The name Mayuram V.R. Govindaraja Pillai may not evoke much of a response today from Carnatic music aficionados but in his time he was among the top-ranking violinists, having accompanied stalwarts such as G.N. Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, the Alathoor Brothers and M.S. Subbulakshmi. This year marks his birth centenary for he was born on May 12, 1912.
Govindaraja Pillai was from Vazhuvur, renowned for its contribution to dance. However, not much is known about Govindaraja Pillai’s ancestry. Having lost his parents at a young age, he was placed under the guardianship of his maternal uncle, Veerusami Pillai, who was a nagaswaram exponent in Mayuram. Training in music began under the redoubtable Simizhi Sundaram Iyer, who, having trained under gurus from the Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar lineages, had a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire. Sundaram Iyer passed away in 1927 and Govindaraja Pillai’s training continued under Mayuram Boothalinga Iyer. He taught him music and also made him his son-in-law.
A chance to sing before the violin maestro Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai changed his life. It was decided that he would train on the violin. The Guru was a much sought after accompanist and so the disciple had plenty of opportunities to listen to and interact with the top-ranking vocalists of the era and in time he too became an accompanist much in demand.
There were however, some important differences. Rajamanickam Pillai did not believe in overly rhythmic complexities. This was a time when the Alathoor Brothers were making a name for themselves with their tough pallavis, trained as they were in that area by stalwarts such as Alathoor Venkatesa Iyer and Pudukottai Dakshinamoorthy Pillai. It was not easy to find a violin accompanist who would be a match and here it was that Govindaraja Pillai found his niche. He was also a regular for GNB, the maestro who always made the ragam-tanam-pallavi the piece-de-resistance in his concerts, though he did not make it as complex as the Alathoor Brothers did.
Interestingly, Govindaraja Pillai was as fastidious as GNB in matters of appearance and had the personality to go with it. He also shared GNB’s love for perfumes and it was said that when Pillai, GNB and Palani Subramania Pillai (another perfume-loving sartorial and musical delight), the concerts were sure to be scintillating and ‘scent’illating. Another important aspect in which Pillai differed from his Guru was his decision to accompany women singers. He was to be the stock accompanist of M.S. for several years.
Residence in Mayuram meant close proximity to Madurai Mani Iyer, who shared Pillai’s year of birth. Mani Iyer had shifted to Mayuram’s Dubash Agraharam following the evacuation of Madras during the Second World War. While his music emphasised more on the melody, his talent in ‘weaving garlands of swaras’ as ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy once wrote, was enough to enthuse Pillai to rise to great heights in accompanying him.
Later in life Govindaraja Pillai became a professor at the Music College of the Annamalai University. Though he did occasionally perform solo, Pillai, like his Guru, preferred to make a name for himself as an accompanist. His Guru had once famously observed that the role of the accompanying violinist was like that of a dharmapatni – a wife fulfilling her role. This was to be echoed by Govindaraja Pillai when the Tamil Isai Sangam honoured him with the title of ‘Isai Perarignar’ in 1976.
Reporting on the awards ceremony on December 23, The Hindu made note of Pillai’s philosophy as a violinist and an accompanist – “A student of violin should undergo training in vocal music for at least two years prior to his learning the instrument to enable him attain proficiency. Accompanying instruments should play a subordinate role by playing subdued sound” so that the chief performer is not drowned out. Pillai received the award from the Governor of Tamil Nadu, Mohanlal Sukhadia. Interestingly, The Hindu also gave the names of the young students of music who had won prizes that year at the Sangam’s competition and who received their certificates and awards from Pillai. One of them was Sudha Venkataraman (now Ragunathan) who won the R.K. Shanmukham Chetty prize and also a prize for Divya Prabandham rendition. Another winner was M.A. Sundareswaran, who won the Prof. P. Sambamurthi Prize.
Govindaraja Pillai passed away on February 11, 1979, at his residence in Mayavaram after a prolonged illness according to The Hindu (February 12). It also noted that he had been awarded the Kalaimamani by the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Mandram.
Among the finest recordings of a concert where Pillai is at his best is an Alathoor Brothers concert where the ragam tanam pallavi is in Bhairavi and by Pillai standards – reasonably complex.
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