The Renaissance Man of Thanjavur

Whether in traditional medicine, education, music, agriculture or photography, M. Abraham Pandithar’s achievements defy easy definition

January 08, 2017 03:08 pm | Updated January 09, 2017 08:56 pm IST

MULTI-TALENTED  M. Abraham Pandithar (1859-1919).  Photo: Special Arrangement

MULTI-TALENTED M. Abraham Pandithar (1859-1919). Photo: Special Arrangement

It is quite appropriate that visitors are greeted with birdsong in this verdant compound on Abraham Pandithar Road in Thanjavur. For the man who gave the road its name, and Carnatic music its most in-depth analysis, was once a resident of this 2-acre property called Abraham Pandithar Illam.

We meet T.A.G Duraipandian and his wife Mallika, both great-grandchildren of the patriarch, at their home in the compound, converted from what was an imposing library in its glory days. “It is said that Abraham Pandithar built this library in 1894 to keep his books safe,” says Mrs. Mallika. “His own home, which is next door, was smaller, and like the houses of those days, had only a clay tiled roof and floors coated with red oxide.”

Indian history hides in its forgotten corners, the stories of multi-talented Indians who made an early start into a life of pioneering innovation. M. Abraham Pandithar (1859-1919) was a Renaissance Man whose achievements, whether in traditional medicine, education, music, agriculture or photography, simply defy easy definition.

Science of the raga

In a corner of the Duraipandians’ living room, stands an antique Polyphon, a music box from the 19th century with an upright disc machine that obliges listeners with a tune when its hand-wound clockwork motor is turned. On the tepoy is the first volume of Karunamirdha Sagaram , a 1,346-page book by Abraham Pandithar that remains a seminal work in the field till today.

Pandithar had formally learned Carnatic music from Dindigul Sadayandi Bhattar.

“Originally, Carnatic music used to be taught by a guru to students purely as an oral tradition. So only a guru could teach the full nuances of a raga. But Abraham Pandithar decided to study this in greater depth, to find out the possible ‘formulae’ that defined a raga,” says Mrs. Mallika, who, like most members of the Pandithar family, has received training in classical music.

Pandithar’s research led him to identify the ‘jeeva swara’ (the actual soul of the raga), that eventually led to a codification of Carnatic music. So enthused was he by the subject, that Pandithar invited music experts from all over the country to attend conferences on the subject in Thanjavur, at his own expense. “Seven Carnatic music conferences were held at a specially constructed building (Lawley Hall), from 1912 to 1916,” says Mrs. Mallika.

The proceedings of the meetings were collated in Karunamirdha Sagaram , which remains a masterpiece to this day. Unable to constantly send page proofs to Bombay and back, Pandithar set up a printing press at Lawley Hall. “He sent his sons abroad, and purchased printing machines from Germany and Tamil fonts from Tarangabadi (Tranquebar). This book is completely manually composed by the people in Thanjavur. I think the printing itself, is a great achievement,” says Mrs. Mallika.

Abraham Pandithar also published Karunamirdha Sagara Thirattu - a collection of Tamil practice songs (musicians of that period trained using Telugu songs). Besides this, he composed several kritis in praise of Jesus Christ.

But much before the music came medicine.

Early years

Born on August 2, 1859 to Muthusami Nadar and Annammal at Sambavar Vadakarai near Surandai in Tirunelveli district, Abraham Pandithar was a bright student – before the age of 12, when he passed his primary examination at C.M.S Mission School at Bungalow Surandai. The young Abraham was employed there as a monitor, school assistant and finally, as a schoolmaster.

While studying at the C.V.E.S Normal School (as teacher training institutes were known then) in Dindigul, he cleared the Special Upper Primary exams, and became a successful educator in the Model School. An avid collector of manuscripts on native Indian medicine, Abraham started contacting the ascetics and holy men travelling from Dindigul to Palani to learn more about Ayurveda.

In 1877, he met Karunananda Maharishi, at the Suruli Hills who taught him how to formulate a range of Siddha medicines, which would ultimately make his name. In gratitude to his teacher, Pandithar prefixed all his medical and allied ventures with the name ‘Karuna’.

He married Gnanavadivu Ponnammal on December 27, 1882, and shifted to Thanjavur in 1883, where the couple was employed in Lady Napier’s Girls’ School in the Fort area. Mrs. Gnanavadivu was appointed the headmistress while Abraham Pandhithar worked as a Tamil teacher. As their herbal cures, particularly for snakebite and cholera, became popular, the Pandithars quit teaching to take up practice and manufacture of traditional medicine full-time.

After a period of privation, Abraham Pandithar’s ‘Karunananthar Sanjeevi Medicine’ became a huge success, especially when the ‘Senthoor Sanjeevi’ formulation was effective in fighting cases of plague in Coimbatore and Mysore. The ‘Gorasanai’ pills that he formulated are still being used in native medicine.

Pandithar purchased a property with a house in Thanjavur that later came to be called the Karunanithi Medical Hall. He decided to make his two siblings and their families stay with him. In 1911, he was conferred with the Rao Sahib title by the British government for his services to medicine.

Abraham Pandithar and Mrs. Gnanavadivu (who predeceased him in 1911) had four sons and two daughters. He had two sons and two daughters through his second wife, Koilpackiam Ammal.

“The children and their cousins grew up together in this compound,” says Mr. Duraipandian. “All 10 children were taught how to play the veena formally and learn Carnatic vocal music. A tailor was permanently employed to stitch clothes like a uniform for all the kids. Food was prepared like a marriage function, for at least 100 family members every day.”

New Age farmer

Inspired by his studies in herbal medicine, Pandithar established the 100-acre Karunananthar Farm in suburban Thanjavur in 1899. The most imposing sight on the grounds was a windmill imported from Liverpool, England, to pump water with the help of wind power. The landmark that used to draw visitors from near and far was eventually knocked down during the cyclone of 1952.

Considered in its day to be a model farm, the property had not just a vast array of medicinal plants, but also an orchard of fruit-bearing trees like apple, orange, fig, mangosteen, dates and guava.

Pandithar developed the high-yield sugarcane graft called ‘Raja Karumbu’, which true to its regal label, grew up to a height of 15 feet and had a higher sugar content than traditional varieties.

From 1907 to 1914, Karunananthar Farm won 6 gold medals in government competitions.

The family-owned farm, which also had a small unit for sericulture, was functional until the 1970s.

The Duraipandians continued the legacy of Pandithar’s traditional medicine, printing and Christian sacred music, but things have slowed down in their retirement years, with medicine production being handed over to another family member.

As computerisation made the press obsolete, Lawley Hall was converted into a venue for small gatherings in the 1990s.

Several members of the Pandithar family members have followed in the patriarch’s footsteps, with a modern twist.

Abraham Pandithar passed away at the age of 60 on August 31, 1919. The echoes of his stupendous achievements, though, linger, like the birdsong in the compound, invisible, but ever-present.

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