Kumbakonam Azhaganambi Pillai (1863-1939)
“Two eyes would be a needless luxury for the Mridangam maestro Azaganambi. Such was the sally of music world punning on the cock eyed Vidwan and the eyes of the Mridangam. Unalloyed admiration for the honey-dew fingers for percussive tapping could not find better expression than in undignified nindastuthi of physical infirmity.
Small-pox had damaged one eye when Azhaganambi Pillai was a baby who in his teens was destined to stride like a colossus across the Terpsichorean cosmos. Tuning could be the waterloo of the most accomplished Mridanga Vidwan with a blunt sruti sense outnumbered by the ’16 eyes of the Mridangam. Even if 15 eyes proved recalcitrant, Azhaganambi could mint gold with just one eye and literally draw honey out of a solitary eye without upsetting the tempo of a concert and that in record time! The left head (thoppi) tuned to the lower sadjam was a class by itself.
He was born in a hive of Muthukaarars in an era when dancing was one of the upachaaras to the temple deity under Royal patronage and was not ashamed of appellations as China Melam and Sadr. There was no need to sail under false colours and pretentious labels as ‘Bharata Natyam.’ The drummer in this ensemble was better and conventionally known as Muthu Kaarar. Sandwiched between his two maternal uncles, Swaminatha Muthukaarar and Vengu Muthukaarar, the 10 year was saturated in the art of Mridangam playing. His native place, Srirangam is not far away from Tanjore and he was exposed to the wizardry of the mridanga maestros as Tanjore Narayanaswamy Appa, Das Swamy Jutka Vandi Babu, etc. the genius of these titans could not escape the royal eyes (or ears) of the rasika sikhamani Bhaskara Setupati, Rajah of Ramnad Azhaganambi was admitted to this legion of honour.
Donkey ride was the only available means of transport from Tanjore to Ramanathapuram palace and Azhaganambi’s travelogue could be as edifying as his mridangam tapping. He was the leading light in the dance orchestras of Pudukkottai Ammalu Ammal, who had bewitched Veena Dhanammal. Kamakshi Ammal who was decorated with silver Salangai by the Sethupathi for her exposition of the Todi Padavarnam of Tanjore Quartette: “Daaniketagu jaanara.” His fingers had settled in honey-dew ruts of rhythm heralding tirelessly “the Mela prapthi” and the thani Avarthanam silencing the audience into sublime expectancy. Pillai thrived on the blessings and guidance of ‘Baroda’ Kannuswamy Nattuvanar, father of Sangeetha Kalanidhi Prof. K Ponnaih Pillai. Azhaganambi Pillai had to face the keen rivalry of Tanjore Pakkiri Pillai (1871-1922) uncle of Sangeetha Kalanidhi T. M. Thyagarajan and Tanjore Vaidyanatha Iyer (guru of Sangeetha Kalanidhi Palghat Mani Iyer). The novitiate of Pakkiri Pillai, Vaidyanatha Iyer and Azhaganambi acquired for them perfumed fingers Silamba Koodam – Dancing hall of the Tanjore Quartette.
Special rehearsals to co-ordinate the jingling feet of the danseuse, the rattle of the Dance Masters cymbal beats and the “dancing fingers” of the Muthukaarar; otherwise even the most accomplished concert drummer could not dream of dovetailing into the dance ensemble – likewise mridangam accompaniment the traditional Harikathas needs exclusive training in the usi-talam of the brass jalara, the chipla (castanets) bursting forth into a crescendo of rhythm and melody of the repertoire of Saki, Dindi and Hovi for effective propagation of Bhakti through music, narration and even dance. Azhaganambi’s services for the Harikatha ensemble made him a major partner with Thiruppazhanam Panchapakesha Sastry, who coloured his music with the tradition of the Baliwala Parsi Theatre.
Rasikas and Vidwans enamoured by the golden touch of Azhaganambi lured him into the platform of instrumental concerts particularly of flute Sarabha Sastry, Palladam Sanjiva Rao and Swaminatha Pillai and Fiddle Krishna Iyer and Govindaswami Pillai and vocal concerts of Ramnad Poochi Iyengar, Pushpavanam, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Kancheepuram Nayana Pillai, Ariyakudi, Mahnrajapuram, Bidaram Krishnappa and Veena Karaikudi brothers and others.
