Song of Surrender

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Semponnarkoil Brothers

Who’s Who in Classical Music

By V Ramnarayan

Semponnarkoil Govindaswami Pillai (1897-1955)

The elder of the two Semponnarkoil Brothers, Govindaswami Pillai was born at that tiny village near Mayuram that was synonymous with rakti in nagaswaram. His grandfather, renowned as Pallavi Vaidyanatha Pillai and his father Ramaswami Pillai were celebrated nagaswara vidwans, known for their expertise in laya. Govindaswami’s mother was Kuttiammal.

Govindaswami’s early lessons were in vocal music, which he learnt from Sambamurthi Iyer. He had become proficient in varnams when he enrolled with Vandkarateru Ramiah Pillai for nagaswaram classes. The teacher’s sons Subramania Pillai and Mamundi Pillai grew up to be accomplished pipers as well.

Govindaswami, who made his concert debut at age 16, was soon joined by his brother Dakshinamurthi, seven years his junior. Soon they gained a reputation for excellence in rakti, regarded as their family heirloom. Viswanatha Pillai and Krishnamurthi Pillai were the youngest brothers., The elder of their two sisters, Dhanabhagyam, married tavil vidwan Pandanainallur Ratnam, while the other sister Sethu married Subramania Pillai, the elder of the Tiruveezhimizhalai brothers.

A typical concert of the brothers would feature Govindaswami’s exquisite alapana, invariably followed by Dakshinamurthi’s additional exploration of the raga, after which he would launch a pallavi or rakti, the signal for joyous rhythmic play by the duo.

It was not unusual for the brothers to separate every now and then, and take other partners, with Govindaswami being joined by Vandikarateru Shanmugasundaram Pillai, and Dakshinamurthi accompanied by Reddiyur Subramania Pillai. Many tavil greats including Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Nachiarkoil Raghava Pillai and Kumbakonam Thangavel Pillai teamed up with the Semponnarkoil Brothers.

In 1937, the brothers cut their first Columbia disc, accompanied on the tavil by Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai. They were following in the footsteps of their father Ramaswami Pillai, who was perhaps the first nagaswara vidwan to be featured in gramophone records.

The Semponnarkoil flag was kept flying by such progenitors of the two brothers as SRG Sambandam, SRG Rajanna, SRD Muthukumaraswami and SRD Vaidyanathan.

Govindaswami Pillai passed away on 7 July 1955. He was 58.

Semponnarkoil Dakshinamurthi Pillai (1904-1976)

Dakshinamurthi, the second son of Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai and Kuttiammal, was born on 9th September 1904. He followed the same musical route as his elder brother Govindaswami Pillai, learning vocal music from Kasipandaratteru Sambamoorthi Iyer and the nagaswaram from Vandikkaratteru Ramiah. The brothers were a star duo of their time and the adheena vidwans of the mathams of Dharmapuram, Tiruvavaduthurai and Tiruppanandal. Whenever the brothers performed with other nagaswara partners, Dakshnamoorthi was invariably accompanied on the tavil by Tirumullaivayil Muttuveer Pillai or Tiruppanandal Subbiah Pillai.

After Govindaswami’s demise, The younger brother inducted his sons to take turns to accompany him on the stage with the nagaswaram. Dakshinamurthi Pillai was celebrated for his equally delightful rendering of raga and kriti, though he was most renowned for rakti and pallavi. His complex and challenging swara prastara in complicated talas or difficult to comprehend eduppu, had a thrilling impact on discerning listeners.

His sons Muttukumaraswami and Vaidyanathan carried on the tradition after Dakshinamurthi passed away on 12 December 1976. Vaidyanathan, known to be an avadhani who could play pallavis to two different talas maintained by hand and foot, is someone whose mentoring such outstanding musicians as Sanjay Subrahmanyan have sought. 

(Based on Mangala Isai Mannargal by BM Sundaram)

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