Who's Who in Indian Classical Music
By V Ramnarayan
‘Fiddle’ VR Govindaraja Pillai was an important link between two eras of violin playing in Carnatic music: the time of Chowdiah, Papa Venkataramiah and Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai and the period of the famed trio of superstars Lalgudi Jayaraman, TN Krishnan and MS Gopalakrishnan. Born on 12 May 1912 at nearby Vazhuvur, the handsome violinist was known as Mayavaram.
There was music in the Pillai family. Uncle Vazhuvur Veeraswami Pillai, a nagaswara vidwan, was Govindarajan’s first music teacher and parent as well, after the boy was orphaned at the age of three. His aptitude for the violin took the lad first to Mayavaram Bhootalingam Pillai and later to the venerable Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai. He acquired yet another guru in Simizhi Sundarappa Iyer, from he learnt numerous kritis. Govindarajan eventually married Veeraswami Pillai’s daughter.
Starting with a concert in 1930 along with his guru Rajamanickam Pillai, Govindarajan grew up to be a leading violinist of the time, known especially for the beauty of his raga alapana essays—which on occasion tended to overshadow the efforts of the main artiste. Always strictly adhering to the grammar of Carnatic music, his accompaniment often elevated the concert to a higher plane. He was considered a perfect match to Madurai Mani Iyer with his sarvalaghu excellence, and equally comfortable accompanying the Alathur Brothers, known for their swara complexities. He could incorporate laya subtleties into the concerts of musicians innocent of them.
Govindaraja Pillai was known for his high principles, pleasant manners, total guru bhakti and devotion to God. He was scrupulous to the core in financial matters, even returning part of the fees if he felt he had been overpaid. With his students, he was kindness personified. One of his prime disciples Sikkil Bhaskaran—Kuttalam Vaidyalingam Pillai was another—is one pupil who remembers his gurukulavasam with him with affection and gratitude. In addition to lessons at home, he made his students practise during train travel, enjoying the whole process of learning. He took them to listen to many concerts.
While teaching at Annamalai University, Govindaraja Pillai tuned many kritis. His awards and honours included Asthana Vidwan of Travancore, Isai Perarignar and Kalaimamani.
He passed away on 2 February 1979.