Friday, 10 August 2012


Tiruvazhundur Sivakozhundu 

Translated from Kalki’s Tamil original in Ananda Vikatan (1939) by

 Gowri Ramnarayan 

 (Continued from blogpost dated 9 August 2012)

Kandappa Pillai began his story:

‘It’s been over twelve years since I first met Sivakozhundu Tambi. He was then just beginning to grow famous. I was asked to accompany him at a concert for a temple ceremony. At first I tried to excuse myself because I thought it was beneath me to accompany a youngster. But those who came to invite me would not let me of. It seems Sivakozhundu Pillai had insisted that I be his tavil accompanist. That made me curious enough to accept and to take an advance from them.

‘Judging by the fame he had earned in just two years of concert performance, I expected that he would not play badly. But when Tambi placed the nagaswaram to his lips and began to blow, I realized that this was no mere skill but extraordinary talent. Within half an hour of Tambi’s playing I was transported. I was convinced that the boy was a true heir to the heritage of stalwarts like Mannarkudi Chinna Pakkiri and Sembonnarkoil Ramasami.

‘I also learnt the reason for Tambi’s insistence that I accompany him. While he was apparently extremely fond of my tavil playing, he had another reason as well. For a while, the jealousy of fellow nagaswaram artists had caused every concert of Sivakozhundu’s to end in quarrels.

‘Swami! Fame is an evil thing. The more it grows, the greater the envy it fosters, especially in the world of art and scholarship. People hate to see a youngster achieve excellence and popularity. Wherever they gathered, it had become the norm for nagaswaram players to disparage Tambi.

‘Just a month before we met, Sivakozhundu had been invited to perform at a well-known temple, during the festival in the month of Panguni.

‘A local nagaswaram artist had also been also engaged for the festival. Animosities mounted between the groups. During the Tirukalyana ritual, as Tambi played in the temple hall, these local musicians sat at the rear and made fun of him. One said, “Those who don’t even know how to hold the instrument have come now to perform on stage.” Another added, “If listeners be idiots, anyone can perform on stage.” Though Sivakozhundu was not oblivious to the claque, he continued to play without paying it any attention. But he lost his temper when a local tavil player accused him of not maintaining the right rhythm. “Who says my talam is wrong? Come forward and show me where I am wrong,” he said. There were many admirers of Tambi seated up front and one of them interposed, “Forget these useless chaps. What do they know about music? They only know how to sing for their supper! Go on, play!”

‘That was enough to start a fight. The local nagaswaram player brandished his instrument. The tavil players hit one another. Cymbals were grabbed and flung away. All was mayhem for a while. The priest and the temple warden intervened to restore peace after which they conducted an investigation. There were supporters for both sides. The warden was on the side of the jingoistic supporters of the local artist. He declared that Sivakozhundu was the offender, ordered him to stop playing and get out. The priest however, was Tambi’s ardent fan. He announced fiercely that if Sivakozhundu left the temple, he would accompany him! This led to more efforts at reconciliation.

‘Such incidents occurred not once or twice, but several times. That was the reason why Sivakozhundu decided to get me to be his regular tavil accompanist. Tambi was sure that with me around, no one would dare to make mischief.

‘I learnt all this from Tambi himself, much later. Thenceforward, we began always to appear together at concerts. Because of that, I incurred the rancour of the other nagaswaram artists. They even decided to ban me from their groups. I dismissed them as beneath my contempt. But what did I care, swami? My wants are few. The Lord has given me enough for my needs.

The ban did not affect us at all. Every day brought us a concert. And day by day Tambi’s skill grew more and more refined. Earlier, I had played the tavil for money. When I started to play for Tambi, I forgot myself and played in a state of bliss. Swami! What improvisation! What imagination! What creative content! And for all that Tambi never crossed the boundaries of tradition as practised by the elders. He didn’t use a tambura instead of the otthu as they do nowadays. Nor did he have the tabla instead of the tavil, or the harmonium and marsing as accompaniments.

I interposed at this point to say, ‘Pillail About the tambura …’

But he wouldn’t let me go on. ‘I know, swami, I know that you are a supporter of the tambura. Let’s not go into that issue now. All I’m saying is that Tiruvazhundur Tambi did not take those routes. And yet his music was a miracle. It was the music of the gods … truly of the gods … It won him greater and greater adulation. The money started pouring in.

