There are two dominant schools of percussion in the world of Carnatic music today – the Thanjavur and Pudukottai traditions. The latter was founded by Manpoondia Pillai in the 19th century and it was his disciple, Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, who was its chief architect.
A powerful personality in his own right, he strode the world of music like a colossus. When this legend passed away in 1936, The Hindu naturally devoted several columns to his life and achievements.
On May 27, The Hindu’ s Pudukottah correspondent reported that Pillai passed away at 7 p.m. the previous day at his residence on Second Street, Pudukottah. He was 61. We also learn that he had been suffering from high blood pressure and that the end was due to heart failure. On May 29, the paper reported that the funeral was conducted the previous day, Pillai being buried “close to the samathi of his father and grandfather. A large crowd numbering about a couple of thousands accompanied the procession, with a bhajana party. As a mark of respect … all the shops in the Bazar Street were closed early in the day.” It was almost as though a monarch had passed on.
S. Satyamurti penned his tribute the same day. They were both from the same town, and Satyamurti wrote that he had known Pillai intimately from childhood. “His bewitching fingers produced magnificent music from the mridangam and ganjira.” The choice of the word ‘music’ rather than ‘rhythm’ was significant, for it was said of Pillai that when he accompanied the Kariakkudi Brothers during their veena performances, his was a third veena and not a percussion instrument.
Satyamurti went on to say that “not only as a musician but as a man he was great. The world of South Indian Music will long remember him with gratitude and admiration.” This was no exaggerated tribute, for Pillai was known as much for his large-heartedness as he was for his musical abilities. Countless young talents had been nurtured by him. Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Palani Subramania Pillai, the Alathur Brothers and M.S. Subbulakshmi, to name but a few, had all advanced in the world of music thanks to his helping hand. More evidence of his generous nature came to light on June 1, when C. Saraswathi Bai’s message was published. “In private life he was saintly,” she wrote. All his earnings “were utilised for the construction and upkeep of a temple dedicated to Sri Dandapaniswami at Pudukottai and other such charities. The only thing he did for himself was the construction of a house towards the close of his life. It is now learnt that he had incurred some debts and left the house encumbered.” Bai appealed to musicians, admirers and friends to come forward and contribute their mite in freeing the estate. She also urged artists to encourage Pillai’s son Swaminathan by engaging him for concerts.
Referring to him as the “undisputed master among the tala accompanists,” E. Krishna Iyer, writing on the same day, traced his early life in brief. Pillai, wrote Iyer, was born in December, 1875, and had “cultivated cart-driving as the hobby of his early life and spent about 3 years as a military man.” Much of that martial trait was to remain with him in appearance and deportment right through life. He was known on occasion to quell restive audiences through word and gesture. Being a staunch Congressman, Krishna Iyer recalled with gratitude the way Pillai participated in the previous year’s Congress Music Festival.
Dakshinamurthy Pillai had apparently been its life and soul, always appearing on stage in khadi and Gandhi cap.
On June 16, The Hindu reported about a condolence meeting held in Madras at the Soundarya Mahal by the Indian Fine Arts Society. Dr. T. Srinivasaraghavachari recalled that Pillai was a fine singer too, and that it was “bliss itself to listen to him sing the Tiruppugal accompanied by himself on the mrindangam.” Much of the Tiruppugazh that the Alathur Brothers were famous for came from Pillai. He had taught the verse ‘Angaikodumalar’ to M.S. Subbulakshmi.
On June 26, Pillai’s son wrote a letter expressing his gratitude for all the kindness he had received. His father had apparently become a sanyasi in his last hours for he was from then on referred to as Chinmayananda Mouna Guruswami. He informed the public that the consecration of the Samadhi would be held on July 9, and requested everyone to participate.
Thus ended a remarkable life. This being the 75th anniversary of his passing, it is appropriate that the Music Academy is honouring Trichy Sankaran, a descendant in that sishya parampara, with the Sangita Kalanidhi.
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