MM Dandapani Desigar (1908-1972)
To Carnatic music audiences of today, Tamil is as musical a language as any of the others in which compositions were created ? Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit or Malayalam. Yet there was a time when Tamil was considered unsuitable for Carnatic music. And this was not a long time ago. The belief, widespread till the 1940s, did not come about suddenly. It was an offshoot of the history of South India.
It is a well-known fact that the Tamil speaking regions of India had a fully developed and refined classical music even as early as the Sangam era. The Silappadikkaram of Ilango Adigal which dates to the 2nd century AD has gone into great details on the subject. The concept of Panns, which were the equivalents of the ragas and the seven notes were in vogue and put to good use. By the time of the Azhwars and the Nayanmars, music was a form of worship in temples and their compositions were regularly performed. Unfortunately, with the coming of rulers who spoke alien languages, the importance of Tamil as a musical language declined. The Vijayanagar rulers, the Nayaks and the Marathas preferred Telugu as the lingua franca and it became customary to compose songs in those languages.
It was not that Tamil was forgotten completely. Arunagirinatha?s Tiruppugazh was created during the Vijayanagar period. But the majority chose to compose in Telugu. Purandara Dasa, who lived during the Vijayanagar times, codified the way music was learnt and sung and his language was Kannada. Annamacharya who was older to Purandara Dasa used Telugu and Sanskrit and as for others such as Bhadrachala Ramadasa and Kshetragna, Telugu was their medium of choice. In later years composers such as Marimutha Pillai, Muthu Tandavar and Arunachala Kavi created their songs in Tamil. But the tunes of their songs were lost in the passage of time.
The arrival of the Carnatic Trinity was a watershed. Telugu was the mother-tongue of Syama Sastry and Tyagaraja and they chose that language. Sanskrit was also handled by them. Syama Sastry composed a few songs in Tamil also. Muttuswami Dikshitar used Sanskrit alone except when it came to a couple of varnams and manipravalam kritis. The post Trinity composers who largely followed the Trinity model did not consider Tamil as a suitable medium. There were exceptions here again such as Anai-Ayya, Kavi Kunjara Bharati, Gopalakrishna Bharati, Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer and the brothers Ramaswami Sivan and Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan. But somehow their songs never gained the popularity that the songs of the Trinity did.
From the late 19th century Carnatic music came to be performed increasingly in the egalitarian Sabhas as opposed to the royal courts. There was a rush for a large repertoire and as musicians grabbed what was available, they found more easily the songs in Telugu and Sanskrit. Tamil was relegated to the background and songs in that language were performed invariably towards the end of the concert. Publications of Carnatic songs had Tamil songs in the last few pages and ?Chillarai? (loose change) was the rather derogatory term for Tamil songs.
A reaction to this was inevitable and by the 1930s it had gained ground. This period coincided with the rise of Dandapani Desigar as a singer and a film star. His passion for Tamil and his large repertoire of songs came in handy for the Tamil Isai movement which made full use of him. He in turn completely subsumed himself into the movement and dedicated his entire life to the cause.
Born in 1908 at Tiruchengathamgudi in Thanjavur District, Dandapani Desigar learnt Thevaram, Tiruvachagam and Tiruppugazh from his father. He came from a family that boasted of a strong Oduvar lineage with father Muthiah Desigar and grandfather Murugiah Desigar being well known exponents. The method of learning was however unusual, for Muthiah Desigar would keep his son on his chest and gently lull him to sleep by singing the traditional hymns. Later he learnt music formally from nagaswara vidwan Sattayappa Pillai. He also learnt the Tamil hymns from his uncle Manikka Desigar. His first concert was at a fairly young age at the temple town of Tirumarugal.
When Desigar was 13, his father passed away while on a concert tour of Singapore. The resultant financial difficulties made him seek refuge in his sister?s house in Kumbhakonam and there he began learning music from Kumbhakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai. A warm friendship was to spring up between guru and sishya, so much so that when they were both given the title of Isai Perarignar by the Tamil Isai Sangam in 1957, the guru did not in any way feel slighted and both cheerfully accepted the honour. Earlier in 1948 when Rajamanikkam Pillai received the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy, Desigar held a felicitation function for him in Madras which many musicians attended.
Desigar obtained a job in Madurai in a Tevara Pathashala when he was 18 and once during the Chitrai Festival sang during the procession. His captivating and ringing voice brought him to the notice of famed nagaswaram artiste Madurai Ponnusami Pillai and from then his career took off.
Desigar acted in six Tamil pictures. The first opportunity came in the 1936 film ?Pattinathar?. This was followed by ?Vallala Maharaja? in 1937. Given his penchant for Tamil hymns, he was cast in and as ?Tayumanavar? (1938), ?Manikkavachakar? (1939) and ?Nandanar? (1942). The last, made by SS Vasan, was the greatest hit of Desigar?s film career and credit for this was shared by him with Papanasam Sivan for his wonderful music. Desigar also acted in a film with a Vaishnavite theme ? ?Tirumazhisai Alwar? (1948), besides singing playback in ?Mudal Tedi? (1955) and ?Tirumanam? (1958). His tune for the song ?Tunbam Nergayil? in the film ?Ore Iravu? (1951) is a work of genius.
In the 1940s, Desigar became a pioneer of the ?Tamil Isai? movement and composed songs in Tamil. Such was his love for Tamil that he did not think it unusual to sing songs in that language in Tiruvayyaru during the Tyagaraja Aradhana of 1946. The conservative element however did not like it and after he finished organised for a purification rite at the Samadhi!
Desigar received many honours in his life and was Samasthana Vidwan of Ettayapuram, Isai Pulavar of Dharmapuram Adheenam and chief music vidwan of Tiruvaduthurai Adheenam. In 1955, he became head of the Department of Music, Annamalai University from where he retired in 1970. He died in 1972. On his death, a tribute described Desigar as ?one of the finest musicians, a good composer of religious type of music and an authority on the recital of devotional songs?. It was a true pen portrait of a loveable human being who was also an outstanding musician.