Obituary: V Soobiah Pillay

Soobiah picture

V Soobiah Pillay, Durban's well-known classical singer, died on Sunday, August 31 at Johannesburg's Helen Joseph Hospital. He was 68.

Born in Malvern, Soobiah was the youngest of 11 children of the late Veloo Pillay who came to South Africa as a passenger trader from Kanyakumari, India, towards the end of the 19th Century.

A child prodigy, Soobiah started singing at the age of 6 without any formal training but simply through listening to his older brothers and to recorded music. As a teenager, he obtained a job at N Manickum's Music Saloon in Durban, and was able to enlarge his repetoire of songs through listening to the latest music being played every day.

He had a unique gift of incorporating the intonation of any singer whose songs he sang. In this regard, he was able to sing to perfection the songs of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, P U Chinnapa, Honappa Bhagavathar, and others. This did not mean that he did not have his own inimitable style which was evident when he gave emotional renderings from the Arutpa, Thevaram, and songs of composers like Swami Thiagaraja and Dikshitar.

In 1959, he went to India to do a crash course in classical music in Kanyakumari, under Chitoor Subramaniam Pillai, guru of T M Sounderarajan. He then proceeded to Rishikesh to perform in the presence of Gurudev Sivananda Saraswati, founder of the Divine Life Society. He won a great deal of accolades from his audience of accomplished musicians and was blessed by Swami Sivananda who awarded him the title of "Sangeetha Ratna".

Soobiah Pillay and Swami Sivananda
V Soobiah Pillay with Swami Sivananda

While in India, he also met with and received the blessings of screen idol and singer M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in Nagapatnam. Like Thyagaraja, Soobiah was able to combine his musical talent with histrionic ability as he demonstrated when he starred with his niece, Karthigah Moodley, in the title roles of Alli-Arjuna at Durban's City Hall in the 1950s.

Soobiah and Thiagaraja
V Soobiah Pillay with M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar

Soobiah's accompanists for his classical performances were Gopalan Govender and the late I Kistraj Ragavan who was a great friend and mentor as well. Kistraj enjoyed playing for an artiste of Soobiah's caliber because he could then give went to his own virtuosity and superb talent on the violin. This was evident in the great success of two concerts, Thyagaraja Nights I and II which were performed in memory of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar.

Soobiah and Sivaji Ganasen
V Soobiah Pillay with Sivaji Ganasen

Soobiah also received the blessings of and sang for T M Sounderarajan during that singer's first visit to South Africa in the 1970s and during his subsequent visit in the 1990s.

V Soobiah Pillay with TMS
V Soobiah Pillay with T M Sounderarajan

His lifelong ambition to enter the recording studios and produce an album in June was cut short by his illness. He has left behind several recordings from the past 30 years which are being digitally remastered by his nephew, pop star Kreesan, and which will be released on compact disk in the near future.

His eldest son, Kanthan, 35, is currently head of New Enterprises at Independent Newspapers, publishers of The Star. He has recently been appointed Managing Editor of the Cape Times and will leave Johannesburg for Cape Town at the end of this month. He is writer of the popular column " Pillay's Perspective" in Durban's Saturday Paper.

His second son, Ranjan, 33, has followed in his father's footsteps. Ranjan together with his wife, Mahenthri, have established a growing following for a new young generation of Indian classical singers.

Soobiah leaves two other children, Thirumurugan, 19, and Kanchana, 17.

(From "Post", Durban, 3 September, 1997.)