Composers and Musicians

T. Lakshmanan Pillai (1864-1950)

The talent and merit in people often to unrecognised.  This can be compared to certain flowers with exceptional.  fragrance withering away without spreading their fragrance.  To this unfortunate category belongs Shri Thiraviyam Lekshmanan Pillai, affectionately referred to as Appa by his friends, relatives and sishyas.  If I say that Shri Pillai was pushed to a corner  by his own contemporaries.  I will be raising an unnecessary controversy,  So I do not venture to say so.

Shri Lekshmanan Pillai was an intimate friend of my father, and my nephew Madurai Vydianathan, a musician by profession, learned music at the feet of Shri Lekshmanan Pillai in the good company of Shri R. Krishnaswamy, an illustrious disciple of Shri Pillai.

Shri Pillai’s ancestors belonged to an orthodox Saiva Vellala family originally based in Tiruchendur in Tinelveli District of Tamil Nadu.  In 1770, the grandfather of Shri Pillai, Shri Muthukumaraswami Pillai along with his two sons migrated to Thiruvananthapuram in search of a job and later moved on to Alleppey to set up business there.  Thus what was a loss to Tamil Nadu was a gain to the then Travancore State. Shri Thiraviyam Pillai, father of Shri Lekshmanan Pillai got employement in the Accounts Department of the State and rose to the position of the Accountant General.  His mother hailed from Mavelikkara.

Shri Lekshmanan Pillai was born on 3rd May 1864.  Even from his childhood he was initiated into the Tamil classics especially of the Saiva cult.  He was also made to recite daily verses from the Thevaram.  His father also told him stories relating to Sambandar, Appar and Sundarar.  Even from his teens Pillai showed a flare for music.

After taking his B.A. Degree in 1884, Pillai joined the Law College.  He simultaneously got a Government job.  His then ambition was to become a lawyer and then a Judge.  But God had willed otherwise.  He was selected to study the British system of Accounts and so he proceeded to Madras.  This was done at the behest of the then Diwan who was a close friend of Pillai’s father.

His sojourn in Madras was a turning point in his life and helped to bring out the musician and composer in him.  During this period stalwarts like Patnam Subramonia Iyer, Ramaswami Sivan and Maha Vydianatha Iyer standardised and propagated nearly 500 songs of the earlier composers like Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and Kshetrangnar.  This period of Carnatic music had a profound influence on Shri Pillai.

Shri Pillai had his early lessons in music under one Pappu Pillai, who was considered a great exponent of Pillai’s singing.  The visit of Maha Vydianathan Iyer and Murugadasar to Pillai’s house deepened his interest and taste in music.  he started composing songs with greater vigour even though he composed his first song when he was just 14.

All his compositions were in Tamil.  Shri Purandardasa, Ramadas, Thyagaraja, Syama Sastri and others could compose in their own language, why should I, a Tamilian, choose another language, argued Shri Pillai.  Though Godliness permeated all his compositions, He did not choose any one particular deity for praise in his songs.  Instead he concentrated on the formless infinite.  To him, Dwaitam and Adwaitam were to sides of the same coin.  two of his songs are, however, exceptions.  These are ‘Thiruchendril Velavane’ in Panduvarali and ‘Gananathane’ in Natta.  The second piece was composed by Shri Pillai, at the command of his guru to be presented at his ‘arangettam’.

Lekshmanan Pillai’s songs are in 80 different ragas, of which 20 are ‘melakartha’ ragas.  ‘Todi’ raga tops the list with 10 compositions, closely followed by ‘Kanada’ - 8 and ‘Poorvi Kalyani’- 7.  Some rare ragas also find their place like ‘Shadvida margini’ and the raga ‘Amarasenapriya’ - one of his own creations - named after the American philosopher and essayist - Emerson for whom Pillai had great respect and admiration This went to such an extent that he chose the name “Emerson Villa” for his house in Punnen Road.Some of his popular compositions are:

Tumbam Tudaitha            -        Bhairavi

Neeya Thunai Enrum       -        Yadukula Kamboji

Yedu Rompamo              -        Vasantha

Malaikka Vendum           -        Muhari

Alai Maname                   -        Sankarabharanam

Ittinai Arul Pera               -        Dhanyasi

Iduvo Karunai                 -        Ananda Bhairavi

Innum Souannai               -        Suretti

Anjadey Nenchame         -        Bhairavi

of all the ragas, Pillai had greatest liking for ‘Todi’. It was felt at that time that Thyagaraja through his many songs in ‘Todi’ had exhausted all the potentialities of the raga.  Pillai did not accept this and resolved to compose a song in ‘Todi’ with a new touch.  Through strenuous efforts he succeeded in his attempt.  Through his composition ‘Ekkalathilum’ is in ‘Todi’ raga, but ‘Todi’ without panchamam.
Letter head and handwritting of Sri.Pillai.
The theme of Pillai’s compositions was highly philosophical and often pictured events in real life.
In this respect Neelakantan Sivan’s compositions resemble a close parallel.  This makes one believe that Pillai greatly influenced Shri Neelakantan Sivan.

Let me now cite an example of how real events in life are echoed in Pillai’s compositions.  The composition ‘Aluthenemanam Iyyaneaneethi sahithu’ is in ‘varali’ raga.  This was composed when during his official career he had to bear the harassment of his superiors just because he refused to compromise on principles.

