Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Lakshmana Pillai, the Composer

M. S. Ramaswami

Musical compositions in South India can be divided into three sections: lyrical, recitative, and erotic. Lyrical music developed perceptibly in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and the greatest votary of it was Thyagaraja, that master-singer of Thiruvayyur. Many followed in his wake, and among them prominently feature Patnam Subrahmania Aiyar and Ramnad Srinivasa Aiyangar. Thyagaraja was right in singing in Telugu, he being a Telugu Brahmin though he lived in the heart of Tamilnad. But that is not the case with the two that followed him, for they are Tamilians and we are at a loss to know what induced them to compose in Telugu when they had their own mother-tongue, Tamil. Thus Tamil was at the point of losing the lyrical phase of Carnatic music. It was at such a time that Mr. T. Lakshmana Pillai of Trivandrum came to the rescue and saved the Tamil language from the reproach of having no lyrical compositions, and thus his songs form a distinct milestone in the development of Carnatic music.

Mr. Lakshmana Pillai was born on May 3rd, 1864 in a respectable Saiva Vellala family which migrated from the Tamil country. His father, Valia Melezthu Thiraviam Pillai, was Accountant-General of Travancore. His elder brother, the late Muthukumaraswami Pillai, a brilliant and versatile scholar, was tutor to the late Prince Marthanda Varma, B.A. When Lakshmana Pillai was young, every evening as the lamps were lit, the boy had to sing to his father hymns from the Thevaram. Except this we are not aware whether he had any special training in music. At the age of twenty he graduated with Honors in Philosophy from the Maharajah’s College, Trivandrum. Emerson was his favourite Western author. When later on, in a till-then-unknown raga he composed a song, he called it as ‘Amarasenapriya’ (Sa, Ri sharp, Ga flat, Ma sharp, Pa; Ni sharp, Sa; Sa, Ni, Pa, Ma, Ga, Ri, Sa). The Kural, the Thevaram and Thiruvarutpa are his favourite books in Tamil. He entered the State’s service as an auditor and when he retired in 1920 he was a Major Treasury Officer. But for the displeasure he incurred, of one of the masterful Dewans of the State due to his uncompromising independence, he would have risen to the same high post which his father before him had so ably held. The services that he rendered to his mother-tongue and music are now being widely recognised by his countrymen. The citizens of Trivandrum have kept his portrait in their Museum. The First Tamils’ Conference held at Tinnevelly in 1934 honoured Mr. Lakshmana Pillai with the title of ‘Isai Thamil Selvar.’ And in the Second Tamils’ Conference held in the same place, a portrait of his was unveiled. For some time, he was a member of the Travancore Legislative Council. Now he is in quiet retirement in the peace and serenity of a healthy old age, living in a world of his own and devoting his time to art and training up bands of enthusiastic students.

In this secular work-a-day world, Mr. Lakshmana Pillai habitually breathes ‘an ampler ether, a diviner air’ than ours. He is remote and detached from the world’s bluster and brag. He bathes the universe in his thoughts. Nothing less than the whole ever satifies him, for his is no parochial spirit. He cries out, with Emerson,

‘From air and ocean bring me foods
From all zones and altitudes.’

Hence it is that we see in his compositions different streams of thought, Eastern and Western, ancient and modern, that are not ‘in widest commonalty spread.’ Vegetarianism and Humanitarianism too find place in his songs.

When he was about twenty-seven, he had a providential escape from an accident, which might have turned fatal, at a waterfall some miles off Trivandrum. It was then that he dedicated himself to sing the glory of God. Thus his is the life of one who early consecrated himself to the service of the highest of Muses, the ‘finest of Fine Arts,’ according to Spencer. By the age of twenty-nine some of his greatest songs had been composed. With very few exceptions, one cannot find in any of his compositions the signature of his name. Many of these songs he sang not in "the ample leisure of golden hours but when the years variegated the patterns in the web of life with shadow and light, and sorrow with death came to him, as when his eldest son went away in the plenitude of youthful promise, leaving a darkness on his days, and doubts assailed him in the gloom, till dawn and light brought the angel faces of serenity and peace which he had loved long and lost awhile." Srimati Lakshmi, his eldest daughter, a graduate of the Madras University and Lecturer in Music in the Women’s College, Trivandrum, who possesses a most remarkable voice, and Srimati Gourikutti Ammal, Music Tutor in the Girls’ High School, Trivandrum, are two of the best vocal interpreters of the Master’s art. Some years , with the death of his son L. Virakumar, a serious calamity befell him and Mr. Lakshmana Pillai lost his wonderful voice. Ever since he has taken to the veena, which now is his medium of expression. As he sings occasionally when the voice is clear, one is forced to think of those halcyon days when he flooded the ears of his hearers with his powerful voice and feel sorry for the irreparable loss.

