Pudukottai Samsthana Mridangam & Kanjira Vidwan (1875-1937)
The drummers mostly belonged to the traditional, professional class of Isai Velalas. But Dakshniamurthi Pillai’s moustache proclaimed him as an enviable addition from a different caste of velalas (agriculturists). Amongst us, teenagers sixty years ago, in Madras, Dakshninamurthi Pillai was identified as Meesai Thambi and Govindaswamy Pillai as Meesai Illadha Thambi (‘Thambi’ here meant younger brother-of Veena Dhanammal. One was the Thambi with the moustache and the other had none.)
The genius of our hero has to first be explained in terms of has eccentricities and masquerade of Tom Foolery. The Laya Brahmam, the kind hearted soul, the broad minded and far sighted Karma Veera over flowing with milk of human kindness flourished under cover of erratic behaviour on and off the concert platform. There would be a hue and cry if his letters were addressed under the designation of only Mridanga Vidwan or just Katjira Vidwan. ‘Puducotta Samsthanam’ should be written conspicuously.
His replies would be sprawled all over the letter paper. He would sign as “Dezhanaamurthi” scrupulously avoiding the reference to ‘I’ it would always be ‘Ivan’ this fellow. The ego had no place in his utterances.
Devotee Of Muruga
As a God fearing devotee of Muruga, he could be seen draped in vibhuti and chandanam (holy ash and sandal paste) and a bar of kunkumam between the eyebrows. He invariably flew his own colours – “a Puducheri Urumal” (a maroon upper cloth with white or yellow squares.)
Dakshinamurthi Pillai was a Mridangist when his mentor, Puducotta Maanpoondyaa Pillai played the Kanjira. The Guru, with the Kanjira was a pioneer on the Karnatic music platform. Strict protocol gave the Guru the front, relegating the Mridangist to the rear on the left of the Guru. Daksinamurthi Pillai stepped into the shoes of Maanpoondya Pillai when as a Kanjira player he was paired with Azhaganambi Pillai and others. The situation became contentious and complicated when Dakshinamurthi Pillai had to play Mridangam later with the Tavil wizard Panjami playing Kanjira. Both were popular and top rankers in their respective fields. It was considered a big concession for a Tavil Vidwan now playing Kanjira to share a seat on a concert platform. How dare Punjami contend for a front seat? Panchapakesa Pillai (Panjami) chose to give up playing Tavil in favour of a platform concert status! Panjami was also a vocalist besides being a Tavil and Kanjira player. In later years he seems to have played Kanjira while Mani Iyer played the Mridangam. Farsighted and broad minded Dakshinsmurthi Pillai offered the front seat to the stormy petrel Mani Iyer who would not dislodge his Manasika Guru from the seat of honour. Dakshinamurthi Pillai gained a diplomatic victory by voluntarily offering the front seat to the Mridangam. ‘Adavan should come forward” was his invitation but Mani Iyer did pay him back in his own coin and insisted on Pillai occupying only the coveted vanguard.
Tavil Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai found himself in an embarrassing situation of playing Kanjira in a concert where Dakshinamurthi Pillai was the drummer. The Tavil wizard literally begged permission to withdraw but in the end he was prevailed upon to take at least the ‘back seat’ and perform. Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai could not but comply with Dakshinamurthi Pillai’s request; he played from the rear – guard position, but he later forswore Kanjira playing; he nursed the guilt that by sharing the platform, he had affronted the dignity of the colossus.
Dakshinamurthi Pillai had acquired some notoriety for his unpunctual habits and cancellation of the contract without notice. Special steps used to be taken to ensure his presence. He would arrive just late for concerts with an army of disciples and rasikas invoking his patron Saint Muruga, and uttering apparently meaningless gibberish and gesticulating with words as “O. K. everything is alright!” He was guide, philosopher and friend of younger musicians. From his seat on the platform he would prescribe a Varnam, four or five Kirtanas in different speeds with mini doses of swaram, a few miscellaneous songs, including Tirruppugazh hymns. He would claim his tani Avartanam only when the principal performer needed rest and breathing time. Explosive flashes on the Thoppi of the Mridangam or Kanjira were his invaluable remedy to silence the audience; if blow to the percussion instrument failed to restore the silence he resorted to physical violence, the victim being a disciple or his own son-in-law Palani Velu. Immediately he will himself render first aid to the patient and incidentally to music!
