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Tamilnadu's Contribution to Carnatic Music
- A Bird's Eye View ( by B.M. Sundaram) Part-II

Tamilnadu's Contribution to Carnatic Music - A Bird's Eye View

The following article is taken from SRUTI, India's Premier Music and Dance Magazine , Issue 132, p. 23 (1995). It was adapted from a lecture delivered by B.M. SUNDARAM at the 53rd annual festival of music and dance organized by Sri Tyagaraja Festival Committee in Tirupati. In regard to performers, the author has, with few exceptions, not mentioned the name of anyone living.
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Continued from part-I


Without performers music can remain only on books. It is the musicians who present the creative works of composers to the public and keep the classical system of music alive. They need listeners, of course.

The annals of Carnatic music contain the names of numerous musicians of Tamil Nadu who have made a valuable contribution to the preservation, development and promotion of Carnatic music. Some of them can be called path-finders, innovators; others have served the cause by the high calibre and excellence of their music.

The Carnatic music kutcheri as we know today had its beginnings barely a hundred years ago. The early stalwarts of Tamil Nadu who sang for the public were Patnam Subrahmania Iyer, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Coimbatore Raghava Iyer, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar and Madurai Pushpavanam, to name only the prominent vidwans. These were followed by giants who created a public following for classical music, like Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar, Kallidaikurichi Vedanta Bhagavatar, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subrahmania Iyer, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer.

Of these, Ariyakudi and GNB were innovators and trendsetters of significance. The former perfected a new kutcheri pattern with variety as its hallmark, while the latter introduced a strikingly new band.

Among women, M. S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari, described as the Female Trinity of Carnatic music by N. Pattabbi Raman, together brought about a revolutionary change in the outlook of the women musicians themselves, and public appreciation of women musicians. The bottom line: the status of women in music was raised.

During the last century, most of the vocalists of Tamil Nadu were vainika-s also. Veena Perumalayya, Veena Rama Kalahastayya, Dasavadyam Krishna Iyer and many more were in the court of Tanjavar. The names of Veena Dhanammal and Karaikudi Brothers, of the recent past, are still cherished by the rasika-s.

Gottuvadyam is a stringed instrument which is given new fanciful names by every artist. One calls it gottuvadyam, another contends it is chitraveena, while a third endearingly avers it is atichitra veena. Perhaps it will some day be credited with a 'sahasranama'! Scholars are of the opinion that the original name of this instrument is 'maha nataka veena'. Whatever may be the truth, it is not known whether any one played the instrument for the public in Tamil Nadu before Sakharama Rao of Tiruvidaimarudur did. Not surprisingly, therefore, he is considered a pioneer. Latter-day artists of Tamil Nadu, like Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal, Tanjavur Duraiyappa Bhagavatar and Mannargudi Savitri Ammal, exhibited extraordinary proficiency in playing this instrument. A. Narayana Iyer, D. Kittappa, Madhavachar and few others were also prominent.

The same is the case with the flute too. Sarabha Sastrigal 11872-1904), an eminent flutist, was probably the first one to play in concerts. He was followed by Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Kumbakonam Nagaraja Rao and others. T.R. Mahalingam or Mali, born in Tiruvidaimarudur in 1926, was a prodigy, and a genius turned legend. He introduced an entirely new way of playing Carnatic music on the flute. He passed into eternity in 1986.

Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai was a perfectionist and his anchor-like rhythmic precision had no parallel. After unveiling his portrait in a Madras sabha, Mali said: It was only Swaminatha Pillai who introduced madhyama kale playing on the flute and I took a leaf only from him."

The name of Anayampatti Subba Iyer (1881-1961) became a synonym for jalatarangam. Azhwar Tirunagari Appadurai Iyengar, Madras Ramaniah Chettiar, Avudayarkovil Harihara Bhagavatar and a host of others learnt from him.

Perur Subrahmania Dikshitar and Alathur Venkatesa Iyer were outstanding harmonium vidwans, who played nothing but Camatic music on the keyboard instrument. Many others, like S.G. Kasi Iyer, Uraiyur T.M. Khader Batcha, K.S. Devudu Iyer and Madurai M.R. Vasavambal, and such others helped establish a place for the harmonium in Carnatic music, but their careers were restricted to the drama stage. The role of the harmonium in Camatic music diminished when the musical theatre went into oblivion.

It was Tanjavur Vadivelu who played Carnatic music on the violin for the first time, though, in the opinion of some others, the credit should go to Balaswami Dikshitar. (A musicologist from Karnataka has written that violin was first used for Camatic music in Karnataka, on the basis of a portrait found in the Daria Daulat (Tipu Sultan's Palace) at Srirangapatnam. But he has not indicated who played Camatic music on the violin in that period or indicated what type of music had been played by the lady represented in the said portrait). Anyway, after Vadivelu and Balaswami Dikshitar, stalwarts like Seerkazhi Narayanaswami Pillai, Tanjavar Venkoba Rao, Tirukodikoval Krishna Iyer and Malaikotai Govindaswami Pillai helped establish the place of the violin in Carnatic music. Two of the eminent violinists of the recent past were Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai and 'Suswaram' Tiruvalankadu Sundaresa Iyer.

