The Department of Posts, Tamil Nadu Circle, issued a Special Cover on Palani Subramania Pillai on 11 May 2008 as a centenary tribute to the maestro. It was released by the Post Master General, Chennai, at the Sathguru Gnanananda Hall of the Narada Gana Sabha, on the occasion of Palani’s birth centenary celebrations held under the aegis of the Palani Subramania Pillai Trust.
The cancellation depicts a tambura as well as the mridanga and khanjira, the two instruments in which Palani was equally adept.
Life of Palani
Palani Subramania Pillai belonged to the Pudukottai School of mridanga and khanjira founded by
Manpoondia Pillai. It was developed and built by his two maestro disciples Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Palani Muthiah Pillai. It was to Muthiah Pillai that Palani was born on 20 April 1908.
Palani lost his mother when he was quite young. Muthiah Pillai who remarried, was not well disposed towards Palani (probably because he happened to be a left-hander). Ignoring Palani, he taught his percussive skills to Saundarapandian, his son by his second wife. Nevertheless, Palani learnt all that was taught to his step-brother simply by observing and practising on the sly.
During that time Dakshinamurthy Pillai happened to visit Muthiah Pillai. Observing the state of affairs in the house, he chided Muthiah Pillai for neglecting a talented son like Palani. The rebuke had some effect on the unwilling father. He started teaching Palani, but made the training needlessly hard and harsh. Palani bore it all and concentrated on learning.
Palani visited Madurai to listen to the recital of the great nagaswara vidwan Madurai Ponnusami Pillai. Iluppur Panchapakesa (Panchami) Pillai, who was equally great, was playing the tavil. During the entire recital Palani was unerringly keeping tala, and Panchami Pillai observed it. When he came to know that the boy was the son of his dear friend Muthiah Pillai, he made Palani stay with him for a few days and taught him many complex rhythmic patterns. Palani learnt them all in that short time.
Palani found it more and more difficult to put up with his father’s unkind treatment. He shifted to Madras and stayed with his elder brother Nagarajan who had married the daughter of the redoubtable musician and laya wizard Kanchipuram Naina Pillai. Through the good offices of his brother, Palani got accommodation in the bungalow of Jalatarangam Ramaniah Chetty, a wealthy patron of performing artists. The celebrated Veena Dhanammal and family had already been staying there when Palani arrived. In that congenial and encouraging ambience Palani devoted all his time to rigorous practice.
Palani got his first concert opportunity in 1923 when he accompanied Mannargudi Rajagopala Pillai at Ramaniah Chetty’s place. It was a very successful debut. RamaniahChetty then persuaded his friend Naina Pillai to take Palani as an accompanist in his ‘full bench’ concert to be held in Kakinada. All the other accompanists in that concert were veterans on their respective instruments. Nevertheless, the 15-year old lad acquitted himself creditably. Before long, he became a regular member of Naina Pillai’s troupe.
At the instance of Naina Pillai, Palani got an opportunity to accompany Alathur Brothers. Complex tala-s were their forte, and that suited Palani. However, he had to face problems with other vocalists. Firstly, many top musicians had a marked preference for Palghat Mani Iyer who had already become a leading performer. Secondly, they were not too comfortable with Palani’s indulging in mathematical complexities. Thirdly, as Palani was a left-hander, violinists had to swap seats on the dais with him and, understandably, they were not willing to oblige Palani. Thus, his concert opportunities were restricted. With Naina Pillai’s death at that juncture Palani’s chances dwindled further.
His troubles did not end there. He had an unhappy marriage, and he started residing with his wife’s cousin, Rajammal. She was a professional singer and, on Palani’s coming over to her, she forsook her career to look after the household. Palani had to take tuitions to make a living.
In 1936 Palani got a chance to accompany Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar in a concert in Madras. Chowdiah was the violinist and, as expected, he refused to exchange his seat with Palani. However, at Chembai’s instance he grudgingly agreed. After that concert Chembai told Palani that he was willing to take him for his concerts, provided he accepted whatever fee he (Chembai) suggested. He also advised Palani to adopt a style of playing close to that of the vocalist. Palani followed the veteran’s advice. He became a regular accompanist for Chembai and, as predicted by the great vidwan, Palani steadily rose in his career and in a few years became a top ranking accompanist both in terms of status as well as remuneration.