As an accompanist he was a miracle drug to any musician in distress on the platform due to sore throat or other infirmity. Dakshinamurthi Pillai became the principal performer in a concert in 1936 when Semmangudi visibly suffering due to a premature return to the platform after a nasal operation. Dakshinamurthi Pillai employed two drums like a Tabla, and the concert was an unqualified success. Later, on the lawn, Pillai could be seen executing a few folk dances in celebration of the success of the concert.
He was a pioneer in the use of king sized drums, either to match with his gothic build or the dwindling sruti of the performers. Both on and off the stage he would be restlessly testing the meethu and chappu of the mridangam and if the drum failed to meet his exacting demands he would mercilessly knife the parchment and take another.
With Nyana Pillai
Rasikas still remember the concert in Devakottai when Nayana Pillai shared the platform with Govindaswami Pillai and Dakshnamurthi Pillai. The thoppi seemed recalcitrant. Nayana Pillai in the middle of his Shankarabharanam alapana stared at Meddlesome Matty meddling with the thoppi even during the alapana by Govidaswamy Pillai. The drum was making a nuisance of itself to the rasikas. Dakshinamurthi Pillai tapped vigorously in a hurry to keep step with his favourite swara raga sudha. Nayana Pillai in due course launched the charanam not his customary, “Moolaadhara nadamerugutu” but “Maddala Tala gathulu teliyaka mardhinchuta sukhama.” By way of rubbing it in, he marked time on Neraval and the kalpana swaram was pegged to it. Dakshinamurthi Pillai was stung to the quick and he downed tools. When Govindswamy Pillai egged him on to observe concert etiquette and resume drumming, promptly came the wail! “How can an incompetent drummer fit into the katcheri? Why was this charanam picked out from its hide-out after years of vanavasam? Nayana Pillai pointed out that the percussion was unnecessary for a vocal alapham while it is a must for Nagaswaram alap. With prompt apologies for the unintended lapse, Dakshinamurthi Pillai did a wonderful job of it during the rest of the katcheri.
Pillai had seen life in all vicissitudes starting as a hackney jutkwala, sentry at the Puducotta Palace Gate where his regulation cap or the rifle butt served as the drum of rhythmic exercises. The gardener’s cheap mud pot came in handy to encourage his emergence as a ghatam vidwan and then launch him into the natural waters of mridangam. He could not escape from the influence of the Bhajana and Harikatha tradition of the Tanjore Mridangam Bani at the Matham established by ‘Kokilakanta Meruswami at Puducotta and later by Narayanaswami Appa at Tanjore. The thoppi enhanced the value of rhythm as a catalyst for aesthetic refinement peculiar to Harikatha Kalakshepam by the Bawas. Dakshinamurthi Pillay as the legitimate heir to the Puducotta Bani with accent on the right head valantharai lost no time to get the best of the two worlds. Mani Iyer became fascinated by the Arai chappu of his maanasika Guru, Dakshinamurthi Pillai and with eagerness and devotion learnt it from his own Guru, Tanjore Vaidyanatha Iyer. Before every encounter with Dakshinamurthi Pillai on the concert platform, Mani Iyer never failed to get forewarned and forearmed by his Guru for the tricky and complicated twists and pitfalls of korvais by the Maanasika Guru!!!