Although some techniques of playing the mridanga were the gift of Maharashtrians, this percussive instrument has been in use in Tamil Nadu from time immemorial, for dance recitals and music performances held in the royal Courts. The Tanjavur Palace records refer to one Kamakshi Bai, the first known lady-player of the mridanga. The instrument gained a golden touch at the hands of Tanjavur Narayanaswami Appa. Tanjavar Pakkiri Pillai, Kumbakonam Azhaganambi Pillai, Tanjavor Ramdoss Rao, Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, as well as other eminences from a different district, like Pudukotai Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Palani Subramania Pillai, were responsible for carving for the mridanga the vital role it enjoys today in Camatic classical music.

Khanjira, the South Indian tambourine, was at one time mostly used in processional bhajan-s, since it is very handy and easily portable. Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, the great savant of Tamil literature, has mentioned Tiruvidaimarudur Radhakrishna Iyer and Kumbakonam Krishnamachariar as two khanjira players. The instrument was given a lift by the leonine Pudukotai Manpoondi Pillai (1857-1921) who was a formidable figure on the concert platform. Complete rhythmic manipulations came to be used in concerts only from his times. Manpoondi Pillai's illustrious disciple, Pudukotai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, was a wizard in playing the khanjira as well as the mridanga.

The clay pot called ghatam appears to have been handled on the concert platfomm first by CoimbatoreAnantachar. Polagam Chidambara Iyer, Umayalpuram Narayana Iyer, Seranmahadevi Sundaram Iyer, Tiruvidaimarudur Hanumantha Rao and Lalgudi Saptarishi Iyer were other early performers. Later, Palani Krishna Iyer was an eminent ghata artist, but it was Alangudi Ramachandran, a Keralite settled in Tanjavur district, who raised the status of the instrument.

Mukhasangu (corruptly called morsangu or morsing) players were many in Tamil Nadu. Adichapuram Seetarama Iyer and Mannargedi Natesa Pillai achieved eminence by playing this harp skillfully to support Carnatic music.

The recital of rhythmic phrases in dance programmes by the nattuvanar is common. The oral rendering of the rhythmic solfa syllables in music concerts was an innovation of Mannargudi Pakkiri Pillai and the art came to be called as konnakol, though Bharata mentions it as 'vak karana' and some other music works mention it as 'mukhari'. However talented or senior a mridanga or ghata vidwan may be and however young or lacking in talent a vocalist may be, the first place and the central seat on the dais is given only to the vocalist, for it is he or she who renders the sahitya orally. Like the vocalist, it is only the konnakol artist among the percussionists who renders the rhythmic phrases orally. For this reason konnakol artists were given the first place among the percussionists in concerts. Kanchipuram Ekambara Iyer, Mannargudi Vaidyalingam Pillai (son of Pakkiri Pillai) and Vellore Gopalachari were some famous konnakol vidwans.

'Alatti' of the ancient Tamil music became 'alapti' or 'alapana later. Raga alapana in vocal or concert instruments has always been guided by the nagaswara. Similarly, the execution of complicated rhythmic pattems developed to a high degree owes its inspiration to the instrument called tavil. The nagaswara melam consisting of these trio instruments served as the beaconlight to other media of Camatic music. It may not be necessary to describe in detail that nagaswaram and tavil took birth and 'grew up' in the Tamil soil, particularly in the district of Tanjavur. Mannargudi Chinna Pakkiri Pillai, Tirucherai Muthukrishna Pillai, Keeranur Brothers, Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers and some others were highly proficient in rendering alapana, kriti-s and difficult pallavi-s. Semponnarkovil Ramaswami Pillai had no equal in playing rhythmically terse rakti-s, while Chidambaram Vaidyanatha Pillai was deservingly known as the 'Pallavi Simham'.

There cannot be anyone in the Carnatic music world who does not know or has not heard about Tiruvaduturai Rajarathnam Pillai (1898-1956), whose name is a synonym for the nagaswara. A genius, he added extraordinary and new dimensions to nagaswara music. Elaborate, hypnotising rage alapana was his forte. He was a first rank vocalist too. Before taking up the wind instrument, he was giving vocal duets, in tandem with Tiruppamburam Swaminatha Pillai, who later became a flutist. AIR-Tiruchi regularly broadcast Rajarathnam Pillai's vocal music until 1952. Tiruvidaimarudur Veeruswami Pillai, the first nagaswara artist to be honoured as the asthana vidwan of Tirumalai-Tirupati Devasthanams, was another great in the field.

