here that among other publications, he brought out an edition of Muthutandavar kritis, with his own tunes and notation.

Making a choice

Interestingly, there was an alternative set of tunes sent in by another musician and the University was in a quandary as to which one to select. It was left to nagaswaram maestro T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai to insist that Swaminatha Pillai's tunes be used. In 1949, he was part of a panel that suggested the formation of the Central College of Carnatic Music (now the Isai Kalluri) in Madras. He was to serve at this college from 1949 to 1961. Several awards came his way.

In 1953 he was awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi by the Music Academy. In 1961 he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award from the Government of India. That year, on February 8, he returned home from the college and breathed his last. He left behind several disciples, some of the well-known names being S.R. Janakiraman, T. Viswanathan and S. Narasimhulu.

The Hindu announced Swaminatha Pillai's death on February 9 with a tribute by Prof. P Sambamoorthy who wrote that Pillai's “performances were noted for the fullness of raga bhava, accurate rhythm and high scholarship.” He also stated that Swaminatha Pillai was “steeped in the repertoire of Dikshitar compositions besides having a stock of complicated pallavis unfamiliar to the general public.”

The offices of the Sangeet Natak Akademi remained closed on February 9 as a mark of respect. On February 11, The Hindu published a brief tribute by C. Saraswathi Bai, the doyenne of Harikatha. This being the 50 th year of Swaminatha Pillai's death, it is worthwhile remembering his greatness as a musician and a teacher.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 12:57:04 PM |

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