Sri Palani Subramania Pillai

Sri Palani Subramania Pillai (Palani or Palani Subbudu) was one of the greatest Miruthangam and Kanjira vithwan (artist). During the pinnacle of his career, he was the preferred vithwan to accompany many great musicians.

His accompanying style used to embellish the music being sung or played rather than intrude and dominate the concert. His style was characterised by the 'Sunadham' (sweet sound), tonal modulation, the balance between the strokes on the two sides of the miruthangam and exquisite 'Gumakaaram' (the drawn out sounds on the ‘Thoppi’).

Palani was born on 20 April 1908, the second son, to Palani Muthaiah Pillai (1878-1945) and Unnamulai Ammal. Muthaiah, Palani’s father a disciple of Pudukottai Manpoondia Pillai, was an eminent Thavil, Miruthangam and Kanjira vithwan.

Sprouting from an artistic family, whose involvement in music went back several generations, Palani from a very early age was involved in music and was taught the Miruthangam. He learnt the art of Miruthangam and Kanjira first from his father. Also due to his training in Carnatic music his knowledge of playing for Carnatic concerts were enhanced. Further, Palani considered Dakshinamoorthy Pillai (1875-1937) as his maanasika (inspirational) guru and was also heavily influenced by the Thavil wizard Iluppur Panchapakesa Pillai (1905-1935). As a teenager, he was to accompany the giant, Kanchipuram Naina Pillai (1889-1934).

However, at that time, left handed Miruthangam Vithuwans were not encouraged, due to blind prejudice. He had to struggle hard to win recognition as many violin artists of the day would not 'relinquish their place' on the left side of the vocal performer on the stage. It took all the persuasion of Sangita Kalanidhi Sembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar (1895-1974) to get this problem sorted out. Another issue that Palani faced was the heavy use of the Gumakaaram which put off popular vocalists. Again, at the suggestion of Sembai, he consciously cut down on these intricacies so as to concentrate on the aesthetic aspect. At one incident when Palani was accompanying a Carnatic concert in Bombay, the singer was very reluctant to allow him to play Thani Aavarthanam. Thani Aavarthanam can last from 5 - 30 minutes but the singer, only after much convincing, allocated Palani with 3 minutes.

Though Palani was very disappointed with this incident, music lovers and in fact Sembai were enraged protested. Sembai then arranged a musical at the Bombay Saba, with Palani on the Miruthangam. The concert lasted 5 hours and Sembai gave 5 instances at frequent intervals for Palani to play the Thani Aavarthanam.

He entertained the audience in Bombay and returned to Madras with glory. Sometimes, there would be the astounding opportunity to see Palakkadu Sri Mani Iyer playing the Miruthangam along with Palani on the Kanjira. Alathur Venkatesa Iyer (1894-1958) despatched the Alathur Brothers (his son Sivasubramaniam (1916-1965) and disciple Srinivasan (1912-1980)) to Madras so that Palani who had already shifted there and had acquired a standing could help the brothers come up in their career. It was Palani who arranged for a concert of the brothers during prime-time in Music Academy in which he himself accompanied and the concert was a huge success.

Then onwards there was no looking back for the brothers and the trio became hugely popular in the concert circuits. Palani taught the brothers many Tiruppugal songs with proper Chanda Thaalam and there were exclusive Tiruppugal concerts. Palani would often play Thani Aavarthanam in Chanda Thaalams. With fame, Palani's income from concerts increased manifold and his lifestyle was the envy of most musicians. He was a very sociable person who liked the company of fellow musicians and fans. This writer who was privileged to be his disciple for a couple of years had often seen many famous musicians drop in and share his hospitality. Palani's wife was Kolar Rajammal, a good singer in her time. The couple had no children although their extended family consisted of disciples, nephews and nieces. Palani trained a large number of disciples and during the 1950s and 1960s his disciples would win almost all the prizes in various competitions as well as scholarships. The foremost among his students were T. Ranganathan, Trichy Sankaran, M.N. Kandaswamy, Dandamudi Ramamohan Rao, Poovalur Venkataraman, Udumalai Mayilsamy and Pallathur Lakshmanan.

He devised a unique set of lessons that were carefully graded in terms of their complexity. He was a strict disciplinarian and would not proceed to a new lesson unless the disciple had perfected the earlier one.

Palani did not forget the struggle he had in his youth to gain acceptance and fame. He took it as his mission to discover and encourage young musical talent. Lalgudi Jayaraman, Tiruvarur Namasivayam, M.D. Ramanathan and Sangita Kalanidhis M. Balamuralikrishna, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Nedunuri Krishnamoorthy and T.M. Thiagarajan, were beneficiaries. Others who benefited by his accompanying them were M.M. Dandapani Desigar and M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar. Although Miruthanga Vithwans Sangita Kalanidhis T.K. Murthy and Palghat Raghu were not his disciples, Palani shared his knowledge generously with them and also encouraged them in their careers.

At the behest of his father, Palani built a shrine over the 'samadhi' (resting place) of Manpoondia Pillai at Pudukkottai and conducted an annual Gurupooja (salutation to the teacher) there. This practice is being continued by his disciples.

Palani's health was depreciating and he passed away on 17 May 1962 at the age of only 54. This day was certainly a black day for the music world which has not seen anyone of his caliber thereafter.