Besides his great proficiency in music, Pillai was a sound veena player.  He had his training in Veena under Sattu Bhagavathar and was also greatly influenced by the Veena maestro Shri Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar.  Pillai’s proficiency in Veena stood him good stead, when in his later years he lost his voice and could not sing.

Pillai had a great admiration for Sarabha Sastri, a great exponent of flute, who was totally blind, and for the Nadaswara Vidwan Siva Kulandu. Their styles of handling the respective instruments had a profound influence on Pillai.

Besides a musician and Vaggeyakara,  Pillai was a literary figure par excellence.  In 1918, he published a volume containing essays on a variety of subjects ranging from music and religion to vegetarianism. In his essay ‘Christ and Tiruvalluvar’ he makes a subtle comparative study of the Thirukkural and the Bible.

From the musical angle two essays of Pillai merit special mention.  These are ‘Travancorean music and musicians’ and ‘Thyagaraja’. In the first, Pillai makes a comparative study of eastern and western music.  He showers praise of the highest order on the royal composer Maharaja Sri Swati Thirunal. While praising all his compositions, Pillai maintains that his kritis ‘Sarasa Sama Mukha’ in Kamas’ and Suma Sayak in Kappi’ are two outstanding gems.  In this essay mention is also made of the Maharaja’s eldest sister Rani Rukmini Bhayi, Iraimman Thampi, The Thanjavur quartette, Parameswara Bhagavatar, Coimbatore Raghava Iyer and Raghupathi Bhagavathar
(a disciple of Kannayya).  A vivid description of the musical contest between Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and Coimbatore Raghava Iyer finds a place in this essay.

In the essay on ‘Thyagaraja’ Pillai pays rich tributes to the great composer.  He says his admiration for Thyagaraja increased many fold because of the song ‘Yagna Kulu’ in ‘Jaya Manohari’,  in which Thyagaraja decries the practice of yagas involving animal sacrifice.  The visit of Shatkala Govinda Marar to Thiruvayyar as emissary of Swati Thirunal and the emanation of the famous song ‘Endaro Mahanubhavalu’ in ‘Sri Raga’ are beautifully depicted.

Lekshmanan Pillai can be rightly described as a musical institution in Thiruvananthapuram at that time.  Hence it is no surprise that many prominent musicians and musicologists visited his abode.  These include Tiger Varadachariar, Harikesanallur Muthaih Bhagavathar, Musiri subramonia Iyer, Smt.  M.S. Subhalakshmi and the musicologist Prof. Sambamurthy.

Shri Pillai, as a guru, was outstanding.  He was not the conventional guru and did not believe in gurukula vasam.  He never wanted his shishyas to touch his feet or prostrate before him.  He only wanted them to show devotion, sincerity to music.  In choosing his shishyas there was no discrimination based on caste, creed or religion.  Shri Krishnaswami and Smt. Rajeswari Menon who are his disciples will endorse all that I have mentioned. 

Shri Pillai was a strict vegetarian and never compromised on this.  Once his second daughter Meenakshi had a bout of typhoid. The doctor advised her to take chicken soup for 41 days during the period of convalescence.  On hearing this Pillai is reported to have said ‘I will rather sacrifice my daughter rather than 41 innocent birds’.  He carried out a relentless fight against cruelty to animals and succeeded in persuading the authorities to abolish animal sacrifice at Mandakkadu.  This great love for animals is exemplified in the compositions ‘Vayillatha Maade’ in ‘Punnaga Varali’.

Shri Pillai had made significant contributions to bring out the Travancore State Mannual.His passion for music and his desire to propagate music was such that in 1926, under his presidentship a few eminent persons of Thiruvananthapuram met and passed a resolution  requesting Government to start a music college in the city.  This perhaps can be considered as the harbinger of the many music institutions that we now have in Thiruvananthapuram.

Any writing on Shri Pillai will be incomplete, if no reference is made to his illustrious daughter Smt.  Lakshmi Narayanan Nair.  She not only inherited the music of her father, but also many of his good qualities.  She served as the Professor and Head of the Department of Music in the Women’s College.

Lekshmanan Pillai died at the age of 84, leaving behind a legacy of most  wonderful compositions.  These compositions are admirable for the purity of their devotional content.  But it is most tragic that this treasure house remains practically unnoticed.  In the words of the late Lakshmi N. Menon ‘we live only when we are remembered.  So Appa will live only when people will remember and sing his compositions’.  Pillai’s dedicated disciple Shri Krishnaswamy should be praised for his untiring efforts to popularise the composition of his guru.  Through the ‘learn to sing’  programme over the All India Radio he has made many of Pillai’s compositions to reach the common man.  He has also brought out two cassettes containing the compositions of Shri Pillai.

Let me thank Shri R. Krishnaswami and Shri Umamaheswaran for their help and guidance in preparing this article.

Lakshmanan pillai on veena Lakshmanan pillai's Father Sri.R.Krishnaswamy:Desciple
Lakshmanan pillai with students(Sri.Krishnaswamy at extrem right) Lakshmanan pillai with Annamalai chettiar and M.K.Thyagarajan

Listen to some Lakshmanan Pillai Kritis:(Courtesy R.Krishnna Swamy)



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