Celebrating Paganeri Pillappan: An Unsung Artist Who Casts A Spell With His Nadaswaram

Celebrating Paganeri Pillappan: An Unsung Artist Who Casts A Spell With His NadaswaramPaganeri Pillappan
  • In conversation with the man who turns breath into magic with his 'nadaswaram' - Paganeri Pilappan, a distinguished artist who remains truly unsung.

For close to the last five decades, every single dawn in this village of Tamil Nadu is marked not by the chirping of birds and crickets but with the unmatched play of sounds emanating from the nadaswaram (also called nagaswaram) of an artist who has taken every listener by awe.

Nagaswaram Vidwan Paganeri Pilappan has spent most of his waking hours in conversation with his instrument in a remote corner of Sivaganga districts’s Paganeri village in Tamil Nadu. And the simplicity with which he takes you through his journey is testimony to his untouched bare self that is only concerned with ensuring the nadaswaram continues to make music for as long as he lives.

’My joy, my sorrow, my job, my life, my everything is just this nagaswaram’ he says as he takes us back to the beginning of his relationship with this ‘divine’ instrument. He started ’putting the taala‘ when he was around five accompanying his father Nagaswaram Vidwan Kottasami Pillai and got his first ‘samashruti nadaswaram’ when he was around 8 years of age. Since then, many instruments have adorned the hands of this artist whose fondness for and perfection of the raga Sahana have earned him the name ‘Sahana Pilappan’, he shares with joy.

Ozhukkam’ is key to learning, he says. ‘Ozhukkam (discipline) and bhakti (devotion) is what makes all the difference. And that is what distinguishes those that inherit an art from a Guru in a gurukul from those who acquired it in a music school’ he explains.

That is also how his favourite keerthana Valli Nayagane in Shanmukhapriya raga got ’etched in his mind’, he recollects. ‘I made some mistake while I was learning and he poked me on my thigh and it hurt. But that is the keerthana I am very fond of and it will stay my favourite because of the way my father ensured I get it right’, he says nostalgically, as he breaks into rendering it. ‘Valli nayagane....’ he demonstrates with his smile showing in his eyes.

And this tradition of ‘devotion and discipline is what he has kept going as he trains students over the last three decades.

Paganeri Pillappan with his students
Paganeri Pillappan with his students

Even before the sun can rise in Paganeri, Pilappan and his students head to the Karunakadshi sametha Neelakandeeswarar temple where they play every single day from 3 am to 6 am and in the evening again from 3 pm to 6pm. That has been the only constant in his life - creating ‘vidwans’ who create magic with this wind instrument, apart from playing for the deity.

His is the tune to which the deity is ritualistically paraded during all the utsavas and festivals with him leading the temple procession.

He has been honoured as the ‘Asthana Vidwan’ by Jagadguru Sri Jayendra Saraswathi Shankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, has tutored 87 students to be Nagaswaram Vidwans so far, his rendition of certain ragas is seen as being unmatched, and yet he sits in this remote corner of Tamil Nadu with not much recognition or support.

The nagaswaram is his only medium of livelihood. Which means that whatever he earns during the season of feasts and festivals, around three months of ‘Chitirai, Vaishakha and Ani’ is what he has to make do with for the rest of the year. The only other source being a few concerts which happened in Singapore, Malaysia etc., after he was ‘discovered on YouTube’ by ’nadasvaram’ and classical music enthusiasts.

Ask him of his journey onto the virtual world, to which he is partially oblivious, he says, it was the video made by the archaka of the temple that got him attention from the likes of Kamal Haasan and that also had him featured on a music show on a Tamil channel last year. His own channel has been up, owing to the efforts of ‘ Dr Balaji who lived in America‘ he says. He passed away recently, but he was the one who ’put it on YouTube’ and the channel is now is taken care of by few others who are ‘all settled abroad. They ask my students to make videos and send it to them. And they put it on YouTube’.

Paganeri Pillappan
Paganeri Pillappan

But facing the camera reminds him of his first experiences with cinema as a child. “I played along with my father for Rajnikanth in Murattu Kalai”, he says, as he shares a picture.

His son too has been trained under him but as for his granddaughter who ‘now does sit and put the taala’ he wishes for a ‘better future’ as art alone can't help sustain in the times to come, he laments. ‘May be if she can pursue it with formal education and a career that is better'. ‘No functions, no festivals, no weddings, the lockdown has been a difficult time‘, says Pilappan who has no salary apart from what he earns through his performances, which have almost reduced to none in this pandemic.

But he isn’t complaining or disheartened. ‘My students call and check on me. They are all successful and that makes me happy. Many people, like you, call and appreciate saying they watched the videos,‘ says Pilappan as he signs off to answers another caller who seeks his details informing him of his probable nomination for the state’s Kalaimamani award this year.

He deserves it and much more, we say.

Those who wish to support Pilappan can do so directly. His account details are as follows:

K Pillappan

Indian Overseas Bank

Paganeri Branch

A/C No: 227201000000543


MICR Code: 630020210

Harsha is a staff writer at Swarajya.


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