Matriarch of music

Print edition : August 14, 2009


THE concert hall in New Delhi was packed with connoisseurs of Carnatic music eager to listen to the doyenne Damal Krishnaswami Pattammals (DKP) recital to be broadcast live. Justice T.L. Venkatrama Iyer, the mentor from whom she had garnered her priceless collection of Muthuswami Dikshitars compositions, was seated in the first row, restless, fidgety, as he always was when his disciple sang. Pattammal had barely begun when the hall broke into a furore. The audience scattered in every direction. The violinist and the mridangist vanished. But DKP sang on, and TLV sat on, oblivious to the earthquake and the tremors that shook the hall. In a while, the audience returned, so did the sheepish accompanists, marvelling at the singers inviolable commitment. To D.K. Pattammal, music was not just aesthetic creation; it was sacramental art, best described by the Sanskrit term tapas. How can a penance be interrupted without sacrilege?

And yet, any newcomer to the world of Carnatic music might be excused for seeing one of the greatest musicians of our times as a contented homemaker, immersed in domestic chores, conservative to the core. And indeed, DKP was a fond matriarch, uncompromising in the old world standards she lived by and expected others to uphold. A stern rectitude in avoiding glitz and loving care in treasuring the authentic were part of her daily culture, and therefore inseparable from her art, as from her character and personal life.

It is well known that DKP broke long-held taboos to emerge as the first Brahmin woman performer of classical Carnatic music. But hers was not chamber music for the indulgent or the elite. Nor did she sing what was then derisively called pombalai pattu (womens music) or kilipillai paattu (parroting music), stringing song after song well rehearsed kriti, javali, padam and light lyric, minus original improvisations of alapana, niraval and swaraprastara.

Her senior contemporary M.S. Subbulakshmi had already shown the way here, but to Pattammal fell the honour of establishing the pallavi the most challenging and classicist feature of Carnatic music as her mainstay. This piece de resistance demanded exhaustive grounding in methodology and, even more, mental agility for on-the-spot variations in stretching melody across rhythm grids of bewildering variety, in diverse speeds. Up until her time, women rarely ventured into this domain. Exceptions in the misty past were a Dhanakoti Ammal or a Rajayi.

Pattammal outdid many male colleagues in this department by choosing complex talas and nadais making the intricate sound natural, flawless, riveting. The techniques of anulomam, pratilomam and trikalam seemed like childs play to her. No wonder, then, that the legendary Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar punned on her name with Paadu pattammal and Paattammal suggesting that her efforts had established her musicianship.

From the start, Pattammal showed herself adept at the layered elements of Carnatic music. But the same artiste was perfectly at ease on the public podium in political conferences and reformist rallies. During the nationalist movement, her patriotic songs about freedom, equality of mankind and womens emancipation roused the masses. Kasturba Gandhis death had Pattammal expressing the nations grief in a yearning folk strain: Kandadundo kaliyugathil kaanaporomo?/ Kasturiba pol utthami kaanaporomo? (Have we, can we, ever see a woman like Kasturba in our times?)

Similarly, Gandhis assassination had her responding with Mohana Gandhi in raga Yamuna Kalyani. Her signature song Santi nilava vendum reiterated the Gandhian ideology.

When the first elections were held in independent India, Pattammals voice urged the people to cast their votes, in specially recorded lyrics broadcast on the radio, played in parks, public grounds and street squares. DKP sang these non-classical songs with the same conviction she brought to her magnificent Mamava Pattabhirama (Manirangu) or Saundara Rajam (Brindavana Saranga). Strangely enough, though Pattammal excelled in singing Tamil songs in every genre, caste politics made the Tamil Isai movement tardy in recognising her contribution to its goal of popularising Tamil compositions.

As a young woman, Pattammal broke many taboos to pursue her art.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

In her classical concerts, too, people came to expect patriotic outpourings such as Aduvome pallu paduvome, Pozhudu pularndadu, Tondru nigazhnda or Vidutalai. Subrahmanya Bharati remained her favourite, with a tender memory of finding the poets wife Chellammal Bharati weeping in the audience as DKP sang her husbands songs as only she could.

Having learnt Papanasam Sivans songs from Papanasam Sivan himself, she brought them to life with his vision intact.

Today, it is amazing to think of how a young woman from a sheltered, upper-caste, orthodox background braved the risk of being charged with sedition. Her song, picturised with visuals of marching satyagrahis, was crucial in provoking the British government to ban the film Tyagabhumi. Her own voice had prefaced Desa sevai seyya vaareer (Come, serve the nation) with the slogan Bharat Mataakku Jai! Mahatma Gandhikku Jai! (Victory to Mother India! Victory to Mahatma Gandhi!). The refrain Jai! was echoed by her three brothers.

Close associates and disciples such as the vocalist Vijay Siva have seen an old 78 rpm record proclaiming socialist messages (Pazham bharata nannadu) and bearing the stamp of the states ban, though the film Lavanya, for which she sang it, was released only in 1951. It disappeared without a trace, but left a quaint audio piece. Refusing to duet with a man, DKP varied her voice to sing both the male and female parts in the song.

