Archives, Composers

Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai

Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai – An Article By. Dr.B.M.Sundaram

We thank Dr.B.M.Sundaram for compiling and providing information on this great vaggeyakara, information which otherwise would have been forgotten in the annals of carnatic music.

South India has the unique greatness of fostering and elevating to heights the system of Carnatic Music. Innumerable vaggeyakaras have born here and produced priceless compositions, that came through their imaginative fertility. In the sphere of cultivating the sangeeta to a great extent, the share of composers (Vaggeyakaras) is in no way lesser than that of the practical musicians, who musically feed the public. The Musical Trinity, Shri Tyagaraja, Shri Syama Sastri and Shri Muttusvami Dikshitar even live amongst us, in the form of their beautiful compositions. But, there were some other Vaggeyakaras, who have contributed to the world of music, wonderful compositions, have never been so famous.

One such Vaggeyakara was Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai, whose gift to the musical world is very very valuable. Tiruvarur, where “one born gets liberation, without fail”, had many families, who hereditarily served the deities of the temple. One was ‘Nayinar Adiyar’ family. ‘Nayanar’ denotes God and ‘Adiyar’ means ‘devotees’ or ‘servants’. The original honorific of this family is ‘Nayanar Adiyar’, which became ‘Nayinar Adiyar’ in corrupt usage. Sometimes, the temple priests were also addressed as such. In the Nayinar adiyar family, there was one musician called Kamala Tyagesam Pillai. His wife was Vasantammal. This couple had a son, in 1798 and named him Ramasvami. Then was born a daughter to them, named Sarasvati. Both Ramasvami and Sarasvati learnt music, their family heritage, from their father and became good musicians. Ramasvami also learnt Samskrit from Veethivitanga Shivacharya, an expert in Agamas and Telugu from Chandrasekhara Sastri both of the same place. In those days, none was accepted as a musician if he did not know Samskrit and Telugu also. Ramasvami Pillai didn’t take up Nagasvara, like his father, but became a vocalist. Sarasvati, true to her name, was an expert in playing on the Veena and vocal music. Ramasvami came close to Muttusvami Dikshita, who also lived in Tiruvarur, which influenced the former in worshipping the goddess. It is said, once during a visit to Tiruvaiyaru, he met Sree Tyagaraja, who, on listening to the music of Ramasvami said, “Only Sarasvati is dwelling in your tongue; be always singing on the goddess” and then only, Ramasvami Pillai commenced to compose songs.

Sarasvati had no interest in ordinary family life and became more or less a renunciate. For the simple reason that his sister had no desire to marry, Ramasvami PIllai also remained a bachelor till the end. Circumstances were not favourable for them to continue living in their native place and hence the brother and sister migrated to Vaideesvarankovil and lived there. Sarasvati was beautiful and youthful, but she disliked to see a number of devadasis in that place, and many of them lived life as prostitutes and so took to saffron robes. She lived only for thirty two years.

Vaidyalinga Tambiran, the pontiff of Dharmapuram Adheenam, whenever visited Vaideeshvarankovil, used to send for Ramasvami Pillai and would enquire, ‘O, a penta-linguist and a wonderful musician! Are you well?’ From this we learn that Ramasvami Pillai was an expert in five languages. The demise of his sister, was a great personal loss to him and he felt that he had become a lone man. This worry debilitated his mental stature and roamed all along the streets, as if a lunatic. He was regular in cleansing the shrine of God Muttukumarasvami, making garlands etc. He, as per the order of the pontiff, was granted food in the temple itself. Seerkazhi Narayanasvami Pillai was a violinist and a disciple of Tanjavur Vadivelu of the famous Tanjavūr Quartette. He used to visit Vaideeshvarankovil often to chat with Ramasvami Pillai. Only on such occasions, Ramasvami Pillai used to converse with the Seerkazhi vidvan, about music. It is said that Narayanasvami Pillai had a special liking for the raga Mohanam. At his insistence, Ramasvami Pillai again started to compose, beginning with the famous kruti, ‘Jagadheesvari’ (Mohanam). Living like a saint, but without saffron robes, Ramasvami Pillai left his mortal coil in Vaideesvarankovil on 26.3.1852, at the age of fifty-three. He had, unluckily, no descendants nor direct disciples. All his compositions in manuscripts came to the possession of his close relatives in Tiruvarur.

