Bhakta beats

Mridangam maestro Thiruvaarur Bakthavathsalam. Photo: S.S. Kumar  

Somewhere in the mid 1970s, this writer used to observe at concerts a tall, handsome young man dressed in impeccable white talking to seniors with folded hands. Those were the days when Tyagaraja akhandam used to be held at different temples of the city, where he would be present and vie with other players for an opportunity to play.

Looking back, he had all the elements of a young hero. Had he joined the movies, the field of Carnatic music would have lost a wonderful artist. A self-made man, Tiruvarur Bhakthavathsalam was given the Life Time Achievement award by Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai, this year, which is also the sabha’s 75th anniversary – an honour that he has earned after almost 50 years of playing the mridangam. Incidentally, there is laya even in his address – he lives in Gali ‘laya’ puram near the Music Academy.

“I never learnt mridangam formally,” he begins. Smiling at the stunning effect made on the listener, he continues: “My mother Tiruvaarur Anandavalli was trained well in classical music by Tiruvarur Sethuraman. Thus it was chaste music, from dawn to dusk and often well into midight.

“I think my gurukulavasam started when I was in my mother’s womb. She sang in concerts almost till the day before I was born. By the age of three, I started singing the songs that I had heard from my mother. My maternal uncles Rajarathinam Pillai (thavil), Tiruvarur Krishnamurthy (mridangam) and R.S. Krishnan (violin) lived with us. My sister and I were then trained by Chinna Thambia Pillai, an uncle of Tiruvaarur Namasivayam. My mind was always set on the mridangam and I started playing at home during my mother’s practice sessions when my uncle was not around. Playing for various forms of kritis, padams, javalis, Tiruppugazh was a good exercise.”


Bhakthavathsalam was named after the presiding deity of the Tirukkannamangai temple. Although he was praised by everyone for his singing, during his mother’s concert he would pose like an accomplished mridangam vidwan while seated near his uncle. His mother was not sure of Bhakthavathsalam’s success in music and hence wanted him to become a banker. So he went to college to get a B.Com degree. “But I never completed it,” he says laughing. Then on a serious note, he adds, “I am generally wary of Life Time Achievement Awards. I always go into a self-appraisal mode to find out if I am really worthy of these honours. And such recognition calls for sustained hard work.”

He came to Chennai as most of the stalwarts were here and started attending concerts in temples and sabhas. Returning home, he would hone his skills by trying out all the complicated korvais that were presented in the concerts. Whether at Tiruvarur or Chennai, he was present at all the Radha Kalyanams (bhajans) and Nama Sankirtana Utsavams and played for long hours.

He was the regular mridangam player for Vamana Bhagavatar’s harikatha even during his school days, which prepared him for the future and also the numerous Tyagaraja Swami akhandams.

“It was at the Mylapore Sri Thyagaraja Vidwath Samajam that I started getting noticed. I used to wait like the 12th man in cricket to play, just in case the mridangam vidwan for the day did not turn up. I was not disappointed. Those days, the stalwarts attended the concerts of others and that was how I got the recognition. Again at Tiruvaiyaaru, I played for many seniors and they started recommending me to others. I have played for all the doyens of Carnatic music and collaborated with many Hindustani musicians and am also happy to be associated with the present crop of youngsters. ”

Styles of the vidwans vary and so he prepared himself from the morning of the concert by trying to assimilate that technique and by playing it mentally. This is one factor he attributes to his success.

He has high regard for institutions that organise concerts and this has prompted him to institute an annual award to be presented to an organiser during the anniversary of his Laya Madhuraa School of Music (See Page 3) .

“I want to educate rasikas on the concept of mridangam. My disciples are now busy in concert circuits and I treat them as my sons. After all Guru is the one who opens your eyes.”

His wife Rajam is the granddaughter of Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai and daughter of Vazhuvoor Samraj Pillai, both renowned dance gurus. He has three daughters.

Bhakthavathsalam recalls the contribution of his mridangam repairer Navaneetham, who is the grandson of Valangaiman Shanmugasundaram Pillai, to his success. “It is a great art and I admire his ability to prepare mridangams for various srutis perfectly”.

“My mridangam has elevated me to this level and I dedicate every success to the instrument. If at all there is rebirth, I want to be born as a musician again with the blessings of Samayapuram Magamaayi.”

I have played for all the doyens of Carnatic music and collaborated with many Hindustani musicians.