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A Tamil tribute to Muthuswami Dikshitar


Natarajasundaram Pillai's compilation had Dikshitar kritis not found in ‘Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini.'

Books on Muthuswami Dikshitar's life and compilations of his songs are legion today and there are websites dedicated to discussions on his lyrics and their meanings. But 75 years ago that was not the case.

Barring the magnum opus of Subbarama Dikshitar – the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini (1904), there were hardly any works that focused on this great composer's songs. Certainly, there were none in Tamil and the credit for bringing out the first such book in that language, the ‘Dikshita Kirtana Prakasikai, ' goes to Tirupamburam Natarajasundaram Pillai.

The musicologist and historian B.M. Sundaram, in his book ‘ Mangala Isai Mannargal,' gives details of Pillai's life. He was born into a family of nagaswaram artists and his father Swaminatha Pillai had also trained on the veena and in vocal music. He had also undergone training in music under Koorainadu ‘Bharatam' Ramaswami Pillai, a direct disciple of Muthuswami Diskhitar.

Born on December 15, 1869, Natarajasundaram Pillai was trained on the nagaswaram along with his younger brother Sivasubramaniam by Injikkudi Kumara Pillai.

The father was keen that his sons ought to learn as many kritis as possible and what was more, learn to perform them on the nagaswaram in such a fashion that the lyrics could be discerned. Tyagaraja kritis were learnt from Umayalpuram Doraiswami Iyer. The boys learnt Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis under Sattanur Panchanada Iyer.

Iyer had trained under Suddha Maddalam Tambiappa Pillai, a direct disciple of Muthuswami Dikshitar and the man for curing whose stomach ailment the kriti ‘Brhaspate' was composed. Panchanada Iyer counted Tirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer and Veena Dhanammal among his disciples.

According to Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, the Harikatha doyen, Panchanada Iyer had a “powerful voice and unerring svara jnana” and “rendered the classics of Dikshitar with correct and impressive articulation.”

Lasting impression

Learning the songs under him left a lasting impression on Natarajasundaram Pillai, who even during the tutelage, began writing down the songs with swara and notation.

By the time the training period was over, he had 200 songs of Muthuswami Dikshitar in his possession, all of them with notation checked and approved by Panchanada Iyer.

Natarajasundaram Pillai teamed up with his younger brother and together they became the first ever nagaswaram duo.

They received invitations to perform from far and wide and scaled great peaks in music. But all the while a thought kept nagging him and that was the fact that the kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar were not getting their rightful due.

He felt that this was because there was no compilation of Dikshitar kritis in the Tamil script and embarked on setting right the situation.

A busy career meant that this kept getting put off. The year 1935 marked Muthuswami Dikshitar's death centenary and at the repeated urging of T.L. Venkatarama Iyer, who was then a lawyer practising in Madras and doing his best to popularise Dikshitar kritis, the book finally began taking shape. Legend has it that before beginning the work, Natarajasundaram Pillai met Veena Dhanammal and the two sang a few Dikshitar kritis as taught by Panchanada Iyer. They found to their delight that neither of them had forgotten or altered a single sangati in the years since their tutelage.

Dr. V. Raghavan came forward to help Pillai in the book and as the latter gratefully recorded in the preface, he worked day and night on it. He was also helped by his youngest son Sivasubramania Pillai.

Pillai planned to bring out four volumes, each comprising 50 kritis of Dikshitar. The first volume, released on February 14, 1936, was printed at the Devi Press, Mount Road.

It begins with two exquisite slokas by Dr. Raghavan on Dikshitar, followed by one composed by Sengalipuram Anantharama Dikshitar.

Unique technique

Perhaps inspired by Subbarama Dikshitar, Natarajasundaram Pillai decided to create certain unique notation techniques for the book.

While following gamaka symbols as used by the former, he also took pains to indicate the anuswaras (allied notes) along with the main note at several places. More important, and unlike Subbarama Dikshitar, he also indicated speeds for singing by using special symbols for the four tempos ranging from extremely slow to very fast. 49 of the 50 songs are common to the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini.

The sole exception is ‘Maha Ganapatim' in Thodi. Its inclusion is significant for it indicates that there were genuine Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis that were unknown to Subbarama Dikshitar. It also proves that it is wrong to contend that all Dikshitar kritis outside of the ‘Pradarsini' are spurious.

Sadly, Natarajasundaram Pillai died on November 16, 1938, before work could begin on the remaining volumes and they never saw the light of day.

The notations must now be presumed lost and it is tantalising to think of what other Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis were in Pillai's possession.

(The author can be contacted at

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