Pazhani Subramanium Pillai

Pazhani Subramanium Pillai

Pazhani Subbudu (1908 – 1962)

He was the second son of Palani Muthiah Pillai and Chennimalai Unnamalai Ammal. Muthiah Pillai was the disciple of Pudukottai Maanpoondiya Pillai who learnt the Kanjira art from Mariappa Tavilkarar and trained disciples like Dakshinamurthi Pillai, Thiruchendur Ramaiyya Pillai and Sevuga Pandiya Thevar, the Zamindar of Seithur. Muthiah Pillai blossomed into a very distinguished Tavil Vidwan who was chosen as the only capable accompanist to Chidambaram Vaidyanatha Nayanakarar who was a terror to his competitors in the field. Muthia Pillai’s eldest son Nageswaran married Neelayathakshi, the daughter of Kancheepuram Nayana Pillai who preferred Muthiah Pillai to be his mridangam accompanist even setting aside Dakshinamurthi Pillai, the resigning monarch! The younger son Subramanya Pillai was a truant at school because laya was throbbing through his veins. His father had to take him over for training in Mridangam. The unwilling father was also irritated by his son who was a left hander. But the parental gurukulsvasam fed the young pupil on liberal doses of the rod. The sleeping child used to be awakened with a cold shower at 4-00a.m. and drilled till about 10-00p.m. This stood the young hopeful in good stead. He shared his lessons with his step-brother Soundara Pandian. In 1923 he was featured in the concert of Mannargudi Rajagopala Pillai in a series of concerts of the Sri Rama Navami festival celebrated by Jalatharangam Ramaiah Chettiar at Madras. It is worth noting here that Chettiar had decorated the young Palghat Mani Iyer with a gold medal at Madras. Likewise he launched Subramanyam into a very distinguished company at the Saraswathi Gana Sabha, Kakinada when he was just 15. The concert was by Nayana Pillai with Govindaswamy Pillai and Ghatam Sundara Iyer. It was Govindaswamy Pillai who gave him full encouragement when others felt he was too young for platform and he guided him in the note of an accompanist. From now on he was constantly the Mridangist in Nayana Pillai’s concerts with Dakshinamurthi Pillai. When later he settled down in Trichy, he shared the concert platform with Panchami who had been impressed by the precision of laya when the teenager, a non-decrepit truant from school slipped away to Madurai to keep time for the Tavil wizard Panjami when others were found wanting for the task. An abiding friendship grew up between them and they could be seen on the concert platform, Palani playing mridangam and the other playing Kanjira when Dakshinamurthi Pillai or Kuttalam Sivavadivel Pillai or Pudukottai Swaminatha Pillai was not available. In combination between Dakshinamurthi Pillai and Palani in the Alathur concerts used to thrill rasikas. For one of the concerts at Trichy, Alathur Venkatesa Iyer and Palani Muthiah Pillai were present to share the thrill of Mani Iyer–Palani duet. After the Pallavi the fond parents made a request to the Alathur brothers to sing Thiruppugazh in Khandajathi Dhuruvatalam ‘Paniyin Vinduli’ immortalised in concerts by Naina Pillai, Kanjira, Dholak and Konnakol Pakkiri Pillai. Needless to say the overjoyed parents showered their blessings on the entire team.

Palani was sought after by all leading Vidwans like Ariyakudi, G.N.B, Flute Mahalingam, Flute Viswanathan, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Dandapani Desikar and others. Naina Pillai specially featured Palani and Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar in a concert by Mazhavaraya Nandal Subbarama Bhagawathar at the Kanchi Thyagaraja festival. At the conclusion of the concert Naina Pillai in all humility prostrated at the feet of Bhagawathar invoking his blessings for himself to sing Kalpana swaram at least in the next birth in the footsteps of the Bhagawathar. He congratulated Palani for rising to the occasion. Years later Mani Iyer and Alathur Subbu Iyer likewise paid their tribute to Pallavi sung at the Academy by Dr. Sitarama Iyer, a pupil of Bhagawathar.

Palani had well defined views about the mridangam technique. The Pudukottai Bani reproduced the lyrics on the mridangam and used the valendarai (right head) more than the left head thoppi so as not to confuse the principal performer. Vaidyanatha Iyer, the guru of Mani Iyer in late years admired the greater use of the thoppi by Palani because of constant listening to Tabla recitals on the radio. AIR broadcasts quite often the jugal bandi between the mridangam Palani and the tabla Anokhey Lal of Banaras. Palani participated in jugal bandi with an American Jazz drummer. This is also heard in Madras AIR programmes. Mani Iyer and Palani played mridangam for the Pancharatna chorus at the Thiruvaiyar Festival – one for Sahithyam and the other for swaram. Can we dream of the recordings?

The Pudukotta School represented by Dakshinamurthi Pillai also succumbed to the Tanjore Bani of Narayanaswami Appa, Mani Iyer’s guru Vaidyanatha Iyer and Ramadoss Rao. Palani was a good vocalist and so was his friend Thavil Panchami. In the Navarathri concert at Pudukottai the scheduled vocalist failed to turn up. Dakshinamurthi Pillai immediately selected Palani as the vocalist and the accompaniment was provided by Swaminatha Pillai, Kanjira by Dakshinamurthi Pillai.

