Vadivelu Of The Tanjavur Quartet: A Highly Praised Violinist
Vadivelu was the youngest of the four brothers of a nattuvanar family who became known and famous as the Tanjavur Quartet. He was born in 1810. Like his brothers Chinniah, Ponniah and Sivanandam, he enjoyed great prestige and royal patronage because of his tremendous expertise in the intricacies and nuances of the arts of music and dance and in composing songs. Vadivelu was a student of Muthuswami Dikshitar.
He learnt to play the violin from a European padre by the name of Schwartz. He often played and demonstrated to Dikshitar the Western tunes he had learnt from the Western musicians' group attached to the Tanjavur Palace. Dikshitar. pleased by and proud of his disciple's accomplishment, even composed some songs in Sanskrit in the Western tunes Vadivelu had learnt to play.
There were few who were not amazed by Vadivelu"s adept violinplaying. He enjoyed a close friendship with Tyagaraja and there is evidence to indicate Tyagaraja himself felt captivated by the sweet sound of music emanating from Vadivelu's violin. Several times he himself asked Vadivelu to accompany him whilst he sang. Vadivelu. of course, felt it was a great privilege to do so. Vadivelu used to sing the songs composed by him for Tyagaraja. T h e great master rarely paid compliments or nodded his head in approval when he heard a new composition by anyone. But when he heard Vadivelu's Telugu padam Na swamy ika na meecia dhava juia rada, in the raija Poorvikalyani. his pleasure was unbounded and he offered quick praise. When he was 18 years old, Vadivelu had made the acquaintance of Veena Kuppier, a great musician and a composer, at the house of one Sama Naicker in Madras.
Kuppier used to perform sitting on a chair-like platform — known in Tamil as kathilodu'. Later, filled with wonder and pleasure by Vadivelu's violinplaying. Kuppier presented the unique platform to the younger man and altogether gave up sitting on a raised platform at his kutcheries. Vadivelu possessed of great self-confidence as well as a streak of obstinacy. There was an occasion once when he and his brothers had to reiterate and insist on the protection of the rights and privileges they had at the big temple in Tanjavur. As a result of this encounter, the ruler banished them from the city. Protesting this move. Vadivelu and his brothers left the kingdom itself. They refused the ruler's entreaties to return to the city and the court. At that time, the kingdom of Travancore was ruled by Swat" Tirunal. Knowing that the art of dance flourished in the Chola and Pandya countries, the Chera king wanted to foster it in his country also. Towards this end. he invited to his court several artists from Tanjavur. Aggrieved as they were by the Tanjavur king's action and attitude.
Vadivelu and his brothers accepted an invitation extended by Swati Tirunal and went to Trivandrum in 1K30. There they became artists of the court. Swati Tirunal. impressed by Vadivelu's accomplishments, accepted the latter as an intimate associate as well. Vadivelu's knowledge of and skills in music were of great help to Swati Tirunal in his own creative endeavours in composing songs. T h e dean of the artists in Swati Tirunal's court was Noorcni Parameswara Bhagavatar. He had great regard for the musical acumen and expertise of the young man from Tanjavur.
He became a close friend of Vadivelu and, in that capacity learnt to play the violin from the latter. His son Mahadeva Bhagavatar also learnt violin playing from Vadivelu. Swati Tirunal and Vadivelu had great regard and respect for each other, but there were times when they had misunderstandings. On one occasion, on account of a misunderstanding, the king refused to see Vadivelu. Parameswara Bhagavatar and a colleague of his named Ravivarman Tambi intervened to sort the matter out. A pleased Vadivelu composed an Ata tala pada varnam in the raga Nattai and dedicated it to the king at a dance performance in the court. Swati Tirunal gave it high praise. but he also forbade its renewed performance at any time. Surprised. Vadivelu asked forgiveness for any errors of omission or commission The king explained his decision thus: "Music should be devoted only to praising Divinity. Moreover, if it is created for the purpose of praising a king, it loses its sanctity." Vadivelu replied: "For us. the king is divine. Is it wrong then to sing in praise of him?"' Swat's final reply was: "The ruler is also a human being. As far as I am concerned, god is Padmanabha alone. Therefore, it is wrong to praise the king in music composition."
The very next day Vadivelu amended the composition and dedicated it to Sri Padmanabha to the great pleasure of the king and his other court artists. Swati Tirunal considered Vadivelu as the musician who had first played Carnatic music on the violin in a highly praiseworthy manner. In 1934. he, therefore, presented to Vadivelu a violin made of ivory with the royal emblem carved on the finger board. The bow that came with the violin was also made of elephant's tusk. That violin is today in the possession of the family of Ponniah Pillai. a venerated heirloom. It was Vadivelu that Swati Tirunal sent as a messenger to Tyagaraja when he wanted to meet the great saint-bard. When conveyed the king's invitation. Tyagaraja replied with the song Padavini in Salaga Bhairavi. The burden of the song was: I deeply appreciate the kings keenness and accomplishments. I will meet him. certainly, but in the next world. A dismayed Vadivelu pleaded: "I would like to have the privilege of getting the two of you acquainted with each other." Tyagaraja responded: "Who am I to stop you? May your desire come true." Tyagaraja's words were prophetic. Unexpectedly. Swati Tirunal died on 25 December 1846. Twelve days later, on h January 1847, Tyagaraja reached the end of his own journey on earth. It is believed Vadivelu himself passed away 17 days before his king died. If this is true, he was there in Heaven to consummate his effort to introduce the composer-king to the king of composers.
(Freely translated from the author's
•Violin Varalaru', the first Tamil book
on the history of the violin, available
from Ourupournima Publications,
Vasantha Press Road, Madras 600 020).