Who's Who in Classical Music
By BM Sundaram
(Translated and edited by V Ramnarayan from Mangala Isai Mannargal and other writings by the author)
His is one of the greatest names in tavil. Bosn to Sundaram, one of two dancer sisters, in 1876, at Ammapettai, two miles from Kumbakonam, little Kannusami was the darling of both his mother and his childless aunt Gnanam. Showing a precocious talent for percussion even as a two-year-old, he started drumming on the betel box of a neighbouring nattuvanar, who soon taught him jatis and sollukattus. Graduating to belting it out on boxes and pillars, he so impressed the nattuvanar friend that he recommended investing in a tavil for the boy. By 12, Kannuswami was quite an adept at the tavil. As he also had a good voice, his guru taught him vocal music as well.
He first ascended the stage as a tavil accompanist to Tirumarugal Natesa Pillai playing the nagaswaram. Kannuswami was just 14 and Natesa Pillai 16. It was a wedding cutcheri in 1890. His innovations soon made tavilkarars not only sit up and take notice but also think about their own music.
Natesa Pillai made Kannuswami his permanent accompanist, and as he was the adheena vidwan at Tiruvavaduthurai, he was accompanied by Kannuswami for eight years. Quitting the partnership in a huff, when some relatives of Natesa Pillai made disparaging remarks about his nagaswaram knowledge, he learnt to play the instrument and mastered it in quick time. He moved to Tiruvizhandur, when he married Chellammal, whose father Mahadeva Nattuvanar, who lived there.
Kannuswami Pillai spent four years accompanying Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai, but went back to Natesa Pillai after that. Their association was famous for a wedding concert for the family of Coimbatore Tayammal. He also accompanied such master tavil vidwans as Peralam Muthu Pillai and Pandanallur Guruswami Pillai.
He once accompanied flautist Sarabha Sastrigal and violinist Tirukkodikaval Krishnayyar on the tavil, when the mridanga vidwan could not make it to the concert at Vishnupuram Agraharam. He also learnt to play the dholak from Nannu Mian and accompanied star vocalist Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer on the dholak as well as the mridangam.
Pillai became so good at nagaswaram playing that he taught Tiruvavaduturai Rajaratnam PilIai and Vazhivoor Veeraswami Pillai as his disciples, while Tiruvazhaputtur Pasupati Pillai and Tirumullaivoyil Muthuveeru Pillai were among his tavil disciples. He played the tavil in TNR’s first nagaswaram concert at the Tirukoilur Tapovanam, and the mridangam in a vocal concert by TNR at the same venue the next day. Kannuswami Pillai gave many jalatarangam performances as well.
A good singer with a wide repertoire, Kannuswami Pillai taught Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer music. As a linguist proficient in Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, he was an accomplished vaggeyakara, with many kritis and tillanas to his name. His tavil accompaniment to Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai can be heard on gramophone records.
Kannuswami Pillai passed away in 1923.