On a musical journey

RENOWNED: M.P.N. Ponnusamy. Photo: G. Moorthy.  

It was July 26, 1968, and an anxious family sat amidst a roaring audience at Chintamani Talkies watching ‘Thillana Mohanambal'. The nadaswaram brothers M.P.N. Sethuraman and M.P.N. Ponnusamy were literally lifted by the crowd for bringing immortal fame to the Temple City. They became the toast of the town.

“That was enough for us to lead a happy and contented life,” recalls Mr. Ponnusamy.

The medals and mementos filling the room now give us glimpses of the fabulous past and fantastic present of the inmates. “The first gold medal I received for my performance was at the age of 10 at Kallal,” he says in a booming voice.

Born in a family of nadaswaram vidwans, the five-year-old Ponnusamy began his musical journey under the guidance of his father and guru, the renowned M.P. Natesa Pillai.

“I am the seventh generation of progeny taking to nadaswaram – the mangala vathyam (auspicious instrument) of the Tamils. In fact, my great grandfather M.K.M. Ponnusamy worked at Mysore Samasthanam and had written a research book on music. Such is the musical history of my family,” he narrates with pride.

As a child, he performed at the Meenakshi Temple from 4.30 in the morning until the ‘arthajama' puja ended at 8 in the evening. As they grew, the brothers became sought after and their diaries filled with kutcheri dates. “In fact, we exacted to the core to retain the name and fame which our grandfather and great grandfather Muthu Karuppa Pillai had earned,” he says.

“As soon as we get on to the stage, we tend to forget the whole world and literally reside in a dreamy world where only ragas, swaras and musical notes would pervade,” he adds.

But a cinematic twist happened in their lives when they were performing at a wedding reception in Karaikudi. His uncle showed the letter from film director A.P. Nagarajan offering a chance to play nadaswaram in ‘Thillana Mohanambal'.

“We were happy but felt very nervous as we had very little film experience,” Mr. Ponnusamy reminisces . On reaching Chennai, the brothers performed and rehearsed amidst towering film personalities like Sivaji Ganesan, Kannadasan, Padmini, dance director K.S. Gopala Krishnan, K.V. Mahadevan and A.P. Nagarajan. Thyagaraja's ‘Nagumomu' was selected and Pugazhendi set the sangatis.

“Sivaji Ganesan listened to us lying on Kannadasan's lap. After a three-hour performance they showered ‘sabashs' and then director APN confirmed our selection for the film.”

The brothers then got another surprise request from APN. Impressed by their English notes performed at the 42nd birthday celebrations of Sivaji Ganesan, APN promised that he would include them in the film. The impressive ‘Nalandhana' posed a real challenge and the scintillating thillana took about nine takes.

“Our career can be demarcated into before and after ‘Thillana Mohanambal'. Earlier we used to play for about nine hours just for Rs. 200. After the film, our time span came down and the fee increased.”

“Suddenly my diaries overflowed with VIP functions. We have played for whole of former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi's family starting from M.K. Alagiri's wedding to his son's marriage function recently, besides many ministers and renowned film personalities.”

"Those days, invariably, every invitation would have our names," he said with a smile.

Why did they not perform in more films? “We were not impressed by the films which came our way,” he says. In fact, the brothers tried two songs in the Tamil film ‘Kovil Pura.' After that they were not keen on taking up films.

"After the classic ‘Thillana Mohanambal' we did not find interesting scripts. If I get a chance in a good script that involves nadaswaram, I will certainly do it," he says.

At 76, what keeps him going? Mr. Ponnusamy replies, “My love for the instrument."

His determination and love for the instrument survived even the accident that took away his wife and his jaw and the sudden demise of his brother M.P.N. Sethuraman. "I did a plastic surgery to correct my smashed jaw and continued my musical journey," he coolly remarks.

His secret formula is persistence and hard work. “I think of my every kutcheri as my maiden one. I want it to be perfect because expectations from rasikas soar high.”

The applause charges him up for the next concert, and he feels he still learns with every performance. He still practices for an hour or two every day.

Remembering his brother, he says, "Except for the film, we had never had rehearsals for the past six decades. But ours was a good combo. My brother's voice was bold and mine was mild, comparatively.”

One of his sons plays mridangam and a daughter teaches in Music College. One grandson plays nadaswaram as a hobby.

None of his children have taken up nadaswaram as a profession, but Mr. Ponnusamy continues to hope.

"I am sure somebody in the family lineage will come to continue our family tradition."


Kalaimamani from MGR in 1977

Kalanidhi from Dharmapuram Guru Maha Sannidhanam 1982

Rajarathina from M. Karunanidhi in 1993

Sangeetha Soodamani from Krishna Gana sabha in 1997

Madhura Kala Praveena from Sathguru Sangeetha Samajam in 1998

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 1:37:25 PM |

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