Nadaswaram artiste M P N Ponnusamy Pillai seems to be a man of surprises: few would attribute his humble demeanour to someone who has performed in front of many an eminent personality, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Babu Rajendra Prasad.
Pillai belongs to a family which, for eight generations, has performed at the sanctum sanctorum of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple. His grandfather, the late M K M Ponnusamy Pillai, belonged to the Mysore samasthaanam. Pillai's tryst with the Nadaswaram began at the age of six, the initiation governed by his father and uncle, Natesha and Shanmuga Pillai.
Three years later, he began performing at the temple along with his brother, five years his senior. That marked the beginning of a 58-year partnership, with performances all over the world, until Sethuraman's demise in 2000.
Quiz him on the ‘Madurai connection’, given that a horde of musical artistes — from M S Subbulakshmi to T N Seshagopalan, Somasundaram and Mani Iyer — have originated there, and he shoots back, “Tell me, which aspect of Madurai is not steeped in greatness? No other place has produced as many artistes. I have always listened to music and learnt and never practised at home. It was only during the recording sessions for Thillana Mohanambal that I had to sit for a rehearsal,” Pillai, still a performing artiste who attributes the longevity of his career to discipline, discloses. The movie's director, A P Nagarajan, listened to a radio recital of the duo, and was so impressed with their rendition of the keerthana Nagumomu Ganaleni that he instantly sent them a letter asking them to play for his movie. The duo were the “actual” artistes behind Sivaji Ganesan and A V M Rajan — who portrayed Nadaswaram artistes in the movie. Ponnusamy Pillai lauds the movie's music director K V Mahadevan and his assistant Pugazhendi for keenly recording their impromptu improvisations.
“Until July 27, 1968 (when the movie released),” Pillai says, remembering the date clearly, “we used to receive around `100 or `200 for two or three day performances; following the release, audiences were satisfied if we performed for about one-and-half hours, where we once performed for four hours.”
On the inclusion of the keerthana in the movie, Pillai admits to having initial reservations, but says he was proved wrong when their concert audiences insisted that it and the English note be rendered 10-12 times!
The artiste turns a tad serious when quizzed on the dwindling artiste supply chain for the nadaswaram. “Where is the support for us? The government has neglected us totally. Thousands of temples in the state lack such artistes,” he says, adding that even a majority of the sabhas do not allocate dates for concerts by nadaswaram artistes.