For years together Palani, Kandappa Nattuvanar Chettiar, Subramanya Pillai and Veena Dhanammal used to stay with Ramanaiya Chettiar as his guests. They were a permanent team of rasikas at her concerts and she used to enjoy his drumming when he practiced daily with affectionate banter she would applaud him with ‘Anne!’ Sabaash!!!

Chembi Vaidyanatha Bhagawathar was greatly impressed by the accompaniment in 1926 in Buchireddipalayam. Palani acknowledged with gratitude the encouragement given by Chembai for his advancement in career.

Palani’s chief disciples are M. N. Kandaswamy (AIR) Tiruchi Shankaran (York University Toronto) prof. T. Ranganathan (Wesleyn University, USA) and Dandamoodi Rammohan Rao (AIR Vijayawada) , Professor G. Shanmukhananda (Tirupathi Music College) C.T. Lakshmanan (Tamil Isai),

He became Asthana Vidwan of Travancore in 1942. Muthiah Pillai tried to build a temple for his guru at Pudukottai and it was left to Subramanya Pillai to complete the building and arrange for annual gurupooja. To his last days Palani in humble prayer recalled the blessings of Maanpoondiya Pillai who had visited his house to condole the death of Palani’s mother. The great guru taught a few jathis and when Palani repeated them verbally and correctly the Maha Vidwan showered him with his blessings. For a short time Palani was the Professor of Mridangam in Tamil Isai Kalluri in Madras. Palani and Lalgudi were the distinguished accompanists when Mudicondan demonstrated the Shanmarga Pallavi at the Academy. Mani Iyer and Lalgudi shared the platform when Madura Srirangam Iyengar gave a special Pallavi demonstration at the academy.

Palani’s anniversary is observed in May every year at Madras. Great Mridanga Vidwans like Mani Iyer, T. K. Murthi and Palghat Raghu recalled with pleasure and thrill of Palani’s technique.

Under comma, Palani Subramanya Pillai kept drumming on the chamber pot which the nurse served him at the Isabella Nursing Home, Madras. His Physician Dr. A. Srinivasan, a rasika himself moved earth and heaven to save the eye of the vidwan but fate willed it otherwise. May is a cruel month to Mridanga Vidwans!

“In the later part of the 19th century and earlier part of the 20th century, there existed two distinctive schools of percussion art – the Thanjavur and the Pudukottai schools. The former was descended from the Marathi traditions of Bhajans and Harikatha. When successors of Shivaji came south they settled and established their rule in Thanjavur. It was the more ancient of the two schools and although various forms of percussion instruments have been in vogue in the Tamil country from the Sangam Ages the precursor of the mridangam as we know it today owes its origin to those early Maratha days. The other school, that of Pudukottai owes its origins to the indigenous Thavil. Thavil playing had attained great proficiency and widespread popularity for more than ten centuries. It was an inseparable accompaniment to Nadaswaram. This music graced all temples in Tamil Nadu. For many centuries Nadaswaram and Thavil concerts used to be held on auspicious occasions like marriages and other secular occasions. The Pudukottai school of laya was founded by Manpundia Pillai (aka Mamundia Pillai) whose teacher was the palace Thavil Vidwan at the then princely state of Pudukottai named Mariappa Pillai. Due to the Thavil influence, the content of the Pudukottai school of percussion was of a very high order. Actually Mamundia Pillai is credited with the invention and use of the Kanjira -a one sided instrument unlike the mridangam, in concerts.

One of the most talented disciples of Mamundia Pillai was Palani Muthiah Pillai, father of our Palani. Like many of his contemporaries, he was from the Isai Vellala community which was the repository of music in those days. He had two wives of which, the older one bore him three children. Not very much is known about her. Palani’s mother Unnamalai Ammal was the younger of the two wives. She was from a place called Chennimalai, in actual fact Palani Subramanian Pillai was born in Chennimalai ) Erode in Tamil Nadu as his mother went there to have the birth of her son , this he told to Sri M N Kandaswami who narrated the same to Sri Rajan Padiachi (SA) Erode in Tamil Nadu. Curiously all her male relatives used e caste surname of ‘Mudaliar’ and not ‘Pillai’. They were mainly agriculturalists and business men and did not seem to have had anything to do with music.

Palani was born on 20th April 1908. From a very early age he took to mridangam as a duck takes to water. Yet Muthiah Pillai would not teach him mridangam as his son was a south paw (left handed) which in those days was considered inauspicious. It took all the persuasive skills of Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, a friend and co-disciple with Muthiah Pillai under Mamundia Pillai, to finally make Palani’s father relent.

His father was a hard task master. His punishments even for minor lapses were extremely harsh, but such rigorous training stood Palani in good stead. Even in his teens he had the good fortune to be a friend and collaborator of Iluppur Panchapakesa Pillai from Malaikkottai, also known as ‘Thavil Panchami’, a wizard on Thavil. Although he was older than Palani, he found in the latter an emerging star in the world of percussion. Besides his father and Panchapakesa Pillai, Palani was also greatly influenced by Dakshinamurthy Pillai who was the uncrowned monarch in the field. The senior Pillai in return showered great love and affection on young Palani whom he looked upon as his own son.

