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The Emperor passes

The funeral procession of TNR was a large one, befitting a monarch on his last journey.

Wizard: T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai.

The Piper of Tiruvavaduturai — that is how an early advertisement described him. But by the time he died, he was known as Akhila Ulaga Nagaswara Eka Chakradhipati Tiruvavaduturai N. Rajarathnam Pillai. The Hindu reported the passing of the maestro on December 13, 1956. The death had happened the previous morning in Madras, shortly after his return from Alleppey.

It was a sad end for someone who was the emperor of Carnatic Music. He died in penury, beset with personal and health problems. He was also an emperor in exile from Tiruvavaduturai, an ego clash with the reigning Pandara Sannidhi of the Mutt having ensured his eviction. It was a small consolation that he died among friends, for N.S.Krishnan and M.R.Radha were with him. They had planned a play that evening for his benefit and had come to formally extend an invitation to him.

Not a surprise

To quote The Hindu, “at 8.30 a.m morning, a doctor was summoned to attend on him and he advised Mr. Rajaratnam to take rest. But at 9.30 a.m. he suddenly collapsed.” His death, however, did not come as a surprise for it was well known that “he had been giving performances in spite of the advice of the doctors.” This was partly out of economic necessity, but more out of the fact that none could separate him from his nagaswaram as TNR himself once said. Though the newspaper does not mention it, the funeral procession of TNR was a large one, as befitting a monarch on his last journey. His friends from the film fraternity and other well wishers funded it and ensured that it was conducted with dignity.

It was the year when Sangita Kalanidhi was for the first time to be conferred on a nagaswaram artiste. The senior-most artiste in the fraternity, Tiruveezhimizhalai Subramania Pillai was selected to receive the honour. Rajarathnam Pillai had been overjoyed for he had always fought for the recognition of and respect for nagaswaram artistes. He was however not fated to be present on the occasion.

The news of TNR’s death cast a pall of gloom over the city that was preparing itself for the December Music Season. Among the foremost to condole the death was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who had always acknowledged the influence of TNR’s music on his own. In his tribute in The Hindu, he said that “the passing of TNR was a great loss to Bharata Desam and an even greater loss to Tamil Nad.”

Tributes were also received from well known film director K.Subrahmaniam, who was then president of the South Indian Nagaswara Vidwans Association. There followed a tribute from the Secretary, Madras State Sangita Nataka Sangam, which deserves reproduction in full, so comprehensive was its analysis of TNR’s music. He said that “his art was noted for its unalloyed classicism and it was so perfect and enjoyable as to satisfy both the pundits and the pamaras. It was remarkable as much for amazing kalpana, arresting profusion of varied graces and gamakas as for its enchantingly mellifluous tone. He had such a clear conception of ragas and skill in depicting them as to bring out even closely allied ragas with their distinctive features. With one or two flashes of gamakas like the Jaru he could picture the essence of a raga to the amazement of his listeners.”

The Hindu’s tribute, titled “Memoir,” recorded that “even if Rajarathnam Pillai had not taken to nagaswaram, it is quite possible he would have shone as an outstanding vocal vidwan.” TNR’s singing prowess was known to many and though he did not choose to advertise it he did give at least one vocal concert over the radio.

The diarist N.D.Varadachariar wrote warmly about it in the 1940s. He had at a very early age been trained in vocal music by Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer. He had even performed vocal duets with his sister Dayalu. It was only on the suggestion of the pontiff of the Tiruvavaduturai Mutt that he was trained on the nagaswaram and what a farsighted suggestion it was. But then, given that TNR was nagaswaram wizard Tirumarugal Natesa Pillais nephew and adopted son, the pontiff perhaps had an intuition. In fact it was Natesa Pillai who gave TNR the name Rajarathnam. He had been christened Balasubramaniam at birth.

The uncle however died early and it was under Ammachatram Kannusami Pillai that he learnt the basics of nagaswaram. The Hindu gives his Guru’s name as Markandam Pillai, a name not found in other articles on the maestro.

TNR was, however, largely self-taught, like two other geniuses in the field, Flute Mali and Veena S. Balachander. The instrument was really his Guru and also his devoted slave.

(The author can be contacted at

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