Recalling the pleasant echo’s of Azhaganambi’s tapping, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer could not find more apt words than to equate him with the tabla – wizard, Anoke Lal who appeared in AIR concerts years after Azhaganambi’s demise.
Azhaganambi Pillai was a Midas figuratively and literally. The midas touch of rhythm was in exhaustively and effortlessly mixed without a single twitching of the muscle. He was notorious for his tight fisted miserliness unruffled by the bantering jibe of Dakshinamurthi Pillai who declared that not more than measure of Ragi as fee would suffice for ‘Karnavatar.’ Azhaganambi’s sense of humour had its business angle too; he demanded twice his normal fee for providing the mridangam accompaniment for the Veena Duet by the Karaikudi brothers. The patron quickly succumbed to the logic of Pillai who explained the strain of accompanying a pair of Veena’s!
Azhaganambi Pillai stressed his subordinate role in the concerts particularly instrumental concerts as an accompaniment but he could always have the last word banging the final with a fragrant chime having an edge over the Eddapu. Govidaswamy Pillai never at any time grudged the applause when the accompanist stole a march over him behind the smokescreen of his violin strings.
Azhaganambi Pillai was invariably paired with Dakshinamurthi Pillai’s Kanjira unless the latter himself was the mridangist in a concert. The uncanny understanding between the two was a joy for everyone. Azhaganambi also made room for Palani Muthiah Pillai when the concert pattern became more laya oriented from the days of Maanpoondiya Pillai, Dakshinamurthi Pillai and Konerirajapuram vaidyanatha Iyer.
The unalloyed praise of his admirers in Tamil can never convey the spirit in translation. What an obedient hand maid and what restraining bolls bear the true stamp of Tanjore Mridangam tradition, never borrowing syllables from the Tavil Sampradayam. The second and third degrees of speed can at best be compared to the bursting of pop-corn and with Govindaswamy Pillai he was nothing more than a second fiddle. Every top ranking musician considered it a privilege to share the platform with him.
Azhaganambi Pillai worshipped his mother with unique devotion for she had nursed him to manhood from the crippling attack of smallpox. He had four sons but the premature death of his fourth son Arumugham robbed him of a musical heir to the Mridangam gaddi. The third son Radhakrishnan started as a sishya of Govindaswamy Pillai and Papa but he switched over to a vocal as a pupil of Semmangudi Narayanaswamy Iyer, Alatur Venkatsa Iyer and finally of Kanchipuram Naina Pillai and Chittoor Sabramania Pillai. The other three sons were like the sultans sons, a speculation.
Pillai had two disciples, one C. V. Nataraja Iyer who joined as Mridangam lecturer, Delhi University and Rajappa Iyer who has blossomed into a great Mridangam teacher. Rajappa Iyer’s most distinguished pupil is Umayalpuram Sivaraman.
Azhaganambi Pillai was a prominent figure in the Annual Thyagaraja Festival at Thiruvaiyer managing the stores. He faded out after the demise of Govindaswamy Pillai. Rasikas remember too well the concert at Trichy Rock Fort when Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavathar, famous for his gifted voice shred the platform with fiddle Govindaswamy Pillai and Mridangam Azhaganambi Pillai. The Bhagavathar was on his last legs and his voice non-cooperated with sruti, but the concert gave the overall impression of unqualified success. The honours were equally shared by the accompanists who filled half the duration with alternately tuning the violin and the drum. The principal performer was never let down for a single moment. Azhaganambi Pillai managed to arrogate to himself a king size Tani Avartana if Govindaswamy Pillai managed longer spells of alapana
Azhaganambi – Dakshinamurthi combination was a record for uncanny understanding between the two stalwarts before Ramadas Rao, Subramania Pillai and Mani Iyer arrived on the horizon. The Nagaswara Chakravarthi T. N. Rajarathnam Pillai made his debut as a vocalist with Azhaganambi Pillai for Mridangam. “Mridangam Pandamurai” the Text Book by Mylatoor Swamy Iyer pays glorious tribute to the Gumki, Meetu and Furns in Pillai’s technique. Pillai is said to have stolen a march over his illustrious predecessors in the execution of ‘Takajhanu’
He passed away in his 76th year. His huge mansion is now housing coffee house in the Kumbakonam Bus Terminus.