There came a time in the life of M P N Ponnusamy — the one half of the famed brothers nagaswaram combo of M P N Sethuraman and M P N Ponnusamy — when he almost resented the reference to the film Thillana Mohanambal, a movie that catapulted the duo to unimaginable musical stardom in the late 60s.
The film — a milestone in mainstream Tamil cinema for, among others, its music — was the brothers' biggest calling card for many years. They too were very proud of their performance in the film, which was about, in a sense, a nagaswara troupe. But that film alone shouldn't define their musical prowess, they felt. They were surely much more than what one film had to offer.
Ponnusamy, who passed away in Madurai on 27 November at the age of 90, did not hold any rancour that they were always seen through that landmark movie. The man was incapable of strong negative feelings. The vibrant but dulcet notes that caressed out of his nagaswaram essentially carried his soft and happy personality.
They were true legends of Madurai
Madurai Sethuraman and Ponnusamy were truly legends of Carnatic music and their contributions to the classical art are as hefty as the ones made by other stalwarts from the same city, say, Madurai S Subbulakshmi, Madurai Mani Iyer, Madurai Somu, and Madurai T N Seshagopalan.
My first experience of the brothers' music was at the place the duo well and truly, emotionally and spiritually belonged to — the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple. They were the asthana vidwan of the temple for many years. But much before that they honed their art at the temple as they performed from 4.30 in the morning until the ‘arthajama' puja at 8 in the night.
I first heard them in the late seventies, when I had not known about them or seen their famed movie. I was on a temple visit with my father, early morning, and while we were doing the rounds of the temple through its famed corridors, in streamed gently the notes of nagaswaram from near the outer passageway of the 'Amman Sannidhi'.
In the agreeable acoustics of the early morning quietude of the temple, the nagaswaram decidedly sounded ethereal. It was music literally fit for the Gods — divine and delectable. I was hooked instantly, even though I had no real knowledge of Carnatic music. For, what I heard that morning was unsullied with pretence. It wasn't a performance. It was an offering to God in every sense.
My father told me that they were Sethuraman and Ponnusamy, and later, upon reaching home, he played two vinyl records of the Madurai Brothers, as they were referred to. There were two songs that I still remember. One was a Lathangi raga song and the other was Thamathamen Swami in Thodi raga.
Now, Thodi raga on nagaswaram is practically owned by that genius Rajarathinam Pillai. But I hadn't heard him then. And so this was the grandest Thodi I could possibly hear. The precision of the notes when they landed was stunning and soothing. Behind it lay a great talent, which was further burnished by countless hours of practice in their house in Madurai and the temple.
The brothers were born in a family of nagaswaram vidwans who go seven generations back. Their father and guru M P Natesa Pillai was a famed vidwan in his time while their grandfather M K M Ponnusamy was a vidwan at the Mysore Samasthanam and had written a research book on music.
The brothers never took the musical riches in their genes for granted and worked on it sedulously from a young age. The brothers have been performing together from about when Ponnusamy, the younger one, was 9, while the elder Sethuraman, was around eleven-and-a-half.
The duo may not have exhibited the lavish flair of the likes of Rajarathinam Pillai or Karukurichi Arunachalam, but their music was no less panache-filled.
The Madurai Brothers also brought a certain professional rigour to their music, and that they seldom had off days. Nagaswaram is a tough instrument to master and even tougher to sustain the feel and fervour. But the two pulled it off for long and their consistency was remarkable. They come from a time when nagaswara vidwans were unfortunately given to profligate lifestyle. But the duo eschewed that and were disciplined and diligent.
The Blessings of Goddess Meenakshi
"It is all due to the blessings of Madurai Meenakshi," Ponnusamy told me when I last met him more than two decades back. The brothers always felt that there was some divine help to their music.
It was the invisible hand of the Goddess that probably fetched them their greatest moment of fame, Thillana Mohanambal. The director of the film AP Nagarajan, it is said, had written the names of a bunch of nagaswara musicians on small bits of paper, rolled them individually and placed them in front of the idols. The one whose name gets picked to play for the film was his idea.
As it turned out, the Madurai Brothers' name got picked. But even then it was not a full green signal for them. The film's leading man, the one who would play the nagaswaram on screen, Sivaji Ganesan, had to okay them. So a session with him was arranged. The duo performed for over two hours while Sivaji listened to it while lying on the lap of the lyricist Kannadasan.
After the chamber concert, Sivaji gave his thumbs-up as he exited the place. One of the songs that the brothers played in their performance that day was included in the film too. It was Nagumomu in Abheri. But for the rest of the film, especially the now iconic Nalam thana song, the brothers stayed in Madras for nearly six months and practised with the music director K V Mahadevan's right-hand man Pugazhendi to get the nuances right.
Incidentally, the other popular English note in the film (originally composed by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar for Madurai Mani Iyer) was actually performed by the brothers at a function at Sivaji Ganesan's house. Listening to that, the director APN got spurred with the idea to include it in the film. Just as well, it rings fresh even today and stands testimony to the Brothers' variegated skills with the nagaswaram.
When the movie was released on 27 July 1968, the Brothers watched it in Madurai's well-known Chinthamani theatre on the first day. Upon seeing the duo, the fans of the actor carried them on their shoulders and did a celebratory jig. The film did push them into the spotlight and they became even more famous.
They did work in a couple of films after that, but nothing noteworthy except Kovil Pura (1981), their last film outing. It does feature a great song in Poorvikalyani/Rasika Ranjani, Amuthe Tamizhe.
In the '80s and the '90s, the duo confined themselves to performances at temples and concerts, and as they hit 50 years of age, the usual vigour inevitably dropped as nagaswaram is a physically very demanding instrument. Of course, you could see them at the Meenakshi Amman temple in the morning. And the old magic was still intact.
But after the death of his elder brother Sethuraman in October 2000, Ponnusamy was left adrift. Though he performed solo from time to time and also was part of a TV reality music programme as one of the judges, the nagaswara legend somehow missed the magic that he and brother created in tandem.
Despite concerts far and wide, the duo did not make the kind of money that their stature deserved, and it is no surprise that they did not want their children to take on the family tradition. The legends certainly deserved at least a Padma Shri for their contributions to the music, but even that did not come.
And in his death yesterday, Ponnusamy is practically unsung. The media has been relatively quiet about it. That is a tad unkind for the man behind the nagaswaram tune that asked an entire State: Nalam thaana (are you okay and healthy?)
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!