The sound challenge

Ganjira vidwan Maanpoondiya Pillai.  

Played with one hand and capable of producing unique rhythms, ganjira has become an integral part of Carnatic concerts. But the percussion instrument owed its discovery to a casual remark that was an insult to a man who had nothing to do with music.

Maanpoondiya Pillai (1859-1922), who designed ganjira and established the Pudukottai school of playing percussion instrument was a labourer assigned with the task of lighting the lanterns in a palace.

Captivated by the splendid singing of Nannu Mian and Chote Mian, two famous singers, to the accompaniment of dholak, Maanpoondiya Pillai uttered the word, ‘aaha’ in appreciation. It evoked laughter from the audience and one among them suggested, “Maanpoondy why don’t you learn music.” Maanpoondiya Pillai, who was adept at playing an instrument similar to ‘thappu’ approached Mariappa Pillai, the local thavil player.

As he had a flair for rhythm, Maanpoondiya Pillai learnt to play the instrument quickly. But as thavil playing was dominated by one class of people, his teacher suggested that he create a new instrument,” said Lalitha Ram, the biographer of Palani Subramania Pillai, mridangam player and foremost exponent of Pudukottai school of mridangam playing.

This prompted Maanpoondiya Pillai to create the ganjira, a small instrument with a 6.5 to 7 inch width. He used the skin of monitor lizard to produce the unique sound and fixed old coins to embellish the playing. Rice paste or fenugreek paste is used to fix the skin on the drum.

“With an aim to get recognition for his creation and to showcase his prowess in ganjira playing, Maanpoondiya Pillai headed to Thanjavur and met Narayanaswamy Appa, a great mridangam player and creator of Thanjavur style of playing. His enthralling performance earned the recognition for the instrument that he yearned for,” said Lalitha Ram.

He travelled across the state and his knowledge in the intricacies of laya earned him many students including Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Palani Muthaiah Pillai (Pazhani Subramania Pillai’s father).

“Both Maanpoondiya Pillai and Dakshinamurthy Pillai were considered giants and during their days they replaced the mridangam players on the concert platform,” added Lalitha Ram.

Talking about players during modern times, ganjira player B.S. Purushotham said the late Harishankar was adept at playing both the mridangam and the ganjira. Being a left-handed player, it is something to marvel at the ease with which he plays ganjira with his right hand.

He proved that he was born to play the instrument despite the fact that the instrument has its own limitations” said Purusotham. Ganjira has a sharp sound. To get the base sound artists sprinkle water on it. “It is very difficult to tune it to a particular pitch. But we gradually align it,” added Purushotham, who learnt mridangam before switching over to the ganjira.

“We still keep the old skins in our possession as it is difficult to get one these days. Simultaneously, we are trying alternatives. Synthetic material is definitely good, but no match for monitor lizard skin,” said V. Anirudh Athreya, another player and grand nephew of the late ganjira player V. Nagarajan. Purusotham seconds this statement.