The antics of Dakshinamurthi Pillai on the ‘full bench’ with Nayana Pillai once created a piquant situation. The battle royal was raging over exchanges in a korvai by Nayana Pillai with Dakshinamurthi Pillai, Palani Muthiah Pillai, Ghatam Sundaram Iyer, Dholak Venu Chettiar, Morsing Sitaramier and Konnakkol Pakkiri Pillai and Gottu Vadyam Harihara Bhagavatar. Palani Muthia Pillai’s Mridangam was off the key and the fever heat of the laya exchanges lent no breathing space for adjusting the sruti. Muthia Pillai was facing away from Dakshinamurthi Pillai during one gladiatorial struggle but when he once faced the kanjira player, Dakshinamurthi Pillai in all good faith was found tuning Muthiah Pillai’s drum with a stone! And as if this was not enough insult, Dakshinamurthi Pillai was found gesticulating suggestive of a physical slap on the face!!! Muthia Pillai could not but loose his temper and the blood-shot eyes of Govindswamy Pillay reprimanded Dakshinamurthi Pillai’s unseemly stance. Apologies for this fellow – Ivan meaning, “I was only suggesting an arai chappu.” The explanation of self righteousness failed to register and tempers still simmered. Konnakkol Pakkiri Pillai in a bantering tone wondered; “If just an arai chappu could play such havoc what catastrophe would result from a full chappu! A thundering peal of laughter pushed the concert forward to a delightful conclusion. Dakshinamurthi Pillai gratefully acknowledged the leadership of ‘the station master’ implying that Pakkiri Pillai was the band master.
The ubiquitous and worldly-wise Dakshinamurthi Pillai adorned Balamani’s Theatre, C. Cunniah’s theatre as the Mridangist with Venu Chettiar playing Dholak for “Dasavatharam” etc., featuring S. G. Kittappa. He had added colour to Harikathas by Mangudi Chidambaram Bhagavathar, Thiruppayanam Panchapakesa Sastri and also C Saraswathi Bai. When he concluded his mounavratham and broke the silence at the palani temple, Lakshmi Rathnammal, the second daughter of Veena Dhanammal was singing with Venu Chettiar as Mridangist. Pillai begged the favour of Chettiar for changing horse in mid stream and took over the drum for his contribution! This was just to prove that ‘this fellow too had to bare his fangs and claws.’ Actually this was a diplomatic somersault disclaiming prejudices of top class accompanists to gender and sex! His meaty meethu and theka getting into songs was a class by itself.
His son Swaminatha Pillai was groomed to ascend the father’s gaddi as Mridangam and Kanjira Vidwan. Swaminatha pillai’s so is now blossoming into the old block Dakshinamurthi Pillai and not merely a chip of the old block. Mani Iyer became the Godfather of the boy. Dakshinamurthi pillai’s concert’s with the Veena Karaikudi brothers is still remembered by rasikas chewing the cud. So are the feasts of rhythm on the platform with Maanpoondiya Pillai, Pakkiri Pillai, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Nayana Pillai.
Prominent among his disciples were Swaminatha Pillai, Mradas Venu Naicker, M. S. Saktivel, (brother of M. S. Subbalakshmi Dakshinamurthy Achariar, and Thirugokarnam Ranganayaki Ammal and others.
Saktivel in a reminiscent mood used to recall the oil bath on Wednesdays and Saturdays when Dakshinamurthi Pillai got his disciples to dab oil on his head with rhythmic precision and canter. He delighted in singing Thiruppugazh with himself accompanying himself. Once he got Nayana Pillai to give a full length concert of only Thiruppugazh with neraval, swaram. He was the solitary accompanist there, even the violin finding no place.
Duels of wordy banter between Dakshinamurthi Pillai and Nayana Pillai could be as exciting as exchanges of rhythm in concerts. Pillai was senior to Nayana Pillai by several years and the latter was just surfacing when the Mridangam wizard was at the peak of his career in the concerts of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Maanpoondiya Pillai. Nayana Pillai introduced longer pallavis and korvais in swaram singing. “Thou art young and physically strong; this fellow (self) is ageing and physical infirmity should be given due consideration and not overtaxed” would be the appeal of Dakshinamurthi Pillai. Nayana Pillai would not consent to beat dead horses and insisted on measuring strength only with the colossus of laya ‘whose gnanabalam could overpower any physical weakness. The Thiruppugazh ‘Paniyin Vinduli’ in Khanda jati Dhuruva Talam would be launches at breakneck speed punctuating the music with ‘Sabaash’ when the other giant Pakkiri Pillai in neck to neck race with Dakshinamurthi sprinted like Olympians to the winning post. Dakshinamurthi Pillai was one of the sishyas in the gurukulam of Puducotta Maanpoondiya Pillai who was himself a disciple of Mariappa Tavilkara and also an associate of the laya brahmam Ilupur Ponnuswami Pillai, composer of layer packed thillanas and uncle of the Tavil wizard Panjami. The other mates in the gurukulam were Palani Muthiah Pillai, father of Palani Subramania Pillai, Sevuga Pandiya Thevar, Zamindar of Seithur’ Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Thiruchendur Ramaiah Pillai and others. Maanpoondiya Pillai took sanyasam before his death; the annual Gurupooja is being celebrated by the sishya parampara to guru “Muruganada swamigal.”
