These are notes from a lecture by Sriram Venkatakrishnan on December 17, 2016, for the South Indian Cultural Heirtage Series, at Tag Center, on Kanchi. Sriram lectures twice every year in December at Tag Center on Carnatic musician. He has authored the book Carnatic Summers, a brilliant collection of essays on musicians and The Devadasi and the Saint, on Bangalore Nagarathnammal and her adoration of Thyagaraja, the doyen of Carnatic composers, and the most prolific of the Tiruvaiyaru Trinity. Sriram writes a column for The Hindu and in the Madras Musings besides several other periodicals.
I have attended at least fifty lectures by Sriram over the last 13 years, since I first heard him speak the Madras Day festivities in 2004, and every one has been a gem. I have also attended perhaps thirty Heritage Walks conducted by him, all of which have been thoroughly entertaining and incredibly informative. He writes more prolifically than I could dream of. I had never heard of Naina Pillai, clearly a vital person in the history of Carnatic music. And the Kanchi Kailasanatha connection was too good to pass up.
|Sriram V on Kanchi Naina Pillai|
Subramaniam Pillai, popularly known as Kanchi Naina Pillai had no interest in music until the age of 17, even though he belonged to a musical family. The son of singer Mettu Kamatchi, whose sister Dhanakoti, was also a singer - the sisters often performed together. His pet name 'Naina' stuck to him during his career as a musician too.
He was transformed by a visit to the Kanchi Kailasanatha temple, when an unknown person turned him away from his passion for wrestling, weight lifting, cock fighting, pigeon fighting. He practiced in the temple all day long. Pillai's Arangerram took place in Anekatangavadam temple very close to the Kailasanatha temple.
Pillai married two women, Kuppammal and Kuttiammal.
When Pillai visited Chennai, mathematician and musician, he heard Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer sing at the Tondai Mandala Vellala Sabha in Mint, Chennai. This concert entranced Naina. Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer became the idol and role model for Naina Pillai.
Naina Pillai, in turn, later became a manaseeka guru for DK Pattammaal.
Mannargudi Konnakol Pakkiriya Pillai, a tavil artist who played for nadasvaram artist Mannargudi Pakkiri, his wife Pakkiri ammal and othu was also played by a Pakkiri, gave up tavil and was adviced by Naina Pillai to take up Konnakol. Konnakol is a technique wherein the artist mimics a percussion instrument with the human voice (pardon the simplification). Naina Pillai admired the voice culture and rhythm sense of Pakkiriya Pillai.
Naina Pillai often had full bench concerts, with upto eleven artists performing. Including Kanjira by stalwarts like Pudukottai Dakshinamarthy Pillai, double Violin, Tampura, Mridangam, Gottuvadyam, Konnakol. The tani aavartanam must have been quite a musical feast for the aficionado.
After Chembai 's success, Naina, who sang only in Tamil, became a huge hit in Gokhale hall, which could seat 1500 people in era before microphones. And whole audience could hear listen to his deep voice. Pillaw was 5'9", which was very tall for a South Indian in 1920s.
There are no recordings of Naina Pillai. He took practice seriously and it was rarely a solo act. Practice meant playing four or five hours with full accompaniment!
He learnt Tirupugazh from two people, whom he would teach Thevaram in turn. He took a train to learn one song from a person, because he liked it so much. Veena Dhanammal was a close friend of Kanchi Dhanakoti ammal, his aunt. And Naina Pillai learnt Thyagaraja kritis from Veena Dhanammal's patron Ramanaiya Chetty. Over time Naina learnt several Thyagaraja kritis and performed them.
Performers of the Thyagaraja aradhana in Tiruvaiyaaru split into two factions, the Periya Katchi and Chinna Katchi, the former becoming a non Brahmin group in Kumbakonam, the latter a Brahmin group in Tiruvaiyaru. Kanchi Naina was popular with Periya Katchi but broke up with them and later organized his own aradhana in Kanchipuram. A wholesale merchant from Erode, EV Ramaswami Naicker, sent funds for the concerts he organized.
His student Kittur Venkata Naidu was named Kittur Subramania Pillai, which was Naina 's original name, by Naina himself!
One of his best friends was Tiger Varadachariar, whom he called Tigervaal, both deeply interested in music, more than accolades.
In the early years of the Music Academy, they said they would pay Naina Pillai a reduced amount because they were an Academy not a Sabha. Naina refused to perform for the Academy after that. Once hid his taalam hand under angavastram and Palghat Mani Iyer stopped playing Mridangam.
In 1930 Pillai was afflicted with diabetes and tuberculosis. There was no cure for either in those days. Pillai performed less and less and money dwindled. He refused to record his music, offended that it would be played in barbershops and tea shops and that was lowering dignity of Carnatic music.
He also refused all titles offered to him, saying his guru was a pandaram and paradesi who had no titles, and he didn't need a title either.
Naina Pillai's career was contemporary with Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who started a new trend in Carnatic music. Naina was the last of a different era, a different style. One can only imagine how the Carnatic field would have been, if he had lived a couple of decades longer.
All there is today to honor him is a Sangeeta Vidvan Naina Pillai street, in Kanchipuram.
My other blogs on music
காஞ்சி கைலாசநாதர் கோயில் வாழ்த்து
காஞ்சி கைலாசநாதர் கோயில் வாழ்த்து
ஆயிரம்திருதிராஷ்டிரர்கள் – சஞ்சய் சுப்பிரமணி கச்சேரி 2016
Sriram V interview with Sanjay Subramaniam – Madras Day 2015