His compositions, Varnas and Kritis are in total, fifty-two (according to Tiruvarur Muttappa Pillai), though what have come to us today are not even ten. One or two of his Varnas, are sung by musicians, without knowing the actual composer.

‘Vanita ninne’ (Bhairavi) is one. Though Bhairavi raga has both Dhaivatas, the use of Chatusruti Dhaivata should be minimal. This we see in the Varna ‘Viribhoni’ of Adiyappayya. ‘Vanita ninne’ of Ramasvami Pillai also follows this rule. The first Ettukada swara has two avarttas, which is another speciality. It is said that these Ettukada swaras had sahitya (similarly like ‘Viribhoni’), though they are not now available. Another Varna of Pillai in the raga, Saurashŧra, ‘Na meeda” is there, but found without the Ettukada swaras, which are missing in the manuscripts. According to his relative-descendants, the Varnas composed by Pillai are sixteen.

To compose Chiŧŧasvara for the krutis and also sahitya (completely in Svarakshara format) is the uniqueness of Ramasvami Pillai. ‘Ekkalattilum” (Pūrvikalyani)and Jagadheesvari (Mohanam) may be cited as some specimens. The Purvikalyani piece has the letter ‘Pa’ predominantly in its chiŧŧaisvara (both in the svara and the sahitya); ‘Jagadheesvari’ has Da or Dha as the main letter in the chiŧŧaisvara. Though it has been prescribed by the works on music, that this raga has Chatusruti Dhaivata, one can clearly see, how many types of Chatusruti Dhaivata are employed here by Pillai. One of his compositions, ‘Idu nalla samayam” is in four languages, Tamizh, Samskrit, Kannada and Hindi and also in ragamalika. But, at some period of time, somebody changed it into a single raga, Kalyani. ‘Sree Kamakshi” in the raga Vasanta is a beautiful composition of Pillai. But, unknowingly, some say that it is of Subbaraya Sastri, since the word, ‘Kumara’ appears in this. They forget that Sastri has not used the word ‘Kumara’ exclusively as his ‘mudra’. The mudra of Ramasvami Pillai is ‘Vedapuri’ or ‘Vedapureesa’ or ‘Vedapureesvari’. There are many places in Tamizhnadu with the second (or maybe the first) name as ‘Vedapuri’—Tirukkazhukkunram, Puducherry, Vaideesvarankovil and so on. Ramasvami Pillai adopted that signature, because he lived in Vaideesvarankovil, that’s all.

Compositions of Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai:

1.Ekkalattilum – Purvikalyani
2.Jagadishvari – Mohanam
3.Vanita ninne – Bhairavi – Varnam
4.Idhu nalla Samayam – Ragamalika
5.Na meeda – Saurashtram 6.ShrI kamakshi – Vasanta


Shri kamakshi Katakshi has been wrongly credited to Subbaraya Sastri. Per Dr.B.M.Sundaram’s article in the Souvenir of the Krishna Gana Sabha he says the following: When I had the opportunity to peruse the notebooks of Tiruppamburam Natarajasundaram Pillai, showed to me graciously by his son Tiruppamburam Flute Swaminatha Pillai, I found this Vasanta krti raga in them. I was given to understand that Natarajasundaram Pillai learnt this directly from the composer who was a good friend and sahadhyayi of Sathanur Panchanadha Iyer.Shri Kamakshi being a composition of Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai was confirmed by Vazhuvoor Sundaram Pillai another disciple of the composer. Those who ascribed the krti to Subbaraya Sastri did so only taking into sight the usage, Kumaranai Rakshi occurring therein without giving even the slightest cognizance to ‘Vedapureeshvari’ the actual mudra.