Chembai continued his support to Palani. In a concert held in Bombay, Chembai gave him five solo opportunities, instead of the usual one. Palani gave a brilliant performance, drawing repeated applause from the audience. Years later, Chowdiah arranged a concert of Chembai in Bangalore with himself and Palani as accompanists. He swapped his seat with Palani – this time with a smile
– to the delight of one and all!
By the mid 1940s Palani had reached the peak of his career and he stayed there for the next 15 years. He led a life of comfort, thanks to his high earnings and Rajammal’s prudent management of his finances. He acquired a huge bungalow, became fastidious about his attire (and perfumes), and bought and changed cars regularly. He also gathered a wide circle of friends and admirers from different walks of life, besides members of the music fraternity.
Palani and Rajammal had no issue. They showered all their affection on the disciples, who were in large number. Having come up the hard way, Palani made it a point to help and encourage young and promising artists by accompanying them and getting performance opportunities for them – so that they did not need to face the kind of hardships that he had undergone.
In 1942 he was made Asthana Vidwan of Travancore. He served as Professor of Mridangam at the Central College of Carnatic Music and at the College of the Tamil Isai Sangam. However, awards and honours somehow eluded him.
In 1954 Palani suffered a heart attack. After about a year he resumed his performances. In May 1962 he suffered a stroke and breathed his last on 27th May, at the relatively young age of 54.
Palani built a shrine over the samadhi of Manpoondia Pillai at Pudukottai, the founder of the school, and conducted guru pooja on his death anniversary. After Palani’s death, Ramanathapuram M.N. Kandasamy Pillai, a senior disciple, continued it. He also started a guru pooja as an annual event to celebrate Palani’s memory. After Kandasamy Pillai’s death, a trust in Palani’s name was formed by his other senior disciples, and this trust now conducts the anniversaries of Manpoondia Pillai and Dakshinamurthy Pillai at Pudukottai, and of Palani Subramania Pillai in Chennai.
A portrait of Palani was unveiled at the celebration of his centenary at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai in January 2009.
According to Palani, an accompanist should strive to enhance the overall quality of the concert. He believed that the mridangist’s role was subordinate to that of the vocalist. And his own playing exemplified his advice. He accompanied many stalwarts of his time like Alathur Brothers, Ariyakudi, Semmangudi, GNB and Madurai Mani Iyer who had different styles of singing. All of them liked him. The fact that he was also well versed in vocal music helped him in following and anticipating the vocalists.
Palani had acquired excellent mastery on the khanjira as well. In those days, there were quite a few concerts with Palghat Mani Iyer on the mridanga and Palani on the khanjira. Hailed as brilliant musical conversations between two laya maestros, those were veritable percussive feasts for the cognoscenti.
A rare concert
There was a rare concert in which Mani Iyer and Palani reversed their roles. A concert of GNB was scheduled in the Navaratri Mandapam (Tiruvanantapuram) on 2nd October 1946, with Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai, Mani Iyer and Palani. For some reasons, Mani Iyer’s disciples could not reach Tiruvanantapuram with his mridanga. In the circumstances Mani Iyer requested the Palace to allow Palani to play the mridanga for that concert. The palace agreed to the proposal but, in turn, requested Mani Iyer to take the role of Palani. Mani Iyer had no objection. That concert with the reversed roles of the two maestros was the first and last of its kind, at least in the
Navaratri Mandapam! (A Malayalam book on Mani Iyer, authored by Krishnamurthy of Tripunithura, gives this interesting piece of information.)
His style of playing
Palani was an “innovative gentle giant” as a knowledgeable admirer put it. He was a maestro, but never showed off.
The Palani style of percussion was marked by “a blend of rhythm, pleasing sound and complete identification with the main artist. His use of the toppi to create gumki was his specialty.
Palani was a man of few words. Genial in temperament, he was an excellent accompanist, an exemplary guru and, above all, a fine human being.
[A special feature on Palani Subramania Pillai was published in Sruti 33/34, and an article in Sruti 272.]