Who’s Who in Classical Music
By BM Sundaram
(Translated from Mangala Isai Mannargal and edited by V Ramnarayan)
History maker tavil vidwan Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai accompanied every nagaswara vidwan of his time. He is said to have added lustre to the nagaswaram with his percussion excellence. Unmatched in his time in tavil, he once received high praise from Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, who said, speaking of him was equal to telling the history of the tavil.
Tirukollampudur Soundaravalli Ammal who married into Needamangalam village produced four sons and three daughters. Three of her sons Govinda Pillai, Singara Pillai and Pazhanivel Pillai became tavil vidwans. The other brother Krishna Pillai was a diamond merchant.
Of the daughters, Deivayanai Ammal gave birth to Meenakshisundaram in 1894. An only child, he lost his mother 27 days after he was born. His mother’s younger sister Kamalattammal brought him up. Maternal uncle Singaram Pillai started teaching him tavil when he was five.
Meenakshisundaram had sharp vision, and grasped instantly, and remembered everything he was taught. He could replay whatever he learnt. Once his early promise became obvious, his other uncle Govinda Tavilkarar took over teaching him. By nine years of age, Meenakshisundaram progressed enough to join a local melam troupe belonging to Singara Nagaswarakarar. Within a year he progressed enough to become a member of the Mannargudi Narayanaswami Pillai nagaswaram troupe.
Mahavidwan Nagapatnam Venugopala Pillai who was looking for a tavil vidwan for his group, agreed to a proposal by his brother-in-law Soundararajapillai, and Adicham Jagannatha Pillai, both his students, to leave Meenakshisundaram Pillai in his charge. The boy walked to Kottur from Mannargudi, a distance of 12 km wearing his tavil round his neck. He was all of twelve.
The moment he heard the lad, Venugopala Pillai saw a future star in him and took him straightaway under his wing. The guru taught him numberless jatis, many nuances of laya related kanakku everyday, because he wanted to make him an incomparable tavil genius. Meenakshisundaram Pillai revered Venugopala Pillai all his life, so much that till his last day, he bowed in respect whenever Nagapatnam was so much as mentioned. He would take off his footwear while entering his guru’s street.
According to his son, Dr BM Sundaram, Meenakshisundaram Pillai started his lessons by drumming on the pillars of the courtyard while Venugopala Pillai taught jatis reclining in his easychair. Of course, he received a bagful of scoldings whenever he made a mistake. Scolding if mistakes.
Sundaram relates an incident involving his father being sent home after he failed to reproduce exactly a difficult jati that he heard an expert play, even after three attempts. The guru warned him not to return unless he played it correctly at home. He came back after a time, and Venugopala Pillai asked him to go into the kitchen and have his lunch. When his wife asked the boy if he had succeeded in playing the jati, Venugopala Pillai said that the lad was such a proud young man that he would not have come back if he had not mastered the jati.
Meenakshisundaram also accompanied nagaswaram maestro Mannargudi Chinnapakkiri whenever Venugopala Pillai had no concert engagements. While growing up he had the opportunity to listen to and learn from greats like Srivanchiyam Govindapillai, Vazhivur Muttuveer Pillai, Ambakarattur Malaiperumal Pillai, and Ammapettai Pakkiri Pillai. He became a busy artist.
When Venugopala Pillai came to know his days were numbered, he handed him over to Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai. He told him, “I have prepared him to manage any melam. You please take care of him.”
Meenakshisundaram Pillai joined Semponnarkoil Ramaswami Pillai after his guru’s death. After a couple of years, he started accompanying Nagur Subbiah Pillai, Uraiyur Gopalaswami, Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai and Tiruvalanchuzhi Manickam Pillai. He later joined the Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers as an important member of their troupe. For some 30 years he was their permanent tavil. His tavil playing blended so beautifully with their music that rasikas called his tavil the third nagaswaram. Later, when the brothers split, he said he would never accompany them again, and started freelancing. He received accolades as a tanittavil kalaignar from then on. He was the first artist to earn the status of a tani tavil or special tavil.
Meenakshisundaram Pillai married Nagammal, daughter of Mysore tavilman Pasupatikoil Veerabhadra Tavilkarar on 10 February 1913, as well as his second daughter Rajammal.
His innumerable awards and honours include those of Tala Praveena. Abhinava Nandeesar, Tavil Arasu, and Padahavadyapraveen., (blr). He was awarded gold todas in the Mysore Palace. Suduru Chettiar, grandfather of Emperumanar Chettiar, gave him many valuable gifts.
His many disciples include Pandanallur Ratnam Pillai, Koorainadu Govinda Pillai, Tirunageswaram Ratnaswami Pillai, Nachiarkoil Raghava Pillai, Emani Raghaviah, Tiruvizhandur Venugopala Pillai , Ghatam Alangudi Ramachandran, Karandai Shanmugam Pillai, and Kandiyur Muthiah Pillai.
A tireless musician, Meenakshisundaram Pillai, never stopped once he started the music at the temple deity’s purappadu. His timing was exemplary, and his handling of the syllable nam unparalleled. He was invariably the leader in any group of tavil vidwans performing together. He died on 13 February 1949.