‘I was extremely happy, except for one thing. Swami, you know that wretched foe of art and artists! Tambi too was a victim of drink. Fiercely determined to free him from the habit, I made indirect allusions to it. I also spoke to him directly about it. Tambi had great respect for me. He would listen quietly without answering back. Not that he didn’t know it was a vile addiction. But he was unable to give it up. I consoled myself that my constant advice at least kept it under some control.

‘Around that time Mahatma Gandhi launched his salt satyagraha. All of India was in a state of turmoil. You know that I have long been interested in the national movement. I attended several public meetings at that time. Sometimes I took Tambi with me. I realised that Tambi’s heart was moved by the speeches of the leaders. Finally, we received the news of Gandhi’s arrest. That day it seemed as if the whole of Kumbakonam had turned out for the massive public meeting. Sivakozhundu had made his home in Kumbakonam some two years earlier. I too went there often. Both of us attended that meeting. Everyone spoke with deep feeling that day. I saw tears roiling down from Tambi’s eyes.

‘An hour passed and then there was a sudden furore. The police were spotted at a little distance, advancing towards the crowd with lathis. On that very day, orders had been received to disperse all public meetings by lathi-charge. The crowd was unaware of this. Before most of them could turn around to see what was happening, the police rushed into the crowd and began to beat up the people ruthlessly. At once the crowd began to disperse. Within a minute or two most of the people ran away. I was one of those who remained till the end. I didn’t run. I made my unhurried exit only after receiving four or five hard strokes.

‘Tambi had run away early and was waiting for me at a street corner. When he saw me he hugged me and wept. We spoke little as we walked home. On the way, when we came to the Hanuman temple on the market street, Tambi shouted for me to stop and fell full length before the sanctum.

‘“Swami! Anjaneya! I swear that from today I will never look on liquor or touch it with my hand!” he vowed.

‘Idiot that I was, couldn’t I keep my mouth shut? “Tambi! Hanuman is the great god of this age of Kali. And the market street Hanuman is very powerful. You have taken an oath in his presence. Be careful! Don’t forget!” I said.

‘Then Tambi stated in a loud voice, “If I break my oath, may lightning strike my head and blind me!”

‘Swami! I tell you truly, my body trembled and my hair stood on end. I wanted to shout, “Damn you, why did you take such a horrendous oath?” But my tongue cleaved to the roof of my mouth.

‘There was yet another reason for my growing attachment to Sivakozhundu. One of my sisters lived in Puduchetti Street in Kumbakonam. I used to stay with her whenever I went to Kumbakonam. I was as fond of her daughter Vanajakshi as if she were my own child. Sundara Kamakshi and I had decided to get her married into a good family, and not let her enter this shameful profession.

‘Sivakozhundu visited me often in Kumbakonam. Then I would think how wonderful it would be if Vanaja were to marry Sivakozhundu. There were signs to show that my wish might come true, signs of a mutual affection growing between them.

‘Vanaja did not have the looks of a celestial nymph. Nor was she bad-looking, for that matter. There was a certain charm about her, and looks that suggested a nice, home-loving girl. But I have never come across a more intelligent girl. Don’t think I say this because she is my niece. I have my own children. Do I praise them? Never.

‘We had no intention of preparing Vanaja for a career in music or dance. We wanted our profession to end with us, so that our children could be settled in good families. Therefore we sent Vanaja to school. After the seventh or eighth class, we stopped her schooling. Vanaja stayed at home.

‘All our efforts could not wipe out a genetic predisposition, an aptitude for the family tradition. Music, dance and acting came easily to the girl and found expression in mischief. She could imitate any singer. If she saw a play she would enact the whole of it, imitating each character perfectly. She could mimic the gait and mannerisms of every one she met, and she would put that skill to comic use. Vanaja was always the centre of fun and laughter. She was afraid of no one and spoke about everyone with nonchalant scorn. I often advised her that this was wrong; she had to be more maidenly and modest.

‘But all that mischief, impertinence, laughter and playfulness vanished in the presence of one man. If Sivakozhundu Tambi dropped in, she would suddenly turn shy and modest. She would not raise her voice. She would speak only when she was spoken to. Tambi’s jokes would elicit not her usual cracks of laughter, but only a slight smile. She was a keen admirer of Tambi’s nagaswaram. She never missed Tambi when he played in Kumbakonam, be it at a festival or a procession. The next time he came, she would remark that a particular ragam was excellent, or that a certain song was a rare piece.

