In my previous post, I had linked the famous AIR recording of the jazz session involving Palani Subramania Pillai with Dave Brubeck. This segues naturally into a post on Palani, since I have not done one yet (though I have been meaning to do so).
In a previous post, I had talked in detail about Palghat Mani Iyer and his impact on modern Carnatic music. While Palghat Mani Iyer was considered one of the undisputed giants of percussion while he was alive, he was not without professional competition. People back then (and still to this day) claimed that there was a “holy trinity of mrudangists” comprising Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, and Ramanathapuram C. S. Murugabhupathi. Palani Subramania Pillai’s position in the annals of modern mrudangam artistry is rather interesting for several reasons which I will go into.
Palani Subramania Pillai belonged to the Pudukottai school of percussion, as opposed to the Thanjavur school that Palghat Mani Iyer belonged to. Both names are geographically derived from the respective towns. However, the Thanjavur school is specifially named after Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, one of the great gurus (teachers) of mrudangam. Similarly, it could also be speculated that the Pudukottai bani is named after Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, although I have not heard of any such claims. Dakshinamurthy Pillai was the guru of Palani Subramania Pillai, and was the reigning kanjira vidwan of his time. In fact, the introduction and development of the kanjira as a classical percussion instrument is one of the hallmarks of the Pudukottai school; its creation is credited to Pudukottai Maamoondia Pillai, the guru of Dakshinamurthy Pillai.
A lot of the artists in the Pudukottai tradition were also tavil vidwans, including Palani Muthaiah Pillai, the father of Palani Subramania Pillai. Thus, the notion arose that the “Pudukottai school is more characteristic of tavil playing”. Based on my experience, that is not completely correct; however, there indeed are (or were) some mrudangam vidwans who actually did incorporate tavil concepts and sollus into the parlance of mrudangam, but that is material for a later post. Even for a (relatively) knowledgeable person like me, it is difficult exactly to clearly elucidate the differences between the Thanjavur and Pudukottai banis (traditions). One can attempt to grasp the differences by analyzing the different approaches to playing employed by artists in either school. For example, Palani Subramania Pillai initially had a very high-level kannaku (calculation)-oriented style that he later modified to make more pleasing for lay audiences, by shifting to an almost pure sarvalaghu style. Palghat Mani Iyer, on the other hand, used to almost replicate the song and music on the mrudangam. However, further analysis is confounded by Palani’s early demise (1962) and the fact that there has been much blending of the two schools in the last 5-6 decades. I have heard Trichy Sankaran (Palani’s star disciple) play korvais that were taught to me as being Palghat Mani Iyer’s compositions, so it is difficult to come to an absolute conclusion in this matter.
Palani was the first left-handed mrudangist in the Carnatic music scene, which was slowly being increasingly dominated by the orthodox brahmin community. As such, he faced incredible hardship and harrasment (to a degree) before he managed to establish himself as one of the top artists of his era. Nowadays, there are lots of left-handed mrudangists active in Carnatic music, including Bangalore Arjun Kumar, K. Arun Prakash, Kalladaikuruchi Sivakumar, Anantha R. Krishnan, Delhi Sairam, and R. Sankaranarayanan, among others. The community of mrudangists owes a lot to Palani for paving the way and equalizing the field for left-handed artists as well.
Just like Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani was also an active teacher, and had many students who became popular vidwans in their own right. His seniormost student, Ramanathapuram M. N. Kandasamy Pillai, was a popular guru and tutored several of the mrudangists in the concert circuit today, including Arun Prakash, Neyveli Venkatesh, and J. Balaji. Other students of Palani include K. S. Kalidas, Erode Gururajan, Guruvayoor Dorai, T. Ranganathan, Dandamodi Ram Mohan Rao, and Mavellikara Krishnan Kutty Nair. Of course, special mention must be made of Trichy Sankaran, who was Palani’s youngest and most brilliant student. Palani liked him so much that Sankaran had the opportunity to play double mrudangam concerts with him; these experiences gave Sankaran much valuable concert experience early on and helped catapult him to his present position today as one of the top mrudangam vidwans in the world. Sankaran sir recently received the prestigious Sangeetha Kalanidhi award from the Madras Music Academy last year, and in his acceptance speech, mentioned that it gave him great pride to be the first vidwan from the Pudukottai school to receive such an honor.
Of course, I could go on and on, but in this case, an audio recording is worth a thousand words, so I will just end it here.