In the domain of tavil, the celebrities were Srivanchiyam Govinda Pillai, Ammachatram Kannuswami Pillai (he was the nagaswara guru of Rajarathnam Pillai), Ammapettai Pakkiri Pillai, Vazhuvoor Muthuveer Pillai, my father Needamangalam Meenakshi sundaram Pillai, Malaikotai Panchapakesa Pillai, my brother Shanmukhavadivel and Yazhppanam Dakshinamurti. The last mentioned really belonged to Tirtippayattankudi, near Tiruvarur. Meenakshisundaram Pillai ushered in a new era in tavil playing with his own amazing skills and by initiating the concept of special tavil. The appointment of nagaswara and tavil artists to provide ritual services in temples was started by the descendants of Rajaraja Chola who had conquered and settled down in Andhra and had come to be known as the 'Telugu Chodas'.

Contribution of drama theatre

Dramas too helped to foster Camatic music. Todi Sundar Rao (an expert in singing Todi raga and hence the honorific), Khamas Madhava Rao, Govindaswami Rao and innumerable others were stage actors, as well as musicians. S.G. Kittappa was a class apart. Nobody who had listened to him could forget his thrilling voice and music on the stage and his gramophone discs. He lived only for 28 years (1906-1933), but he cast a spell even over knowledgeable musicians and rasika-s. Special trains were run with the name 'Kittappa Special' to hcilitate office-goers to reach the place where his dramas were conducted. Essaying of raga-s like Andolika and Devamritavarshini were probably attempted by none before him. K.B. Sundarambal, his partner on the stage as well as in real life, was a wonderful foil to him.

Drama songs were mostly in the Carnatic idiom, with few exceptions. V.A. Chellappa, Ananthanarayana Iyer, Chidambaram S. Jayaraman, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar (who became a renowned cinema star) and M.R. Krishnamurthy were other actor-musicians who contributed to the popularisation of classical Camatic music.

Equal credit is due to the composers of stage music also. In this regard, the contribution of Swami Sankaradoss (1867-1922), revered as the father of the Tamil stage, was incomparably bountiful. He was an actor, playwright, lyricist, tunesmith, director and proprietor all rolled into one. In music, he was a disciple of Pudukotai Manpoondi Pillai and perhaps that was the reason for his songs in Camatic raga-s. One could visualise the whole swaroopa of the rage by listening to just one or two lines of a song composed by him.

Regrettably, the latter-day dramas gradually dispensed with music.

Role of Harikatha

Harikatha kalakshepa is a composite art, in which music plays a significant part. It is a heritage bequeathed by the Maharashtrians who settled down in Tanjavar during the Maratha rule. Krishna Bhagavatar (1851-1903) of Tanjavar, who was guided by Morganakar Ram Chandra Bawa, was the pioneer in performing Harikatha in Tamil and propagating it. He modified the mode, but not the format, to suit the non-Marathi audience. Adored as the 'Harikatha Pitamaha', he made Carnatic music an integral part of his discourses. Tanjavur Govinda Bhagavatar, Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal, Tiruvaiyaru Pandit Lakshmanachar, Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar, Chidambaram Srirangachariar, Chitrakavi Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Tiruvaiyaru Annaswami Bhagavatar, Embar Vijayaraghavachariar and many other story tellers also used music to telling effect. The first lady-bhagavatar was C. Saraswati Bai (1894-1974) and the one who followed her immediately was Padmasani Bai, trained by Melattur Bharatam Natesa Iyer. Many Harikatha performers, in due course, became concert musicians. Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and Palakkad Anantharama Bhagavatar may be cited in this context. Similarly some who started their careers as concert musicians, switched over to Harikatha, like Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar (who is claimed by Rarnataka as its own) and Chitrakevi Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar.

Harikatha exponents mostly employed Carnatic music, though some Hindustani raga-s or some folksy tunes also found a place to suit the song and occasion. Though they could not be expected to do a raga alapana in the midst of their discourse, they would reveal the quintessence of a raga when rendering even a single phrase or two.

The role played by kings, nobles, zamindars, petty chieftains and private individuals of Tamil Nadu, by way of patronage to Camatic music is worth mentioning too. They provided invaluable support to musicians by showering rich presents and also presenting grants of land or house or both.

As stated earlier, music cannot thrive unless it has listeners. To train a musical ear is far difficult than to train a performing musician. In Tamil Nadu, sabha-s began playing a significant role in promoting music from about the nineteen twenties. They -and their members- became the new patrons, replacing kings, zamindars and other landed gentry over a period of time. With discriminating listeners increasing in numbers, it became less difficult for musicians to win recognition or laurels in Tamil Nadu, and this fact promoted excellence. However, this is no longer the case.

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