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Author Lalitha Ram, in his biography on Palani Subramaniya Pillai titled Dhruva Natchathiram, unveils the fascinating background to the style that the mridangist represents. In a quick yet comprehensive sweep, Dhruva Natchathiram looks at the historical, musical and personal aspects of what went into the Pudukottai style of mridangam playing.
The previous article introduced Palani Subramaniya Pillai (Subbudu) and how Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar who was often accompanied by Palghat Mani Iyer gave Subbudu the break that launched him. Palani Subbudu was a technical virtuoso and Bhagavathar allowed full play to his virtuosity at a concert in then Bombay, says Dhruva Natchathiram.
The book also details the extensive presence of drum instruments in Tamil cultural life. Since the Sangam era, instances of various types of percussion instruments have been around. Made of wood, and using leather for the percussive part, these instruments were fairly advanced. So when the Marathas brought the mridangam to the Tamils, they received it with enthusiasm and made the instrument their own.
What sets the mridangam apart is its ability to invoke the shruti too unlike, for instance, the thavil. Lalitha Ram explains that as the thavil is not sonorous or mellifluous to the ears, thavil artistes compensate with technical skill. The technical aspects in their playing are often more intricate and involved than the mridangam which, by its very sound, keeps not just the rhythm but also harmonises with the shruti.
Lalitha Ram traces the technical intricacies in Palani Subbudu’s performances to the thavil predecessors of the Pudukottai style. Just as the Maratha kingdom patronised the arts in Thanjavur and the Thanjavur style of mridangam came into being, other kings did so with equal verve and passion. The Pudukottai style similarly came to be .
Since the Sangam era, instances of various types of percussion instruments have been around. Made of wood, and using leather for the percussive part, these instruments were fairly advanced. So when the Marathas brought the mridangam to the Tamils, they received it with enthusiasm and made the instrument their own
The Thanjavur style was often marked by restraint, comfort and shruti rather than technical excellence. Narayanaswamy Appa Pillai was likely the earliest exponent of the mridangam in the Thanjavur style.
Lalitha Ram takes up the interesting case of Maanpoondiya Pillai whose job was to hold the torch and help illuminate the Pudukottai palace, especially during events. Maanpoondiya Pillai was smitten by music and, in a moment of inspiration, decided to formally learn music from Mariappan who played the thavil. Mariappan took him on board and taught him, facilitating the flowering of Maanpoondiya Pillai’s talents.
Maanpoondiya Pillai experimented with various combinations of wood and types of leather and settled on monitor lizard leather (nowadays replaced by goatskin leather) to make a new instrument. Calling it the kanjira, Maanpoondiya Pillai added cymbal like accessories so it could be more musical than just a rhythm instrument. Maanpoondiya Pillai translated his learnings from playing the thavil into the kanjira, using technical nuances and creativity, and introduced the new instrument to audiences used to the mellow mridangam. Narayanaswamy Appa Pillai himself acknowledged Maanpoondiya Pillai and approved the kanjira.
As Maanpoondiya Pillai’s fame grew, his thavil teacher sent budding rhythm enthusiasts to learn from him, sowing the seeds of the Pudukottai style. The emphasis on technique and complex rhythm patterns hence became its hallmark. Those who played the mridangam too infused it with technical depth and range.
Maanpoondiya Pillai experimented with various combinations of wood and types of leather and settled on monitor lizard leather (nowadays replaced by goatskin leather) to make a new instrument. Calling it the kanjira, Maanpoondiya Pillai added cymbal like accessories so it could be more musical than just a rhythm instrument
Dhruva Natchathiram describes other luminaries and predecessors of Palani Subbudu in the Pudukottai style. Dakshinamurthy Pillai is one luminary who not only captured people’s attention but their hearts too with his spirituality and helping nature.
The chapter on Dakshimurthy Pillai recalls Palghat Mani Iyer’s tribute to Dakshinamurthy Pillai. Mani Iyer had asked Dakshinamurthy Pillai to take the baton from him at a concert by Musiri Subramania Iyer since he had to catch a train to go to then Madras. As Dakshinamurthy Pillai took the mridangam and started playing, Mani Iyer describes how he was entranced. As Musiri sang Thiruvadi Saranam, Mani Iyer found himself transfixed. Dakshinamurthy Pillai didn’t play the kanakku, korvai or sollu. He merely played the kumuki, meetu and chaappu.
After the pallavi, he played a muthaippu. That was all. But it was enough. “I had to stay there and listen for five minutes. It was divinity pouring forth. Only a few have that divinity. Not everyone,” Lalitha Ram quotes Mani Iyer as saying.
(To purchase the biography Dhruva Natchathiram, contact author Lalitha Ram over Whatsapp on +91 99809 92830)
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