Articles written during and after the lifetime of Sri Dakshinamurthi Pillai
Born on December 30, 1875 (one authority mentions 1877), of Ramaswami Pillai, Dakshinamurthi Pillai was a good for nothing lad till eighteen. Entered service at Pudukottai and served as guard at the Palace for three years. Learnt ghatam from a Sri Pandaram and mridangam under Tanjore Narayanaswami Appa and at his age of twenty-five or so, came under the tutelage of Manpundia Pillai, a wizard.
Pillai in his professional play had a robust view to ‘keep to the middle of the path. Appreciation of the entire audience was his motto. The odd man is not your target to please.’ He was at the helm to the last.
After his training, he joined Balamani Ammal’s troupe as percussionist and was playing for musical discourses also. His entry into the world of concerts certainly elevated the standard of the performances at which he was present with his sweet, soft, adjusting brilliance. He was a colossus, a familiar figure respected and admired and one is yet to see the replica of the Percussion duo of Palghat Mani and Pillai on mridangam and kanjira. Versatile both on the mridangam and kanjira, Dakshinamurthi Pillai was a wizard on kanjira and was perhaps the first and the last of the giants on that instrument which lacks sruti adjustments and has to be operated by one hand, holding it by the other. He was cordial with one and all, quite prominent in higher circles, an eternal source of encouragement to the young and an inspiration to great masters like Karaikudi Sambasiva Ayyar and Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Ayyar. Immense faith in God Muruga, his exclamations, response and appreciation were always ‘Andava, Andava’. Quite in keeping with his life, he entered on sanyasa at the end and took the name of Chinmayananda Guru.
Dakshinamurthi Pillai as Told by E. Krishna Iyer
He who invented the Mridanga ought to have been a rare genius is the opinion of an illustrious scientist of our country, interested in research work in sound. Percussion instruments in music in this county are numerous and among them the ‘mridanga’ is the best. Even as the Veena, is associated with Goddess Saraswathi and “the flute with the Divine Krishna so is Mridanga coupled with the name of Lord Nandikeswara. It’s a wooden cylindrical hollow, tapering towards the ends and covered on both sides with tight-fitting leather. The sounds that are produced there from are very pleasing and interesting. For any really enjoyable music you do not require more than a tambura and mridanga as accompaniments and if necessary you may have another stringed instrument as a matter of some relief. The mridanga is capable of being tuned to the sruthi and when in perfect tune its nada or sound invariably brings in that gripping musical atmosphere or melakattu which enables the musician to go through his performance with a swing. It is also capable of giving out a pleasing variety of sweet sounds including the humkara which as an undertone adds not a little to the richness of its music. It has been and is even now, the chief accompaniment in thala in South Indian musical concerts and Mridangam experts of great skill and ability are not a few at the present day and three perhaps among them appear to stand out most conspicuously for their wide and universal renown.
