Friday, 1 June 2018


Sruti May 2018
The Sri Lankan Tamil contribution to Carnatic music, especially to the nagaswaram-tavil tradition of mainly temple music is perhaps not widely known. Some 20th century vidwans of Tamil Nadu had close ties with their Lankan counterparts and there was considerable artistic traffic between the two nations, with the Tamils of Eelam in particular thirsting for such exchanges. Well known documentary filmmaker Amshan Kumar recently exhibited a documentary on Yazhpanam Thedchanamoorthy (1933-1975), regarded by many as the greatest tavil vidwan in history, prefacing the film wth a Powerpoint presentation titled  Carnatic Music Tradition of Sri Lanka. Amshan Kumar has every reason to be proud of his accomplishment, as the task of making it—at the request of the the Tavil legend Yazhpanam Thedchanamoorthy Foundation of London whose chairman Gana Natkunan and chief advisor R. Pathmanaba Iyer in particular were the prime movers behind the project—presented a huge challenge with precious little documentation available on the life and work of the artist.
It took Amshan Kumar more than two years to complete the production, but supplementing the handful of photographs of the vidwan and his family with rare recordings and interviews with the family and fellow musicians in both countries, he completed the work in 2015. Despite the inadequacy of the material, he has delivered a remarkable product, which gives the viewer excellent insights into the genius of the great percussionist. Unsurprisingly, the documentary went on to win a national award.
The maestro`s forefathers migrated from India and settled there. Born at Inuvil village in northern Sri Lanka, on 26 August 1933 he was barely 42 when he died, on 15 May 1975, to be precise, following lengthy periods of ill health. As a child of eight, he had been put by his tavil vidwan father through several gruelling hours of practice. Thanks to his precocity in the art, he was taken to India for advanced lessons from the eminent vidwan Nachiarkoil Raghava Pillai. Within 18 months, Raghava Pillai was so impressed by his ward that he sent him back to Sri Lanka to perform and learn on his own, because he felt he had nothing more to teach his brilliant pupil.
When he returned years later to perform in Tamil Nadu, he was already  a star and mesmerised his audiences with his extraordinary skill (Here’s a sample:  Many local tavil stalwarts acknowledged his influence on their music, while others attended his concerts incognito! The recordings of his extraordinary tavil playing and his iconic photographs featured in the film offer proof of the maestro’s consummate artistry and charisma. The film describes him as the greatest tavil player the world has known, and it is hard to disagree.
For someone who claims no special qualifications to make a documentary film on a musician, Amshan Kumar has shown a rare understanding of the ethical, psychological and sociological factors that can determine the growth and evolution of a musician, as well as the pride and love that nurture and protect his family, in this case, both during his life and after his premature demise. Kumar earlier made a documentary on Carnatic vocalist Manakkal Rangarajan, while his films on Subramania Bharati and Ashokamitran are perhaps his best known works.

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