Titan from Kanchipuram
LINEAGE Known for his repertoire, Naina Pillai brought to light many obscure compositions.
Naina Pillai was a stickler for principles. He did not believe in accepting engagements where organisers haggled with him over the fee.
KNOWN FOR HIS REPERTOIRE: Naina Pillai
As many as 75 years ago, on May 3, 1934 to be precise, Carnatic music suffered a grievous loss. Conjeevaram Subramania Pillai or Naina Pillai as he was better known passed away at forty-six. Built like the boxer he was, his physical fitness regime in
cluded walking for six miles every day and exercising with clubs. But the frame could not stand the combined assault of tuberculosis and diabetes.
The Hindu reported his passing the same day. It traced his lineage, noting in particular that he was the nephew of the redoubtable Dhanakoti of Conjeevaram, a great artiste of her time and among the first musicians to record their voices for the gramophone. It said that “in his early years he came under the influence of Ramachandra Bhagavatar of Ettayapuram and was able to learn a good deal about many rare ragas.”
The tribute noted that Naina Pillai had “been not a little responsible for bringing into vogue, a considerable number of pieces of musical composition which were previously obscure.” There was much truth in this for Naina was known for his great repertoire. Through his own family lineage, he knew several songs of Syama Sastry, his ancestor ‘Mettu’ Kamakshi having learnt them directly from the descendants of the great composer. His aunt Dhanakoti was a treasure-house of several Tamil compositions. In addition he acquired several Tyagaraja kritis from ‘Jalatarangam’ Ramaniah Chetty, a businessman of George Town whose mother had learnt music from Wallajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar. Naina also benefited from ‘Veena’ Dhanam’s tutelage.
Revelled in pallavis
But it was for his emphasis on rhythm that Naina Pillai became really well-known and he revelled in pallavis set to intricate talas. And to embellish the effect, he sang with a mind-blowing number of eight accompanists. These included the violinist, the mridangam vidwan and a konnakkol artist besides others on the ghatam, the morsing, the kanjira, the dholak and the gettu vadyam. Each man was a star in his own right and swaraprastara in Naina Pillai’s concerts were in particular very exciting events.
In his younger days, Naina’s favourite pastime, according to The Hindu dated May 4 was “catching water snakes in a tank near his house.” Hearing him singing to himself all the while, a swami who lived in the Upanishad Brahmam Mutt took him under his wings and channelled his energies into music. The boy became an ardent student and spent hours in the cavernous corridors of the Kailasanatha temple, practising music. Later Naina trained under Ramachandra Bhagavatar. And in time he became a sensation, a star of his times. He stepped into the space left by the death of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, whose rhythm-laden music had been an inspiration.
Stickler for principles
Naina Pillai was a stickler for principles. He did not believe in accepting engagements where organisers haggled with him over the fee. When the Music Academy, for whose inauguration he performed with just a violinist and a mridangam artist (August 18, 1928), asked him to reduce his fee, he refused to do so and stayed away from the organisation for the rest of his life. When the drama company owner C. Cunniah, at the culmination of 1008 Rama Pattabhishekam performances asked Naina Pillai to perform and promised a kanakabishekam if he only sang songs and did not indulge in swaraprastharam, Naina Pillai refused. To him, a concert without kalpanaswaras was unthinkable.
He believed in a distinct Carnatic identity and eschewed Hindustani ragas in his performance. Once in the historic Gokhale Hall, a voice asked for a Hindustani piece. “Who is that?” roared Naina. “Don’t you have any gnanam?” He then went on to sing ‘Sitavara Sangita Gnanamu’ in Devagandhari, in revenge.
Naina also housed and taught a number of disciples, free of cost. Among these, Chittoor Subramania Pillai and the Brinda-Mukta duo would become very famous. He also conducted a Tyagaraja Aradhana in Kanchipuram at his own expense on a lavish scale. He spurned recording offers. In his last days money was scarce, and T. Chowdiah offered to fix a recording contract with the Broadcast label for a sum of Rs 10,000. But Naina would not change his stand for monetary considerations. It was a tragedy for posterity that his voice went unrecorded.
On May 4, The Hindu reported that “the funeral took place in the evening when the procession passed through Kosa Street to the burning ghat. Nearly 3,000 people followed the cortege.” The daily also noted that a “memorial fund was started then and there and Rs. 300 was collected.” What happened to the memorial we do not know, but T. Sankaran, the grandson of ‘Veena’ Dhanam noted that in later years, the street where Naina Pillai lived was named Sangeeta Vidwan Naina Pillai Street. Later, this became S.V. Naina Street. Such is public memory.
(The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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