Accompaniments in any system of music are intended to follow and help the principal musician and embellish the music of the concert. But, curiously enough, accompanists in the South India particularly of the thala variety of late have been allowed to develop to such monstrous proportions as to become fighting rivals to the principal musician on the platform with their killing acrobatics and inordinate solo displays. It need hardly be said that the major portion of the audience do not and cannot follow the technique and intricacies of such performances. But all the same, the cheers of the audience are ready and vociferous in proportion to the vitiating taste of the gallery and the length and noisiness of the display. One Mridangam is a sufficient tala accompaniment for any concert. Add to this a number of other accompaniments like kanjeera, dolak, a morsing and konakole – and you have a regular circus of performance Of the lion, tiger, bear, wolf and all other wild animals vociferously brawling and fighting with one another With the poor lamb of a vocalist quivering in their midst and the heart and soul Of Indian music – Melody and Ragabhava – dished up beyond redemption. The tala enthusiasts have stopped short of only one climax, namely that of having a kanjeera or mridanga a solo in the place of vocal music for a concert. It will be no surprise if some commercial genius were to take up that idea seriously and put up such shows. The vitiated tastes would, have grown worse but for the timely staying hand of the All India Music Conference of 1927 and the renaissance it ushered in. It is an irony that while the North Indian mind delights in having more than one stringed instrument to enrich the exquisite melody of its music, the South Indian taste – fortunately for a time only – reveled in putting upon the platform a number of percussion instruments and accompaniments of the unmusical variety to kill with their noise even the little melody of the poor voice of the average musician.
Not much purpose will be served by asking the why and how of this excessive development of the tala aspect. Suffice it to say that with the passing away Of the great masters of yore and their habit of having their own agreeable set of accompaniments and keeping them in their proper, place, accompanists from distant places, with differing tastes, temperaments and training came to be clubbed together and each had his mind on winning laurels for himself at the expense of the other. Instead of being co-operators they developed into serious competitors and in the general melee, the tala giants gained the upper hand in the kingdom of music. The transfer of patronage from knowing, princes and patricians to the motley crowd of the street left them free from any healthy control and they began to reign supreme. They did not and could not mind if the goddess of good, melodious and. enjoyable music, bereft of the harmonious and subordinate co-operation of her accompaniments, abdicated her throne for the confused noise of the fighting elements that strutted on the stage in the name of science.
The unthinking crowds always cheer their heroes of the fight whether in war or in music. As is the supply so is the demand and Vice Versa. It is a vicious circle. In turn it reacted on the music of the vocalists who in their struggle to hold their own against the onslaughts of the redoubtable drummers had to lose their raga bhava for a better grip over tala. The situation created in turn a type of master-mind among vocalists which in its desire to conquer the tala giants did gain its object to some extent but well nigh lost the soul – namely that of raga bhava.
The success and popularity of a musical concert should ordinarily depend upon the standing and ability of the principal vocalist. But in South- India it is noted for their depending mainly and sometimes solely upon the name of a tala a accompanist and he is no other than Mr. Dakshinamurthi Pillai of Pudukottai. He is the virtual ruler of any music concert of note and he ensures a ‘crowded house. Perhaps in his field none deserves that position more than he. He is a born genius in and master over the laya aspect in music. Perhaps his fee is rather high for an accompanist. But none grudges to pay him and his presence pays in turn.
About fifty eight years of age, well-built in constitution and rather dark of complexion with a round crop of short hair covering the top of his skull and holy ashes adorning
his forehead, he meets you with his joint palms uplifted, and with his never failing Andavan on his lips, and enlightens you with his quaint humour and broad smile. He has to be studied in two stages -the earlier Dakshinamurthi, the dominant autocrat of the concert platform with his redoubtable kanjeera and the later figure with his wonderful touches in mridanga, a true accompanist, guide and helper in a concert.
He was born of a Vellala family at Pudukottai in December 1875. His father (Ramaswami Pillai) and grandfather have been in charge of the treasury and his uncle Yoganandaswami was a palace doctor in that State. Till his age of eighteen or nineteen he appears to have spent his life roaming about without aim or avocation except taking pleasure in driving carts. Subsequently he was taken into military service where he was for about three years and acted also as aid-de-camp to the then ruling prince. It was during this period that his instinct for tala began, to show itself out and he is said to have delighted his friends by playing tala jathis on his military cap among other things. That led him to learn ghatam play under a ‘Pandaram’ and he appears to have practiced it till about twenty five years of age. Coming then under the influence of Manpudia Pillai – the founder of the race of tala giants – he learnt the secrets of the trade as a tala accompanist in Mridangam and Kanjeera and mastered his art therein.
