WRITEN BY VIDWAN PAZHANI SUBRAMANIA PILLAI
South Indian classical music was made popular with different instruments, from which, some were considered to be fit to render the melody independently and most of them were put into use as an accompaniment. Among the accompaniment instruments the kanjira emerged. This instrument was introduced to the concert platform, in the correct and efficient way by none other than the great Maha vidwan Pudukottai Manpundia Pillai. SriLaSri Guru Manpundia Pillai was born in Pudukottai. He was working with the governing agency as a casual labourer to meet family demands. He was fortunate to listen to the doyens of classical music during his working days. The palace was frequently visited by great artistes from all over, including veteran nadaswaram and Thavil vidwans. Once he happened to listen to Thirukokarnam Mariappa Pillai on Thavil, in which he lost himself and approached the great Mariappa Pillai to accept him as his disciple. The master happily took him under his tutorship and was amazed to see his disciple grow as a stalwart in the field of music. As Mariappa Pillai was teaching his disciple all intricate laya syllables, which was to be played or applied with two hands, Manpundia Pillai repeated each and every syllable in single hand, with deft and clarity. After some time of immense thought Guru Mariappa Pillai arrived at a idea and advised Manpundia Pillai to develop an instrument which can be played with a single hand. On his gurus advice Manpundia Pillai thoughtfully ventured into building an instrument with a circular piece of wood cut from the lower trunk of the Jack fruit tree, which enabled to be held on one hand and also by covering with the skin of the Monitor Lizard on one side. He also improvised by adding few coins which had holes in the middle to the circular wood so that it would cut the monotony of the leather sound.
After creating this new instrument Manpundia Pillai practiced on it and presented it before his guru. Mariappa Pillai was excited and elated in seeing his disciple play the new instrument with mastery, blessed him wholeheartedly that he would be an everlasting star in the field of Music.
Sri Manpundia Pillai wanted to introduce and propagate his newly designed instrument and also wanted others to take to this instrument as accompaniment in concerts. So he approached the then legendary mridanga vidwan Thanjavur Sri Narayanaswami Appa and demonstrated his instrument. There were also many other great vidwans around who instantly accepted the instrument Kanjira as an equally efficient accompaniment in a concert. It was a great instance that Sri Narayanaswami Appa, Thirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, Panchapakesa Sastrigal, Nadaswaram Vidwan Kumbakonam Sivakozhundhu Pillai, Koranadu Natesa Pillai and others who were present hailed Manpundia Pillai in unison that he was an undisputed vidwan who has invented the Kanjira. They also were in total appreciation of the astounding sound the Kanjira produced and the impeccable laya knowledge of Pillai and endorsed all praises on him. Manpundia Pillai also taught his novel laya creations to Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai and my father Pazhani Muthaiya Pillai. Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai was the one who took Kanjira to all concert platforms after Manpundia Pillai. His accompaniment was the one which received raving appreciation and great following even by all the vidwans of yesteryears. Whenever Dakshinamurthy Pillai talked about his guru Manpundia Pillai he used to get into trance and would say that we need 1000 tongues like the godly serpent Adiseshan to praise him. He would also add that Manpundia Pillai’s creations had no equals and nothing can stand against like the Pasupadham – the arrow. I myself have heard this speech of Dakshinamurthy Pillai many a time.
The height of creativity was evident with the new formulation of syllables, such as Mohras, Korvai and Nadais of Manpundia Pillai. His permutation combinations and the calculations were so precise and complicated that no one would have ever thought of. His creations were all new and innovative, which never existed before and also after Pillai’s era.