Honouring Tavil virtuoso Tirunageswaram R Subramaniam

An evening was devoted to tavil guru Tirunageswaram R Subramaniam, as he received the lifetime award
Honouring Tavil virtuoso Tirunageswaram R Subramaniam

CHENNAI: To a Madras-sabha-based urban listener of music, of partial knowledge of the art, that evening was an epiphany. Recently, the great tavil exponent Tirunageswaram R Subramaniam (TRS) was honoured by Parivadini Trust with the Lifetime Achievement Award. The event was dotted generously with the now tiringly oft-used but truly “goosebump moments.”

As I entered the TAG Dakshinamurthi Hall, I saw people streaming in, most of them young, either nagaswaram or tavil players, with smiles on their faces. They were saying, “It is our evening”. The organisers Lalitharam Ramachandran and Swamimalai Saravanan said it was crowd funded; it seems when they announced that this award was planned, money just poured, because of the TRS magic.

It started with a song in Revathi Ragam about TRS, composed by Chinnamanur Vijaya Karthikeyan. He and Idumbavanam Prakash Ilaiyaraja, both nagaswaram players, sang it with feeling. “Layabrahmam engal Subramaniam Tirunageswaram thantha Layabrahmam engal Subramaniam”(Our Subramaniam of Tirunageswaram is a manifestation of laya). Every time they repeated the phrase ‘engal’, it brimmed with pride, it said that he is ours, and we are his.

The three chief guests were the great tavil vidwan Thanjavur Govindarajan, Veenai Gayatri, and B Hemanathan, deputy director, Department of Art & Culture, Government of Tamil Nadu (himself a nagaswaram player). Almost as though they had planned, they spoke of different facets of the laya ‘diamond’. TRS was not educated in the sense of school education, because there were no schools nearby then. Hemanathan said, TRS was capable of acquiring several doctorates.

Photos: Hemamalini
Photos: Hemamalini

The TRS gurukulam was such a finishing school for the tavil artistes. It seems even those who could not spend many years with the guru, would stay for a few weeks and learn. Not only did their art shine, their careers sparkled too, as TRS had a golden touch. He also said that many of TRS’ students are now working as faculty in Government colleges. Veenai Gayatri asked if any disciple had come from Andhra and made them raise their hands! She made the same request of disciples from Karnataka.

So TRS’ reach extended beyond our state and perhaps our country, too. It seems when she was 5 or 6, a reporter asked her what her favourite instrument was, apart from of course the veena. And her answer was “Tavil”. She said, she does not know why because she was too young to know these two instruments have graced the Tamil music scene for centuries and belong to this region.

She said TRS had reached a true yogic state, he had become one with the art, and beyond praise, award, or accolade. The praise from the peer Govindarajan was special too. He spoke of the various tavil gurukulams and how TRS gurukulam was special because TRS was not a teacher in any school or college. So, the students came to TRS for himself, not because he was their teacher. Today, his students are spread everywhere.

The role played by TRS’ wife, who could not come that day, was huge. If feeding is part of the gurukulam, the main role is equally shared by the Annapoorani right? Every student was fed, and TRS would return home after a kutcheri out of town even if it was late because he had to buy the vegetables for the ‘children’. It seems crowds would come just to hear him play for the utsavam of oonjal at the Chidambaram temple.

There were two banis which stood on their own, one was TRS and the other was Perumpallam Venkatesan, a style which did not have an echo of any other style. He said that TRS’ ‘tha’ and the ‘thom’ played at any time were identical, the same measure, the same sound. He also strongly recommended that a thesis be written on TRS comprehensively.

The award was presented, and then virtually everyone in the house-full hall lined up to go on stage, either to offer him a ponnadai or to fall at his feet, or both. He acknowledged each of them specially — no vague, polite smile. The crowning offering that evening to this guru, was a wonderful concert, what else can you give the yogi of laya? Ramana Balachandra on the veena, Mylai Karthikeyan on the nagaswaram, Anantha R Krishnan on the mridangam, and Tirukkadaiyur Babu on the tavil, all belonging to the genius category.

When they started with a creation of TRS himself, a Mallari, the crowd burst into applause. Every item was a gem, and when it came to the thani avartanam, even I without a deep knowledge, heard the magic. The entire auditorium, I am not exaggerating, kept the talam, pausing briefly only to applaud.

It was an evening of revelation. Keats writes what he felt when he first looked into Chapman’s Homer, “like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken”. I felt like that. This was a buzzing world of music, alive and drumming and nurturing our music. It was not Chennai, not season, not sabha nor Academy, not ‘this’ not ‘that’, just pure music and rhythm, a teacher who generously gives himself to anyone willing to learn, and a tavil guru who shares his genius with anyone who cared to hear. He is there to play, that is all. A true lifetime achievement.

(Prabha Sridevan is a retired judge of the Madras High Court and a translator)

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