It is with the last mentioned instrument that his name was for long identified. It may be said that what Manpudia Pillai began in kanjeera Dakshinamurthi brought to perfection. If the guru showed to the world that there was an instrument like that capable 0f being adopted as an accompaniment in a musical concert the disciple demonstrated the highest possibilities of the same.
If to connoisseurs of real art, the kanjeera appeals to be more a nuisance than a musical instrument, it is not the fault of Mr. Pillai but the uninviting nature of the instrument-like a bad voice. It is a round bowl with its flat bottom made of the tough skin of the wall lizard and a few bells attached to the frame of the bowl. Except noises of varying degrees it has not much music of its own; nor is it capable of being perfectly tuned to any sruthi though an occasionally mild stroke may appear to approach it. If blind enthusiasts tell you that in the hands of this and that expert it shows wonderful musical sounds, you may take it to be a kind of sentimentality and self-delusion and a sad commentary on South Indian idea of melody in music. If you give a hard chapu on it, the sound will it resemble somewhat the explosion of a wall cracker. At best the manipulation of a kind of swift neraval combined with the jingling of the bells in it, is perhaps the most appreciable and when played in combination with mridangam within limits it creates an agreeable sensation. In fact some varieties of Rhythmic elaboration in Carnatic music are such as to appear exceedingly interesting even if they are played on such materials as the wooden pieces of singing beggars. But tat should not be confused with the requisites of an accompaniment in the highly refined music of the concert platform, which is intended to embellish the art of the principal musician. No instrument can have a place as such accompaniment unless the musical quality of its sounds is so intrinsically good as to add to the melody, resonance and richness of the concert music and the most sentimental lover of the kanjeera cannot claim such virtues for it. Dakshinamurthi himself has no illusions about it. It is with an instrument of such unedifying qualities that that he had to show his genius and he did show it though how far the instrument enabled him to embellish concert with melody and resonance might have been a debatable point. Even in the ‘circus’ performances he used to be the dominant leader. Of course more than anybody else he shared in the then prevailing urge to prove his worth and invincible mettle among the gladiators of the concert ring. He was thorough in what he did and won the unfailing applause of admiring crowds. A combination of his kanjeera and Azhaganambia Pillai’s mridanga however had been for long an attractive features and the most paying element of musical concerts.
It is with no ordinary relief and pleasure that music lovers have watched and welcomed his taking up of the mridanga for the display of his talents. Though he has not given up the kanjeera for good, he is now seen to handle the mridanga more than the other. Though for some time, his handling of this instrument too was a little hard he has of late developed nice and appreciable touches leaving off most of his youthful excesses and fighting tendencies. Not infrequently he is found to manipulate the sounds of his instrument to match the varied sangathis of the vocalist. Paradoxically enough or as an exception he who used to rule over circus, performances with the noisy kanjeera has, also been seen often to be capable of such mellow playing on mridanga as, to adjust himself to the Veena performances of the Karaikudi Brothers.
For one thing, his precision and mastery over tala is, unmistakable. Few have got as sure a Kala Nirnaya as he; and it is unshakable even in the midst of the most labrynthian intricacies of a Pallavi or Swaraprasthara. To this precision and mastery, he adds a deftness of execution which is marvelous. He can develop and display his laya-vinyasa in the speediest manner possible with ease; and at times he carries on 1ong avarthas with bare strokes far between, which not infrequently are the bugbear of slipshod vocalist. You can never catch him napping or slipping and he is all alert. He puts his heart and soul in to his play and loses himself in it. His theermanams or finishes are crisp and of an interesting variety, from the simple to the elaborate and subtle. His solo displays are invariably instructive and interesting scintillating jathi or nada bedhas and nerevals.
But he is also subject to changing moods, and is not without enjoyable eccentricities. He would now appear to follow his principal closely with mild teka, then scare him with hard strokes far between, Or throw across him surprising hurdles of rhythmic variations, at times bluff him with an empty wave of His hand when You Would expect a stroke and sometimes drown everything else in continuous and reverberating cascade of an elaborate nereval and tha-thin-gi-na-thoms with rolling eyes and assertive turns of the head all around and humming a characteristic under tune of enjoyment all along. He ha no patience with those who are slippery or shaky in tala; and if’ he finds the principal musician one such he makes mincemeat of him.
