Book Title: TN Rajarattinam Pillai: Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South
Author: Terada Yoshitaka
WHEN TN Rajarattinam Pillai’s mood would sour ahead of a concert, organisers would play a record of the shehnai to pacify him. The temperamental nagaswaram maestro enjoyed Bismillah Khan’s Hindustani renditions not just for the ustad’s virtuosity. The Carnatic piper disliked “an aspect of excessive mathematical permutation” in his own system. So states a recent book that explores the south Indian classical music culture during the 20th century through an analysis of the iconic Pillai, popularly TNR (1898-1956).
Cut to 2023. Arithmetic acrobatics continue to enrich the Carnatic aesthetics. Perhaps the vigour is less vis-à-vis in the late 1980s when Japanese ethnomusicologist Terada Yoshitaka was travelling across the Deccan, doing his PhD. The thesis, three decades after his submission in 1993, has metamorphosed into a book.
The title opens to three Cs: charisma, caste rivalry and contested past. The second among them has become a trendy topic of late. However class-ridden Carnatic may be, the discussions at times seem agenda-driven. Yoshitaka is keenly interested in inter-community rivalries, but bears a researcher’s detachment that guards him against sentimentalism. The author died (aged 68) this spring.
The book, essentially, revolves around a major piquancy about the Carnatic scene, where Brahmins rule the roost. The nagaswaram, as an aerophone played to the percussive accompaniment of the barrel-shaped tavil, leads the Periya Melam music that has its distinguishing features. Historically members of two less-privileged castes have been the practitioners of the nagaswaram-tavil combo (complemented by the time-keeping cymbals and pitch-laying drone pipe later substituted by the shruti device). That is, the Isai Vellalars of minstrel occupation and, still down the ladder, the barbering Maruttavars. All the same, the sacred thread-wearing Iyers and Iyengars form the patrons of Periya Melam, but they would seldom be its practitioners.
TNR, actually named Balasubramaniam, was from a rustic Isai Vellalar family of east-central Tamil Nadu. Their fertile Thirvavaduthurai village down the Cauvery basin had a non-Brahmin monastery that imparted training in Carnatic. Amid a largely orphaned childhood, the ashram facilitated his music studies. Two of his vocal gurus happened to be Brahmins.
A prodigious TNR gained fame even before his teens. Further rise was steady, meteoric. Enamoured of his genius, the Brahmins had a section emphasising upon TNR’s vocal lessons as one key to his nagaswaram eminence. The Maruttavars, who too had their share of excellent pipers, would ‘de-particularise’ TNR’s caste to suggest a common non-Brahmin acumen. One feature common to both of them is a craving for liquor and meat, besides promiscuity. Or so ran the Brahmins’ highlight about the ‘others’ in Carnatic.
Whatever, TNR drank copiously. Ate mutton like crazy. And had five wives, besides countless concubines. Ostentatious and proud, TNR made an overarching presence in Carnatic music for three decades from the 1920s. That was when microphones entered public concerts. As big crowds were guaranteed of sufficient audibility, TNR could focus more on melodic finesse. His improvised nagaswaram gave it baritone; the shrill timiri variety receded. Oscillations became so nuanced and profuse that even a colossal raga like Todi earned new individuality. Freewheeling alapan would span no less than an hour. Top vocalists such as GN Balasubramaniam and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer humbly admitted that their ornamental briga flashes stemmed from seasoned listening to the nagaswaram (read TNR). Suddenly, the humble reedman abandoned all traditional looks: TNR wore silk shirts (no more bare torsos) and replaced his kudumi tuft on head with western hairstyle. Stalwarts of the double-headed tavil began gaining stardom like tabla players upcountry. Madras movies entertained nagaswaram scenes; TNR played the hero in one. All these implied Periya Melam’s breakaway from its temple-ritual contexts. A cascading effect was the state government’s launch of diploma courses for nagaswaram-tavil a year after TNR’s death (owing to heart ailments). Social memory, though, portrays post-TNR nagaswaram as a whimper.
TNR’s rebellions were tacit. Hence tactful. That’s why, say, his negotiations enabled the nagaswaram to broaden its role as a stage programme (beyond puja-time play) at the Tyagaraja festival in Tiruvaiyaru. TNR’s sartorial sense was modern, but, like the author of the book, he mouthed no fashion statements.