Thursday, 9 August 2012


Tiruvazhundur Sivakozhundu

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

Gowri Ramnarayan


The train came to a halt at Iyampettai station at exactly 8.30 p.m. A lightning flash illuminated the station, the platform and the thick trees beyond. The darkness now seemed ten times deeper. The flickering light of the station lantern underscored that darkness. ‘Who are you to challenge me?’ the night seemed to ask as it came rolling down to smother the lantern’s existence.

The mere act of boarding a train is enough for some people to be overcome by sleep. The rhythmic movement of the train lulls them at once. But sleep forsakes me on trains. Moreover, how could I hope to sleep on so stormy a night?

I worried about having to get through the whole of that night on the train.

I picked up a book and tried to read. It was not easy to read on a moving train. Therefore when I heard the porter shout, ‘Iyampettai! Iyampettai!’ I opened the shutters and looked out. I remembered that Iyampettai was Kandappan’s hometown.

No, you would not have heard of Iyampettai Kandappan, because I have changed his name and hometown. The famous artist was often described as the avatar of Lord Nandi. In his hands the tavil did not sound like an ordinary instrument but became the dundubhi of the gods. Pudukkottai Dakshinamurti Pillai happened to hear him play once, so the legend goes, and flung his own mridangam and khanjira away. For six months after that, he would not even touch a percussion instrument. Ivampettai Kandappan was indeed a peerless exponent of his art. Besides, he always wore khadi and was deeply interested in the nationalist movement. I met him frequently at the sessions of the Congress Party. I had also learnt that he was a fascinating conversationalist. That was why I remembered him and thought that the night would pass easily if he chanced to board my train that day.

Even as the thought occurred to me, I saw two or three men walking hurriedly towards the train. I looked intently to see if I could recognize them. Why, the first one was Tavil Kandappan himself!

The door to my compartment opened before I could get over my surprise. Kandappa Pillai got in. His companions brought in his luggage: a trunk, his bedroll, and two tavils.

‘Has anything been left behind?’

‘Everything is here.’

‘Check once again and get going.’

‘We’ll take our leave of you now.’

‘Run! Run! Get into the next compartment. Don’t go off to sleep and miss the Vizhupuram station, understand?’

The train began to move. The station lantern disappeared from view. The train picked up speed as it tore through the forests of the night.

‘Kandappa Pillai! How are you?’ I asked.

Surprised, Kandappa Pillai turned to look at me and said, ‘Oh, it’s you, swami! I am fine. And very happy to see you.’

‘I am extremely happy too, to see you. What a coincidence! I thought of you when the train stopped at Iyampettai. I also thought it would be wonderful if you happened to board the train. The next instant brought you right into my compartment! If I tell my friends about this in Madras tomorrow, they won’t believe me. They will say it is against nature!’

‘Against which nature, swami?’ Kandappa Pillai enquired.

‘What a question! What do you mean “against which nature”?’

‘Look, swami! Take this train now. It is natural for a train to run on its tracks. We get into a train because we believe that it will do that. But once in a while the train runs off the rails, and there’s an accident. Those who don’t actually witness such a happening can say, “No train will run off the rails, it is unnatural for it to do so”.’

Before I could think of an answer, he went on, ‘Listen, You can hear the thunder. Ten cracks in the last five minutes. The thunderstorm is a constant phenomenon, raging alternately over some part of the world or the other. Can a single man or creature escape death if all that charge of lightning strikes the earth? No. And therefore it is natural for thunder to crash, and only in the skies. But once in a long while lightning does strike the earth. Then, instead of killing its victim outright, it snatches his eyes away. Swami, would you say this is a natural phenomenon, or that it is against nature?’

We looked at each other. I didn’t know what to say.

‘Why are you silent, swami? Answer me. If it is natural for lightning to strike the earth, why doesn’t it strike each and every one of us? Why does it not blind us all? If it is unnatural for it to strike the earth, how can it strike only a certain individual? And destroy his eyesight? Can this happen? If it cannot happen, how then did it happen?’

I began to wonder if Kandappa Pillai had all his wits about him. Prohibition had not been enforced in Tanjavur, I recalled. Perhaps ... Was it possible that ... ? I chided myself for my suspicions. He headed the Congress Committee in his hometown. With a Gandhi cap on his head, he had picketed liquor shops. Could such a person have imbibed liquor? Certainly not.

Then why was he talking nonsense? Why did he babble on and on about thunder and lightning?

In order to change the subject, I asked him, ‘Are you coming to town? For a concert perhaps? A wedding concert?’

‘Yes, swami. There is a concert in town tomorrow.’ With that he picked up his tavil and placed it by his side. He removed the cover and stroked both heads of the drum, as loving as a mother’s hands caressing the cheeks of her beloved child.

What was this? Was the man going to stage a solo tavil concert on the train? Just the right thing to induce sleep! As I laughed to myself, he said, ‘Swami, I have played the tavil every day, all my life. I have accompanied several great nagaswaram artists. But last night’s playing was bliss altogether different! What amazing sounds were produced on these heads of hide! Was it I who played the instrument? Not at all. Lord Nandi manifested himself in my fingers!’

My interest quickened. I realized then that what had seemed like nonsense a few minutes ago was the excitement of the previous night’s inspired performance.

‘And where did such a fine concert take place? Who played the nagaswaram?’ I asked him.

‘Swami, have you heard of Tiruvazhundur Sivakozhundu?’

‘Tiruvazhundur Sivakozhundu? Who is he? I haven’t heard of him!’ I replied. I had heard of an old, famous nagaswaram player called Sivakozhundu, but he had died before I was born. Nor did he belong to Tiruvazhundur.

‘No? Think again! Where were you in 1929-30?’

‘I see, 1929-30? I spent half of that period as a guest of the government, and the other half at a village far from the railway station at Salem.’

‘I see, that’s why you didn’t hear of him. Sivakozhundu Tambi was famous during just those two years. But in those two years, he conquered the entire world of music.’

I felt a sudden stab of pain. ‘Isn’t it true that some geniuses in the world of art have died early?’ I thought at once of Kittappa.

‘No, swami, no! Don’t even say such a thing! Pray that Tambi may lead a long life!’
‘I will be happy to say that! May he live a long and happy life. But why has he been forgotten? Why has he stopped playing?’

‘Because the world cannot bear it anymore. It will drive everyone mad. That is why I don’t go too often myself to see Tambi, I heard him play last night. Since then I have been gripped by a frenzy. I want to tear my tavil apart and take an oath that I will forswear accompanying anyone else. What an Athana he played last night! First I had tears in my eyes. Then I wanted to get up and dance in ecstasy. Even now, when I think of it, my hair stands on end!’

I urged him to tell me everything from the very beginning.

Copyright 2012 Gowri Ramnarayan.

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