He is now on the whole a true accompanist following the principal musician neatly, crisply and with, simple touches.
In the best of his moods his touches on mridanga are sweet and superb, and you will wonder whether it is the same Dakshinamurthi of the reverberating kanjeera of former years. It may be a surprise to many to know that he has no sympathy with unnatural pallavis and their outlandish starting points and excessive Tha din gi na-thoms; and that he is advising his disciples to avoid excesses and also to try to follow the chief musician as much as possible. Whether it is the result of his innate good tastes, or his bhakti on Lord Muruga or the new spirit of the present renaissance or a shrewd understanding of his business side to suit himself to changing tastes. Dakshinamurthi of the present day is different from the self-same’ person of a decade back. Perhaps he is a product of his environments.
Religious by temperament, he is said to have spent much of his earnings on charitable purposes. In private and on the platform he has a fund of humour. While playing his instrument he shows visible enjoyment of the music of the principal artist. You can rarely draw him to a discussion on the lakshana aspect of his art; and he can never be persuaded to take part in a conference, discussion or controversy in music. He will invariably tell you that “Andavan” has intended him only to exhibit what art he knows and not to concern himself with other things which ought to be left to the vocalists, vainikas and the like.
When all is said Dakshinamurthi has been the dominant figure and leading luminary for long in Kanjeera and Mridanga and perhaps he is a type in himself in the combination of genius, merits, defects and eccentricities. If you want a paying performance from the point of view of gate collections even at the present day you cannot but think of him first and foremost.
Flute Mali (Sri T R Mahalingam) observed that Sri Pillai was Palghat Sri Mani Iyer’s manasika guru.
Sri Pillai spotted Chembai and played a pivotal role in his ascendancy to fame.
Palakkad Ramanavami Concert (1916)
“Another significant event in Chembai’s early career was his concert at the Ramanavami festival in Palakkad in 1916. Among those who attended the concert was Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai. After the festival, Pillai returned to Trichy to meet the violin maestro Govindaswamy Pillai and told him of the calibre of Chambal’s music. They made arrangements for a katcheri by Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar in Trichy. Govindaswamy Pillai himself provided the violin accompaniment while Dakshinamurthy Pillai played the mridanga. The concert met Govindaswamy Pillai’s expectations and Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar had the opportunity to sing at various other places, with the two Pillais themselves playing the accompaniment in most of the concerts.
First concert in Madras (1918)
Chembai’s first concert in Madras was in 1918, at the Triplcane Sangeetham Sabha. Rasikas who had heard about the young vidwan were keenly looking forward to the event and the sale of tickets was very brisk. As the concert was about to begin, the hall was filled to capacity, with a large number restless listeners not able to gain entrance. This rose to a clamour as the concert started and the organisers had finally to keep the entrance doors open to pacify everyone. The concert, featuring as sidemen Govindaswamy Pillai on the violin, Azhaganambia Pillai on the mridanga and Dakshinamurthy Pillai on the kanjira, was an impressive effort.”
Here’s a story connecting Sri Pillai and M S Subulakshmi: “Kunjamma” (as she was known to those close to her), brought up with all the rigorous strictness that her mother could impose upon her training in art as in life, had sung at a wedding in the household of Dakshinamurthi Pillai, the venerable percussionist from Pudukottai. The event had drawn a galaxy of artists – including the upcoming Semmangudi Srinivasan Iyer, Musiri Subramanian Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Rajamanickam Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam and the Alathur brothers.
The next day, in the midst of this starry assembly, Dakshinamurthi Pillai suddenly smote his head with vehemence. “Andavan! (Oh God!) How will you save your throats for a lifetime if you engage in vocal gymnastics? Leave all that to us drummers. Singers must emphasize the raga and the bhava so that you preserve your voice and let it gain in timbre. That little girl there, she knows this already. Didn’t we hear her yesterday? Wasn’t it satisfying? Touch our hearts?” At that public praise, Kunjamma shrank even more behind her mother in the corner.”