‘Whenever I paid them a visit, she would look eagerly to see if Tambi accompanied me. If he did not come, she would ask indirectly if he was in good health.

‘I saw that Sivakozhundu’s heart was in a similar state. His eyes would search for Vanaja if she was not at the door to welcome him when he came. So was it when he took his leave. He would not leave without bidding her farewell. “Shall we go?” he would ask, but make no move to get up.

‘The feelings of the youngsters were no mystery to me. I decided that their bonding was the will of God. I cannot tell you how happy it made me. My sister was equally content.

‘As we rejoiced over our wishes being fulfilled so easily, a witch arrived to dash cold water over our dreams. You will certainly recognize her name. It was Tiruchendur Manoranjitam. Today she is almost forgotten, but my goodness, it is impossible to describe the crazy following she enjoyed in those days. Within ten days of the arrival of her drama company in Kumbakonam, it seemed the whole town had run mad.

‘Sometimes it is impossible to understand why someone becomes a celebrity in the world of art. My opinion is that Manoranjitam had very mediocre attributes. Of course, at night, when she carne and stood before the electric lights with a thickly-powdered face and a silver-spangled saree, she did seem to be out of the ordinary. In daylight, without all that make-up, her face wasn’t even as pleasing as mine!

‘Her music was simply dreadful. She crooned glittering Hindustani drama melodies. That’s about all. Her voice was not bad. But ask her to sing Khambhoji for fifteen minutes! Zero. Ask her to sing a Tyagaraja kriti to perfect time. Impossible! She was the sort who would say, “I haven’t brought my sense of rhythm with me, I left it at home today.”

‘It was over this unremarkable woman that Kumbakonam went mad. One day when the tickets were sold out, people threw stones at the drama pandal. Imagine the size of the thronging crowds! And wherever the woman went during the day, a thousand people followed her. Her visit to the temple attracted crowds as if for a festival. Everyone would gaze at the actress, not at God!

‘I was not surprised by this frenzied adulation. I have seen it all so many times since the days of Balamani. But what did surprise me was that Tiruvazhundur Tambi too fell a prey to this craze. There was no end to my anguish. Could there be a greater shame than for a musician of Tambi’s genius, proficiency and standing, to fall at the feet of an actress in a drama company!

‘From the day the drama company arrived in Kumbakonam Sivakozhundu didn’t miss a single show. Even if he had to go out of town for some concert, he made sure he got back for the night show.

“Tambi’s antics when Manoranjitam came on stage were dreadful to behold.

‘And just listen to this joke! The same theatre craze infected Vanajakshi as well. She too attended the shows with unfailing regularity. But I didn’t think the play was the only thing which drew her. I noticed this on two or three occasions. While Sivakozhundu gazed at the stage, Vanajakshi’s gaze was rivetted on Sivakozhundu. Somehow her eyes would find him even if they were at the opposite ends of the hall.

‘I didn’t like any of these developments. I could well understand Vanajakshi’s state of mind. I saw how her heart constantly ached for him. Sivakozhundu had stopped visiting us. Sometimes, with tears in her eyes, Vanajakshi would ask, “Mama! When is the drama company leaving town?” I understood what that implied. And though I too was upset, I would say, “Silly girl! Why do you worry? What is it to you what other people do? Go and see if there is any work round the house!” At other times she would say, “Mama! I too am going to join the drama company.” Then she would proceed to sing all the songs and mime everything Monaranjitam did on stage. Ayyo! This girl has gone absolutely crazy! I would say to myself and feel very sorry.

‘You know how our people are given to wild exaggeration, dealing in mere fibs and fabrications. What then do you expect when there is a certain amount of truth involved in the matter? The whole town gossiped about Sivakozhundu’s infatuation. I was sad that a man of genius should have acquired the reputation of an idiot.

‘At last the play drew to a close. That is, the drama company’s engagement at Kumbakonam came to an end. Their next destination was Madras. We came to know that the day they left. Sivakozhundu went to their quarters, stayed there, and behaved in an extremely foolish manner. He also went to the railway station to see them off. To the amusement of everyone on the platform, when the train began to move, Sivakozhundu shouted, “I will definitely come and see you in the city!”

 Copyright 2012 Gowri Ramnarayan.

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