Tavil Panchami (1905 – 1935)
In the world of tavil, Panchami Pillai was held in a high place and his passing away at a young age created a huge loss for the world of music. He was also called Iluppur Panchami Pillai as his native was Iluppur.
Iluppur, a village 18 miles from Pudukottai, was the home to the musician Paaduvanaar Veeruswamy Pillai. His eldest son was the laya genius and a great violin vidwan called Iluppur Ponnuswamy Pillai. Veeruswamy Pillai had another son by name Chittanna and four daughters Gnanambal, Thailammal, Swarnambal, and Akilandam. The entire family was musically oriented and all of them were talented musicians. There was a saying at that time that even a ‘pot in the Paaduvanaar family would sing.’
Among the four daughters, Thailammal’s children were Appadurai (Nagaswaram), Natesan (Nagaswaram), Sundaresan and Meenambal. The fifth son, our hero, was born on the day of Panchami on August 4, 1905 and hence was named Panchapakesan.
Thailammal moved to Trichy Malaikkottai in 1909. She taught music to many children from affluent families and was respectfully addressed as ‘music teacher’ (paattu vaadhyaramma). In 1948, she took bath in the Cauvery and while paying obeisance to the deity on the river bank, she collapsed and passed away.
Among Appadurai and Natesan, the younger sibling’s music had melody (sunaadam) and hence was more famous. A mention of the third son Sundaresan is necessary. He was able to compose poem when he was barely five years of age. When he became uncontrollably naughty, elders would tie his arms and legs. He would implore passers-by to untie him. He would offer to compose a song in their name if he was untied. When this was done, he would compose a small verse with the name of his benefactor in it and would run away. Probably because of such an extraordinary talent, the child passed away at the age of 7.
Panchami was taken to the marriage of Bikshandarkoil Subramania Nagaswarakaarar to keep time for his brother during the wedding concert as there was no one else to do it. This was the first time the six year old Panchami was taken to a concert to keep time. The special melam for the wedding, Pateeswaram Veeruswamy Nagaswarakaarar was playing a pallavi and Lalgudi Angappa Pillai who was playing the tavil was struggling to keep up with the nadaswaram vidwan. Panchami, who was standing in the crowd, offered to play the tavil. This caused considerable anxiety for the elder brother as the child had come for the first time just to keep time and had dared to challenge a senior vidwan in front of the assembled elders! Angappa Pillai immediately placed his tavil in front of Panchami and asked him to play. To the amazement of the crowd, Panchami sat down and played perfectly. Among the people who witnessed this extraordinary event, wondering whether it was a dream, was a tavil vidwan Malaikkottai Venkatachala Thavilkarar.
On returning home, he met Panchami’s mother Thailammal, told her about the incident and expressed his desire to coach Panchami, and got her permission. Thus Panchami began his formal lessons in tavil. Under the pretext of going to his guru’s house, Panchami would scamper off with his friends to play marbles. A few months later, he was sent to continue his lessons with Lalgudi Angappa Pillai. Angappa Pillai was delighted to accept Panchami as his disciple as he considered Panchami as ‘equivalent to Lord Shanmukha who had imparted wisdom to His Father.’ After a year and four months of training, Panchami returned home.
A nadaswaram concert of Panchami’s elder brother Natesa Pillai was arranged in the Malaikkottai Manickavinayagar temple. The tavil vidwan who was to accompany Natesa Pillai did not turn up. Panchami brought his tavil from his home and played for his brother. The music of this eight year old child left the audience spellbound. This was also to be his debut concert. He continued to play for his brother Natesa Pillai for some more time. He fell frequently ill during this time and his mother thought that ‘evil eye’ was cast on her sons as both were highly talented musicians. She therefore sent Panchami to her close relative nadaswaram vidwan Perambalur Angappan with whom he stayed for four years.
Panchami then made a contract with Madurai Ponnuswamy Pillai for five years. He returned home at the end of the contract period. While he played with Madurai Ponnuswamy, he travelled to Mysore where he received presents of gold cloth cover for his tavil and medals from the king.
Panchami joined Tiruvaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai when he was 18 and accompanied him for only three years. Panchami was strict in money matters and he was not able to get along with Rajarathinam Pillai on this aspect. But during this brief tenure with Rajarathinam Pillai, he acquired addiction to drinking.
He joined Perambalur Angappan again. This glamorous vidwan got married to Muthammal from Lalgudi at the age of 19. The marriage celebrations were spread over three days. Concerts of three eminent Nadaswaram vidwans, Madurai Ponnuswamy Pillai, Tiruvavaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai, and Tiruvidaimarudur Veeruswamy Pillai were conducted. A flute concert by Tirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai was also conducted.