The founder of the Pudukottai School, Mamundia Pillai, introduced Kanjira as an instrument in concerts. His distinguished disciples could play a large number of instruments like Mridangam, Kanjira, Thavil, and Ghatam. In their steps, Palani was also an outstanding Kanjira Vidwan besides being a master of Mridangam. Before he turned twenty, Palani had the good fortune to accompany stalwarts like Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhavathar and Mudicondon Venkatarama Iyer. In the next decade others who preferred his accompaniment were Chittoor Subramanian Pillai and importantly Alathur Brothers whose guru (father of Alathur Subbiyer), Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, was a great admirer of Palani. It was because of Palani that the brothers shifted base from Trichy to Madras and they made a great team. Palani is credited with composing a large number of major pallavis for the brothers including their tempo and nadai variations. Later the team broke up (due to personal misunderstandings) much to the grief of a large number of listeners and especially Venkatesa Iyer. Iyer managed to effect reconciliation after a decade of extensive efforts and Palani did team up with the brothers again but the old camaraderie was gone.

As Palani’s playing in the early part of his career was robust and laya-oriented with extensive calculations, many vocalists of the time did not feel comfortable with him except for the few mentioned earlier. It was one of the most popular among the doyens of yesteryears, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bagawathar (earlier responsible in advancing the careers of Mysore T.Chowdiah and Palghat Mani Iyer) who took to promoting Palani. There were numerous concerts in which he gave Palani opportunities to play three of four “Thanis” or solos in a concert. It is said that in a concert in Shanmukhananda Sabha in Bombay he asked Palani to play in each of the five nadais – Chatusram, Tisram, Misram, Kandam and Sankeeram. It was he who also persuaded Palani to tone down on the laya intricacies and increase the “sow yam” or aesthetic content in his playing. Palani, probably with considerable regret in having to shed his specialization and scholarship, abided by his mentor’s suggestion, not only because of the practicality but also because of his great respect for Chembai who was his elder by several years. Bhavagathar’s advice stood Palani in good stead. Eminently popular vidwans like GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, and Semmangudi soon clamoured to have him accompany him in their concerts. Senior vidwans of that era such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai and Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu (a solo violinist) also had him as an accompanist in many of their concerts.

In turn Palani encouraged a number of younger vocal and instrumental artists including Balamuralikrishna, Ramnad Krishnan, M.D.Ramanathan, KVNarayanaswami, Tiruvarur Namasivayam, Thanjavur Thyagarajan, Lalgudi Jayaraman and Palghat Raghu. While playing for younger artists he was never condescending but was always supportive and never tried to show off or intimidate. In fact although he possessed talents of gigantic proportions, he never indulged in exhibitionism and his only aim was to enhance the total appeal of the concert. Madurai Mani Iyer used to call him “thyagi”- one who would efface himself in order to give his whole hearted support to the main artist and to enhance the overall quality of the concert in the process.

He has also played kanjira with mridanga Vidwan like Palghat Mani Iyer and Ramnathapuram C.S.Murugabhoopathy. His Kanjira performances were fewer (compared to Mridangam) and listeners thronged to these concerts whenever they occurred. Compared to the double headed Mridangam with its rich tonal quality, the single headed Kanjira with its limited tonal quality is more difficult to handle but Palani equalled or even excelled in duets with the best mridangists.”

When Palani was present in a gathering there was no levity or frivolousness exhibited. According to vidwans who shared the platform with him in concerts, both his demeanour and playing was the epitome of “Gauravam” or dignity.
Palani trained a large number of disciples and during the 1950s and 1960s his disciples would win almost all the prizes in various competitions as well as scholarships. The foremost among his students were T. Ranganathan, M.N. Kandaswami, Dandamudi Ramamohan Rao, Pudukottai Shanmukhananda, V Raghu Prasad, K S Kalidas Poovalur Venketeraman, Udumalai Mayilsamy and Pallathur Lakshmanan. Trichy Sankaran, Guruvayur Dorai, Palani Krishnan, Madirimangalam Swaminathan, He devised a unique set of lessons that were carefully graded in’ terms of their complexity. He was a strict disciplinarian and would not proceed to a new lesson unless the disciple had perfected the earlier one.
At the behest of his father Palani erected a shrine on the Samadhi of Guru Mamundia Pillai at Pudukottai in 1945.Till he passed away in 1962 Palani performed Guru Pooja each year at this Samadhi on Mamundia Pillai’s death anniversary. This is the day preceding the Aradhana of Saint Thyagaraja (which falls on Bagulapanchami day). After Palani’s death his disciple M.N.Kandaswami Pillai took this over and also initiated the Guru Pooja for Palani in Chennai until passing away and is now continued by Sri M N Kandaswami’s disciples.

Palani passed away in Madras on May 27th, 1962 at the age of fifty four, while still at the peak of his form.

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