The compositions of Mr. Lakshmana Pillai fall under three heads: devotional, ethical, and philosophical. But through all of them runs like a thread of fire the consuming love of God. They are not however in praise of tribal gods but are to the one Impersonal Being, with a few exceptions–the work of his early years. We hear in all of his songs echoes of the fervour and assurance of the strains of the Thevaram singers. In two songs ‘Uzhzhamurukuvathae Geetham’ in Ananda Bhairavi and ‘Sangadamae Jagam’ in Kunthalavarali he gives his philosophy of music. In ‘Irangunenjam’ in Mukhari and ‘Selvathilae Selvam Jeevakarunyam’ in Kedaragowlam he sings of Vegetarianism and Humanitarianism.

‘The Silence that is in the Starry Sky
The Sleep that is among the lonely hills’

the sea and storm, sunset and sunrise, all these have their appeal and eternal meaning for him. Like some of the English poets he perceives in Nature a Spiritual Force. ‘Aazh Kadaluku Adiyundu’ in Kedaragowlam, ‘Ennilaimai’ in Kambhoji and ‘Ninnaruzh polodum neeril’ etc. breathe the message of Mother Nature.

To illustrate the growth of his art, let us take three masterpieces of his in Mukhari. The immortal ‘Malaika vaendam nenjamae’ was composed when he was twenty-eight and "we have in this song a dexterity of touch, vigorous movement, variegated rhythm, riotous play of musical imagination and gorgeous sound pageantry." The, use of rhyme, far from being indefensible, goes to accentuate the rhythm, which is so cleverly being built up in the first two charanams, and heads to a climax in the third, so that when it comes to ‘Varai nihartha kunchara moorthiyan’ etc., in one majestic sweep of melody, one is overwhelmed. In ‘Irangunenjam’ a piece of middle life, a moving plea for the sanctity of all forms of life, we note that the sea of emotion has curdled into thought. Finally in ‘Indudesabandhu Chittaranja Dasanae’ which approaches in intensity Thygaraja’s ‘Ksheenamay’ we find how the touches have become quiet but deep, mellowed but intense, and in what short compass the height of intensity can be attained.

It is doubtful whether there is a greater composition in Bhairavi than the magnum opus ‘Thunbam thudaitha param poruzhae’ composed by the time he was twenty-nine. ‘Enna Seithalum’ in Kambhoji, ‘Neeradi’ in Sahana and ‘Ninnamam Ucharithal’ in Neelambari have all their universal appeal. Then there are the exquisite ‘Thannuyir’ in Sankarabharanam, the tender ‘Neeye Thunai’ in Yedukulakambhoji, ‘Intha ulakam’ in Kalyani, ‘Ellam Iraivan’ in Kanada, ‘Ithanai Arul’ in Dhanyasi. Again songs like ‘Anparuzham’ in Vachaspathi, ‘Enkurayena’ in Ananda Bhairavi, ‘Emmathramintha Manithan’ in Byagada, ‘Kathruzh’ in Saveri ‘Sakthiyenakku’ in Sarukesi, ‘Eesan Puhazh’ in Karaharapriya, ‘Eesanai Kan’ in Mohanam and ‘Anchael’ in Panthuvarazhi should not be left out in a sketch as this. Sometimes indeed, in our hours of languor and dejection when "the heart is sick, and all the wheels of being slow," these compositions will serve as means of consolation. Better than his words, it is the quaint melody of his songs that will abide long in many ears.

Any consideration of his art necessarily includes a comparison of him with the immortal Thyagaraja. His admiration for Thyagaraja borders on idolatry. In the technique of song, his elaborateness is comparable only to that of Thyagaraja. In the fecundity of variations and the richness of imagination and musical ideas, we have in him God’s plenty. Very careful as he is of the rupa (form) he is still more concerned with the Bhava (idea). In Thyagaraja occasionally we come across songs which seem a mere litany of the names of his beloved Deity. But in Mr. Lakshmana Pillai we uniformly find great music with the highest thought and bright fancy wedded to happy expression. When early in his career Mr. Lakshmana Pillai attempted his hand at Thodi, the songs always turned out to be entirely reminiscent of Thyagaraja’s and were discarded, till he made a desperate attempt by eschewing panchamam and produced a master-piece in ‘Ekkalathilum.’ It may be noted that Thyagaraja’s wonderful pieces are in Hanumathodi and not in pure Thodi. Subsequently Mr. Lakshmana Pillai has given us half-a-dozen first-rate songs in this raga. From these we can understand how deep was the influence of Thyagaraja on Mr. Lakshmana Pillai.

Once or twice in his life some enthusiastic and expansive admirer tried to drag him from his shy retreat and trumpet his fame in the market-place, asserting possibly with loud asseverations that he is the Tamil Thyagaraja. The great world looked on good-humouredly for a moment or two, and then proceeded as before; And the disconcerted singer was left free to scuttle to his corner where he is all the happier, sharing the raptures of his students and the charm of his veena, for his brief experience of publicity. But now, as his book of compositions has been published, readers of it and lovers and patrons of Carnatic Music will not allow, we hope, the Master-singer to shelter himself in his secluded home, but encourage him to enrich our musical heritage. A book, Dr. Johnson wrote, should help us either to enjoy life or to endure it. Mr. Lakshmana Pillai’s book of compositions with swaram notation frequently does both.

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