TM Krishnaswami Iyer, courtesy his family archives

The first half of the last century was a time when lawyers of the High Court of Madras were known for their multifarious interests. Apart from being deeply involved in their profession, they left their mark in areas such as social uplift, culture, education and of course the freedom struggle. One among these was TM Krishnaswami Iyer, who combined a highly successful career in law with a passion – the propagation of the Tiruppugazh. It is no wonder that the Mahaperiyava of Kanchi made a word play out of his initials and conferred on him the title Tiruppugazh Mani.

Krishnaswami Iyer was born in 1885 into a culturally rich family of Thiruvayyaru and the T in his name stood for that hallowed village’s other name – Thiruvadi. His ancestors were from neighbouring Akhilandapuram and proudly bore the suffix of Rayar, a title that had been given for services to the East India Company. Having studied at the Pachayappa’sSchool, Kanchipuram, Krishnaswami Iyer joined the Pachayappa’s College, Madras for his intermediate. He then graduated from the Madras Christian College with a BA degree before qualifying in law in 1905. He enrolled in the High Court of Madras in 1907, which was the year when two others, Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer and KV Krishnaswami Iyeralso joined. Within a decade or two, this trio had cornered practice in the Court to such an extent that it was said that you had to be named Krishnaswami in order to succeed at the Madras Bar. TM Krishnaswami Iyer’s career graph was reflected in the way he moved residences – from various places in Mylapore to the palatial Bala Vilas he built in a culde sac off Royapettah High Road. His illustrious neighbours were members of the legal Vembakkam clan and also Sir S Varadachariar. Between 1943 and 1947, at the invitation of Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, he served as Chief Justice of Travancore State and after Independence reverted to practice in Madras. He passed away in 1967.

A 1928 pic of the Tiruppugazh group at Bala Vilas. TMK in top row holding tambura.

Today he is better remembered as the maternal uncle of Rukmini Devi Arundale- her mother Seshammal being his sister. But what made him a legend in his lifetime was his passionate renditions of the Tiruppugazh. In keeping with the humorist SVV’s parody of Mylapore lawyers – their days are filled with court cases and in the evenings they wear sacred ash and rudraksham and participate in bhajans – Krishnaswami Iyer became an active participant in congregational singing. He was blessed with a powerful voice that aided him in Court and also in his hobby. A lifelong devotee of Lord Murugan, who to him was an ever-present companion, two occurrences furthered his passion for the Tiruppugazh. The first was his devotion to VallimalaiSwamigal who was himself an exponent of these verses. The second was the gifting by PN Appuswami, the pioneering writer on science in Tamil, of two volumes of the Tiruppugazh. Perusing them, Krishnaswami Iyer became a lifelong devotee of the work. 

In his time, it was customary for lawyers to call on Judges on New Year’s Day. Krishnaswami Iyer changed that culture. To him Murugan was the supreme arbiter and he encouraged people to spend New Year’s Eve at Tiruttani instead. The Tiruppugazh Padi Vizha there soon became famous. With a verse sung at each of the steps of which there are 365 in number, the devotees would gather and climb up, having their darshan at dawn on January 1st. The crowds became so heavy in certain years that special trains had to be run from Madras city.

Tiruppugazh Mani leading the Padi Vizha, pic courtesy his family archives

The early bhajan sessions were around the four Mada Veethis of Mylapore during the month of Margazhi. He soon began commanding a vast following not just in Madras but in practically every nook and cranny of what was then Madras Presidency and later Madras State. He was invited to perform at various cultural forums and temple festivals, all of which he accepted, chiefly because of the love he had for the Tiruppugazh. At times cases had to be adjourned to facilitate his travels and yet, the Court officials, and his clients, were most understanding. It is interesting to note here that one of the cases he successfully conducted was for the defending of copyright to print a picture of Lord Muruga, by a Madras company!

Tiruppugazh Mani at a Bhajanai, pic courtesy his family archives

A good tennis player and also a follower of Annie Besant for a while, his religious side was a study in contrast. But as Justice Patanjali Sastri said, “there is no doubt about his intensity and faith.” The Mahaperiyava’s title of Tiruppugazh Mani came about as early as in 1928. In the 1950s, he was conferred the Tiruppugazh Jothi by Swami Sivananda. But perhaps what he liked most was how the devotees referred to him. To them he was Tiruppugazh Appa.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 3, 2020.