Srivilliputhur is a destination for many during the month of Margazhi. Very few among the hundreds who visit the twin shrines to Andal-Rangamannar and Vatapatrasayee make a short detour of a kilometre or so to see the Vaidyanathaswami-Sivakami Amman shrine at Madavar Vilagam.

Madavar Vilagam Temple, pic courtesy Sumitra Vasudevan

The temple itself is of relatively modest proportions and its most striking feature is the very graceful gopuram that towers over the neighbourhood. Much of the shrine as its stands today, owes its existence to Thirumalai Nayak, the 17th century ruler of Madurai. That he was as devoted to Andal as he was to Meenakshi is well documented by Archana Venkatesan and Crispin Branfoot in their excellent book on Srivilliputtur (In Andal’s Garden – Art, Ornament and Devotion in Srivilliputtur, Marg, 2015). The same work also states that Thirumalai extended his patronage to Madavar Vilagam after he was cured of a stomach ailment while staying there. A life-size statue of the ruler, mirrored by one of his brother Muthyalu, stands in eternal devotion in the Kalyana Mandapam facing the Sivakami shrine at Madavar Vilagam. The detailing of Thirumalai’s brocade angavastram in the statue is quite remarkable.

Tirumalai Nayak and wife, Madavar Vilagam

The name of the village is intriguing – Vilagam (the enclave of) Madavar (beautiful women). This has since been corrupted to Madavalam. Sometime in the 19th century Madavar Vilagam and its environs became a part of Seithur Zamin and that is when its history gets intertwined with Carnatic Music. The estate was ruled over by Vadamalai Tiruvanatha Tyagasundaradoss Thevar in the late 1800s and his retinue included the respected musician Madavar Vilagam Muthiah Bhagavatar. Such was the respect that the zamindar had for the musician that his will dated 1895 made sure a part of his estate was bequeathed to the artiste!

It was to seek the latter’s advice that a father and son duo came to Madavar Vilagam in 1901. They were from the village of Ariyakkudi and Tiruvengadam Iyengar was keen to seek professional opinion on whether his son Ramanujam had it in him to become a performing musician. Muthiah Bhagavatar heard the boy sing and then took him to the Zamindar. By then, Tyagasundardoss Thevar was dead and had been succeeded by his son Sevuga Pandiya Thevar. He too was equally musically inclined being a trained kanjira artiste. The Zamindar heard the boy out and gifted him with Rs 100. This was Ariyakkudi’s first earning, long before he had acquired any formal training! On the recommendation of Muthiah Bhagavatar, the young lad was apprenticed under Pudukottai Malayappa Iyer and later trained under Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar before moving on to Ramanathapuram Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar. The rest of his remarkable career is well known.

Mention has been made of Sevuga Pandiya Thevar being a trained kanjira artiste. His guru was Palani Muthiah Pillai, father of the famed percussionist Subramania Pillai. The Zamindar later trained under Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar. The latter is better remembered today as one of MS Subbulakshmi’s early gurus, when she was still in Madurai. Sundaresa Bhattar was an artiste in the pay of the Seithur estate, just as Muthiah Bhagavatar had been earlier. He too lived at Madavar Vilagam.

In 1927, when it was decided that an Academy for Music be set up in Madras, the committee found the going tough when it came to collecting money for such an institution. A donation of Rs 400 from Sevuga Pandiya Thevar came in handy. In gratitude, Thevar was invited to inaugurate the first conference of the Academy, held for three days beginning March 29, 1929. The venue was the Senate House, University of Madras. In his welcome address Dr U Rama Rao, the President thanked the Zamindar of Seithur for his donation and hoped that all other estate owners would be as kind. Thevar went a step further – he felt that an organisation like the Chamber of Princes ought to set up a centrally administered fund that would take care of the Music Academy. Being a percussionist he asked the Academy to give due importance to rhythm and laya aspects in its conferences and not focus on just ragas. The assembly of musicians must have applauded as a matter of form. Privately many of them were wary of the Zamindar – he had a habit of inviting them for performances at Seithur and then in the midst of the concert jumping on to stage armed with kanjira and accompanying them. Many found this disturbing but could say nothing given that they needed his support.

Sevuga Pandiya Club, Madavar Vilagam

Like all zamindaris, Seithur too was taken over by the Government in the 1950s. Music too faded away from the place thereafter. But a Sevugapandia Town Club at Madavarvilagam stands testimony to the memory of the music-loving Zamindar and the artistes in his retinue who contributed in some way to Carnatic history. And Ariyakkudi came in 1955 to present his tunes of the Tiruppavai at Srivilliputhur.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated January 26, 2018.