Follow us on


Music with feeling

Print edition : Apr 11, 1998 T+T-

D.K. Pattammal, who has entered her eightieth year, broke orthodox tradition to become a performing singer; in her music she is a traditionalist who blazed new trails.

"I AM like a grandmother to all of you." The elderly woman sitting on the dais, surrounded by a typical Carnatic music ensemble, affectionately addresses a few hundred schoolchildren sitting in front of her. She has just finished rendering a magnificent composition of Muthuswami Dikshitar. Little do the children realise that they have had the privilege of listening to a musician who, in her days, was among the top-ranking Carnatic vocalists and is today acknowledged as a musician whose achievements and contribution to Carnatic music have been multi-dimensional. All this, even as she remains an unassuming woman simply in love with music.

The musician is Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal (known as DKP among the Carnatic music fraternity), performing with as much involvement and depth for this group of uncomprehending school-goers as she would at the Madras Music Academy for seasoned rasikas and experts.

Having entered her 80th year on March 28, D.K. Pattammal can legitimately look back at her achievements with pride. But that is not for her. "I am still trying to fathom fully the depths of music. One birth is not enough for it," she says.

Pattammal was born in an orthodox Brahmin family to Damal Krishnaswamy Dikshitar and Rajammal. She was named Alemelu, but was fondly called "Patta" or "Pattammal" and the name stuck. Patta, growing up in Kancheepuram, showed considerable musical talent quite early. Her father was deeply interested in music and her mother was a talented singer who, however, was not permitted to sing even for friends and relatives, in line with orthodox tradition. Pattammal too would not have sung but for her unstoppable talent and deep love for music and the role of a few people who influenced the course of her life.

Pattammal's talent and interest in music were nurtured by concerts at the music festivals hosted by Kancheepuram Naina Pillai, regarded as one of the all-time greats among Carnatic musicians. Little Patta would sit through the concerts and imitate the musicians on returning home. She would also sing simple devotional hymns and songs that her father had taught her. One such "performance" at a wedding fetched her a loving teacher. Recalling this man, Pattammal says: "I only refer to him as the 'Telugu teacher', since he was Telugu speaking. On hearing me sing, he offered to teach me a few songs." She had had no formal training, but the 'Telugu teacher' straightaway taught her major musical compositions. It was her precocious talent and musical sensibility that enabled her to handle them without having to go through the drill of basic lessons. Later she trained under many teachers to acquire a rich repertoire not only of the compositions of the Trinity of Carnatic music - Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri - but also Tamil kritis of Muttutandavar, Arunachala Kavi, Gopalakrishna Bharati, Subramania Bharati and songs from Tamil devotional genres such as Tiruppugazh, Thevaram and Arutpa.

Pattammal sang despite her orthodox background which forbade women from being seen in public. In the movement against such social constraints, her role is somewhat comparable to that of Kamala, the dancer, who too came from an orthodox family; Kamala took to Bharatanatyam and became a role model for many young women of her generation.

While Krishnaswamy Diksh-itar must have been proud of his daughter's musical talent, he was equally apprehensive about inviting social stigma by encouraging Pattammal to perform in public. And he would have perhaps let these fears dictate his decisions about Pattammal taking to music seriously but for Ammukutti Amma, the headmistress of the school where Pattammal studied. Ammukkutti Amma, who was alive to the inequities that stood in the way of women seeking self-fulfilment in roles other than that of daughter or wife, recognised Pattammal's talent and also realised the dilemma faced by Krishnaswamy. Pattammal says unhesitatingly: "If I am singing today, I would say it is because of her. She would fight with my father, argue with him to convince him that I should be allowed, even encouraged, to sing in public."

The turning point came when the play "Satyavan Savitri", was staged in the school. Pattammal was given the role of Savitri, which she carried off beautifully through her soulful singing. When Pattammal's photograph appeared in the local newspaper as part of the coverage of the show, it was as if a catastrophe had befallen Krishnaswamy. He agonised over what he saw as the highly diminished prospects of getting his daughter married into a respectable family. And to make matters worse, a recording company came forward with an offer to cut a disc of Pattammal's music. She was barely 12 years old then. It was Ammukutti Amma again who convinced her father that he should not refuse the offer. And Pattammal's career was launched.

