Palani Subramaniam Pillai was born on April 20, 1908. He was born to his mother, Unnamulai Ammal, and his father, Muthaiah Pillai who was also a mridangam players. He learned mridangam under the tutelage of his father. He was also influenced by a renowned mridang player Dakshinamurthy Pillai. Pillai in return showered great love and affection on young Palani, whom he looked upon as his own son. Before he turned twenty, Palani had the good fortune to accompany stalwarts like Kanchipuram Nayana Pillai, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhavathar and Mudicondon Venkatarama Iyer. In the next decade others who preferred his accompaniment were Chittoor Subramanya Pillai and importantly Alathur Brothers whose Guru (father of Alathur Subbier), Alathur Venketesa Iyer was a great admirer of Palani. It was because of Palani that the brothers shifted base from Trichy to Madras and formed a successful team, the team broke once for ten long years but got back together again.
As Palani’s playing in the early part of his career was robust and laya-oriented with extensive calculations, many vocalists of the time did not feel comfortable with him except for the few mentioned earlier. It was one of the most popular among the doyens of yesteryears, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar earlier responsible in advancing the careers of artists like Palghat Mani Iyer took to promoting Palani. There were numerous concerts in which he gave Palani opportunities to play three of four “Thanis” or solos in a concert. It is said that in a concert in Shanmukhananda Sabha in Mumbai he asked Palani to play in each of the five nadais, Chatusram, Tisram, Misram, Kandam and Sankeernam. It was he who also persuaded Palani to tone down on the laya intricacies and increased the “sowkya” or aesthetic content in his playing. Palani, probably with considerable regret in having to shed his specialization and scholarship abided by his mentor’s suggestion, not only because of the practicality but also because of his great respect for Chembai who was his elder by several years. Bhavagathar’s advice stood Palani in good stead.
His lifestyle in the 40’s and 50’s was the envy of other musicians. Always dressed in white muslin shirts and snow white Khadi Dhoti – carefully and painstakingly groomed – he was among the handsomest among musicians. Unlike many other musicians, he lived in a spacious Bungalow and owned the latest model in cars (he changed them every two years ). He himself drove the car and did not allow anyone else to drive his car.
Palani’s partner in life was Rajammal (who along with her sister constituted a popular singing duo called ‘Kolar Sisters’ in her younger days). The pair had a daughter named Vimala. She married Srinivasan and they had five daughters named Banu, Malathi, Meera, Geetha and Vasanthi. They were brought up by Rajammal after the death of Srinivasan.
At any given time at least three to four students resided in Palani’s house undergoing Gurukula system; with passage of time there were day-scholars also. He gifted India with many talented artists.
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