Friday, 11 October 2013

A popular and accessible expert

Music and dance historian BM Sundaram

By V Ramnarayan
11 October 2013

A documentary DVD on the nagaswaram traditions at Siva temples produced by musicologist and veteran Sruti associate BM Sundaram was released at Chidambaram today. The Nataraja temple in Chidambaram has been battling to preserve its music tradition against all odds.

Nadamum Nathanum is five hours long and documents the nagaswaram-tavil music performed during the temple’s 11-day festival in great detail.

Achalpuram S. Chinnathambia Pillai, a nagaswaram player and one of the exponents of the Chidambaram tradition, has played the nagaswaram. The 88-year-old nagaswaram player is a student of Chidambaram Radhakrishna Pillai and played with him for many years.

Belonging to a family of traditional musicians, Dr Sundaram is a one-stop source of knowledge on the musical and dance history of Tamil Nadu, especially nagaswaram music and natyam. His father Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai (1894-1949) was a renowned tavil vidwan, whom many considered the greatest of his time.

Meenakshisundaram Pillai did not want his son to pursue the tavil, as he saw no future in it for him. Sundaram, however, studied the theory and practice with passion. His gurus included Melattur Narayanaswami Iyer, Vaiyacheri Janakirama Iyer and Thanjavur K Rama Iyer. 

He later took up residence at Vijayawada where he came under the tutelage of Sangita Kalanidhi M Balamuralikrishna. The vidwan saw an enquiring mind in Sundaram and encouraged him to become a researcher in music and dance. Sundaram, a biographer of Balamuralikrishna, took his guru’s advice seriously and became a prolific writer on the traditional arts, including Palavazhi, an exhaustive study of ragas, and Tala Sangraham, dealing with 1,400 talas. 

His work Mangala Isai Mannargal, is a pathbreaking and comprehensive work recording the lives and careers of nagaswara and tavil vidwans, starting with Keevalur Subbaraya Pillai (1787-1846) and concluding with Yazhppanam Dakshinamurthi Pillai (1933-1975).

A linguist familiar with Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Gujarati and Urdu, Sundaram was a music producer and composer at All India Radio, serving at Puducherry, where he is spending his retired life..

His Marabu Tanda Manikkangal about devadasi dancers, and Marabu Vazhi Perarasargal on nattuvanars earned him awards from the Tamil Nadu government. Among the biographies he compiled are those of his father Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, and Kanchipuram Naina Pillai.

His writings in English include The Advent of Lavani in Tanjavur, The Origin and Evolution of the Nagaswaram, and The Origin of Jalatarangam.

Sundaram’s doctoral thesis at Norton College, Massachusetts, was entitled Origin and Evolution of Nadaswaram and Tavil His awards include Tamil Nadu’s Kalaimamani and Madhya Pradesh’s Tansen Music Festival’s Kalabharati

Dr. Sundaram has been a visiting professor of music at such institutions abroad as Wesleyan University, Conneticut, and Norton College, Massachusetts. A member of the Chidambaram Natyanjali Committee, Dr Sundaram is an expert many scholars and performers in music and dance seek out as perhaps the last living link between the past and the present. He has been a long time, and ever willing contributor to Sruti magazine, and a valuable ally in our efforts to document the history of classical music and dance.  

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