The year 1933 saw Pattammal give her first public concert at the Mahila Samajam (the Egmore Ladies Club). The people who had come to see the spectacle of a Brahmin girl singing in public, went away admiring her. Soon Pattammal had many concert offers coming her way, and to facilitate her career, the family moved to Chennai. Thus began her long career of concert performances. She was conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi title by the Madras Music Academy (1970) and the Padma Bhushan (1971). Pattammal herself cherishes the title Gana Saraswathi conferred on her by the redoubtable "Tiger" Varadacharyar.

Assessing her career and contributions as a musician, a writer once described her as a trailblazing traditionalist. This is the paradox of Pattammal's career: a traditionalist who blazed new trails. Pattammal's music is noted for its adherence to the musical tradition as she received it from her teachers and as represented in the music of the masters of the past and in the compositions of the great composers. Her respect for tradition is evident in the way she handles the compositions - taking great care with regard to the words and their pronunciation, with unflinching fidelity to the raga bhava and the artha bhava. And yet, in her very act of singing in public, she defied an aspect of tradition. She charted out a new course, and challenged traditional attitudes, not by argument, but simply by singing.

When the world of music was still trying to adjust itself to, and cope with, the idea of women entering the profession of singing, Pattammal started presenting Pallavis in her concerts. Pallavi-singing is among the biggest challenges before a Carnatic musician, for it calls for great skill and a high degree of concentration to handle the rhythmic complexities involved. Padams - lyrical poems set to fine, sensuous music - and not pallavis, were deemed to be within a woman's ken. But Pattammal sang pallavis and complex pallavis at that. Naina Pillai was a veteran in the art of pallavi singing and it was his influence that led Pattammal to explore this genre. Her deft handling of complex talas has astonished connoisseurs and fellow musicians alike. A leading musician of yesteryear is said to have advised her to take on less complex Pallavis since it is possible that one may lose one's concentration and thereby the grip over the Pallavi. "How can such a thing happen when you are one with the music? How can you allow yourself to lose concentration?" Pattammal wonders.

"I had had enough of the heady excitement of laya and after I turned 50, I slowly moved away from it and more and more towards bhava, singing with feeling, singing so as to let the music touch you deep inside." As she sings Enraiku Siva kripai varumo (when will I receive Siva's compassion?), you find yourself in the presence of a music whose power lies not in virtuosity or vocal gymnastics, but in feeling. The fervent yearning in these words is all that you experience after a point - not the words, not the notes, not the musician, not yourself. Such an experience is possible only when the musician feels the feeling.

Meeting Pattammal, you realise that her capacity for feeling is indeed immense. She recalls the kindness and the love showered on her by many people - her father, mother, her Telugu vadhiyar, her headmistress, her teachers - and always she breaks down. What pent up feelings are finding vent here! Meeting her leaves you deeply moved, for having met a woman in love with her art, aspiring to catch further glimpses of its depth and majesty, a woman who has suffered much, but bears it all with a smile.

Pattammal married R. Iswaran when she was 20 years of age and, alongside a hectic performing career, she has performed the responsibilities of wife and mother, never expecting any concessions in consideration of her career demands.

Pattammal is remembered by many old-timers for her rendition of patriotic songs, especially those of Subramania Bharati. To say that Pattammal sang these songs in deliberate defiance of British rule would perhaps be incorrect. "Among the values my father inculcated in me was desha bhakti, love and veneration for one's motherland... I sang Tamil songs out of my love for Tamil, not to make any ideological statement. Again, I sang Bharatiyar's songs simply because I loved his language and the sentiments of love for our country..."

But she does think of her own destiny. In a life fraught with the challenges of concert performances and also family life, and having faced prejudices against women, music alone has offered her solace. "There is nothing to equal music and I only pray that I should be able to sing as long as I live." A devout Hindu, she asks that she have no more births:

How many fathers, how many mothersHow many births am I still to haveWould I that I had no more birthsBut if born, to be born with music.

This is her prayer as she enters her 80th year.