Panchami played tavil along with Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram for the first time in Panangudi in Ramnathapuram district. On that day there was a nadaswaram concert by Sembonnarkoil Govindaswamy brothers, Tiruveezhimizhalai brothers, and Perambalur Angappa Pillai. Starting that day, both the geniuses played special tavil for a long time.
When he was 22 years of age, Panchami stopped playing tavil and started giving vocal concerts. He had a mellifluous voice and also had a vast repertoire. After almost two years of stopping tavil play since he took up vocal, Meenakshisundaram Pillai persuaded his family members to let him resume his tavil play. Thereafter, he played special tavil for Tirucherai Muthukrishna Pillai, Tiruveezhimizhalai brothers, Tiruvidaimarudur Veeruswamy Pillai, and Perambalur Angappa Pillai. Apart from tavil and vocal, he was also a highly skilled kanjira player. He played kanjira for the first time in the 100 pillared hall in Trichi Malaikkottai for Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Later he accompanied vidwans like Kanchipuram Nayana Pillai, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, and Palladam Sanjeeva Rao on the kanjira. On several occasions, Panchami shared stage with Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Thanjavur Ramadas Rao, Palani Subramania Pillai, and Palghat Mani Iyer.
On one occasion, he had to play with Palghat Mani Iyer in Tiruvaiyaru during the Thyagaraja Aradhana celebrations. He demanded that he be seated before the mridanga vidwan. Some musicians suggested that the seating arrangement be decided by drawing lots in front of the Swami. Panchami rejected the suggestion because his stature was such that he was not in need of drawing lots. Finally, he was seated before Palghat Mani Iyer as per his wish.
During the music festivals in Chennai in the year 1932, Panchami played tavil and kanjira alternatively for 10 days. Consequently he developed a heart problem and was admitted in the Chindadripet Government Hospital and received treatment for four months. On his return home to Trichy, he did not play tavil for a year. When his health was completely restored, he resumed playing tavil for Perambalur Angappan in Samayapuram and also for other Nadaswaram vidwans.
Panchami Pillai composed several songs steeped in melody. Only eleven of those songs are available now. He also composed chittaswarams now appended to kirtanas such as Niravadisukhada (Ravichandrika), Mariyadagadura (Sankarabharanam), Palukavemi (Poornachandrika), and Sobhillu Saptaswara (Jaganmohini). He has recorded vocal songs such as Ninnujuchi, Palukavemi, Maragatha Mayil, Saravanabhava, Pavatancholai, and Unnai Marandhiduveno for Odeon Records. Odeon also tried to record his tavil playing. He did not allow his tavil play to be recorded even as a teenager when he played for Madurai Ponnuswamy Pillai. When Odeon Records approached him again for a recording of his tavil music, he demanded a huge sum of money as a result of which his tavil play was not recorded.
Panchami Pillai wore only hand-spun khadi, wore a rudraksha mala around his neck, and always had the sacred ash on his forehead. He was fair complexioned and handsome. He was also a great person to get along with. He used to address even his juniors with great respect. He never considered Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai as just a contemporary vidwan. He considered him as his role model and accorded him the highest respect. Panchami was a devotee of Lord Muruga and performed meditation every morning and evening regularly. He had the unstinted support of Kalipatti zamindar.
Panchami Pillai had very few disciples such as Tirubhuvanam Somu Pillai, Athikadai Kannu Pillai, and Singaram Pillai.
Panchami Pillai had two daughters, elder daughter was Saraswati (Muthiah Pillai) and younger daughter was Sarada (Venkatesa Pillai).
In 1935, while he got ready to travel to Sivagiri to accompany Perambalur Angappan, his doctor friends advised him against the journey since he had been unwell for a few days. A determined Panchami travelled to Sivagiri despite the protests from his doctors. On the seventh day of the festival, while playing during the street procession, he vomited blood and fell unconscious. He was brought to Trichy by car. Dr. Raghavan and Dr. Maduram stayed by his side and despite their best efforts; Panchami Pillai shed his mortal coil on the 23rd of March 1935 on Saturday at 8.30 A.M.
A letter sent by Odeon Records agreeing to pay him the amount he had demanded for the recording of his tavil programme arrived at the time of his final journey!
The passing away of Iluppur (Malaikkottai Panchami Pillai) at the prime of his career, a genius and a household name for his sheer brilliance, dexterous finger-play that brought out all the seven notes in the Thavil, bristling laya expertise, an excellent kanjira vidwan and a great vocalist with a mellifluous and speedy briha voice, was a great loss to the world of art.