Even more remarkably, even at 80, DKP could deliver what the music director wanted. Vijay Siva tells an amusing story of how Ilayaraja and Kamalhaasan carted recording equipment to her home and had her sing Vaishnava Janato for the film Hey Ram (2000). Told that the song was to be played at Gandhis death in the film, the redoubtable lady resorted to emotional recall to add sigh and sob at appropriate intervals! When asked if she was happy with the result, she shot back: No. Even if you record it five times I will still remain dissatisfied. Finally, she beamed a smile at Kamalhaasan and remarked, I know you. You did so well in that Kannamma film! The actor stopped in his tracks to return to his 1960 debut as a child artiste in Kalathur Kannamma.

DKPs playback singing in the 1930s and 1940s can be seen as part of a movement in reaching out to people with uplifting sentiments through the new medium. But she hardly got to see those films as film-going was not considered appropriate for women of good families. Her desire to see M.S. in the cult film Meera was fulfilled only after decades, when television brought it to her drawing room.

Carnatic music relies as much on rachita sangitam, or composed music, as on kalpita (improvisation). The legacy of the compositions of Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar is its soul force.


Like every Carnatic musician, Pattammal venerated Iyerval, a worshipful name for Tyagaraja. She was overcome by his melting Begada description of Rama, You are my treasure, my life! (Neevera kuladhanamu, neevera jeevanamu), or a Varali portrait of the emerald-hued god (Marataka manivarna).

Though she accumulated a huge repertoire of Tyagaraja, familiar and rare, Pattammal made history by opting to specialise in the kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar, imposing in the architectonics of kriti structure, grand in linguistic content, meditative rather than emotional in impact.

In time, she also became famous for her handling of the demanding compositions of Syama Sastri, whose magic is difficult to access without the singers ability to grasp laya (rhythm) as bhava (feeling) and bhava as laya. When Pattammal sang, this paradox became the norm. Who could match her Talli ninnu (Kalyani) or Kanakasaila viharini (Punnagavarali)?

Was it by design that DKPs name became synonymous with the Dikshitar oeuvre? Did she want to stand out from the crowd, when even male singers approached Dikshitar with trepidation, opting for easier communication with Tyagaraja.

The truth, perhaps, is different. The lucky impact of a mere 15 days of tutelage with Ambi Dikshitar, a descendant of Muthuswami Dikshitar, had sparked enough inspiration in nine-year-old Patta to last a lifetime. His Balagopala and Kanjadalayadakshi became her benchmarks for excellence. To listen to her tireless repetitions of their encounter in Madras (now Chennai), when she sang the masterpiece Sri Subrahmanyaya namaste before the illustrious examiner at a government technical examination, is also to wonder at how remarkable her singing must have been to have made the veteran insist on teaching her himself.

Muthuswami Dikshitars compositions demand a full-throated voice, resonance, precision and delicate nuancing, with breath control to render the compound phrases and steep jaru glides. Pattammal was blessed with all these attributes. Her sruti, unusually low for a woman (for many years 3 kattai), was a boon. Her love of Sanskrit stemmed from childhood memories of her fathers daily sloka singing. Finally, her intelligence achieved the fine balance between the vidwat (scholarship) and sahrdayatva (empathy). She inscaped the kritis by repeated singing until they acquired the stamp of authenticity.

Never did she change a single note to suit the demands of time, or listeners tastes. Her Arunachalanatham continued to have old Saranga phrases forgotten by many. She insisted on singing Kanjadalayadakshi in the same slow pace, as taught by Ambi Dikshitar, though others had switched it to a faster tempo.

DKP had no role models in anything else she did. She created a role model in herself for others to follow.

Born in Kancheepuram to Rajammal and elementary school teacher Krishnaswami Dikshitar, little Patta grew up in a hidebound social milieu, her eight aunts ready to shout more donts than dos. But the freedom struggle initiated some rethinking of old taboos in the father who allowed himself to relent when well-wishers such as Pattas headmistress, Ammukutti Ammal, urged him to let the child take up music seriously. Had she not seen how gifted Patta was when she sang and acted in their school play? The headmistress also convinced him that the appearance of the girls photograph in Swadesamitran with an appreciative review, and resultant invitation from the Columbia Gramophone Company to cut a disc, were not misfortunes.

The growing girl unfailingly resorted to notating kritis in every concert she heard, with help from brothers Ranganathan, Nagarajan and Jayaraman, especially at the Tyagaraja Festival organised by Naina Pillai. Pillai himself dazzled everyone with his array of accompanists in full bench concerts. But for Patta, who idolised him, learning from this master remained a pipe dream. She loved to describe his majesty and splendour, often citing his spellbinding pallavi Nenje ninai in Jaganmohini. Later, she was to win accolades for her own handling of the piece, a tribute to her manasika guru.

The siblings sat on the verandah swing and argued passionately about formatting the heard into the singable. Ranganathan cast the decisive vote. Strangely enough, Pattammal broke one more tradition with male vocal accompanists. Each brother was to support her in turn, as did Vijay Siva.

The problem of Who will marry a girl who performs in public? was solved when family friend Dr. Srinivasan promised that his nephew would wed Patta despite her singing. R. Iswaran could be quirky and temperamental, but his abiding love for his wife and regard for her art made him her best guardian. The couple enjoyed lively fights, but Pattammal never flouted his authority. He ensured that the world treated her with due respect. On the day his 90-year-old wife passed away, granddaughter Gayatri heard him address his long gone mother-in-law Rajammal to say, See, I waited, I didnt go first. I have looked after your daughter as I promised I would.

In turn, Pattammal enjoyed pampering her husband, making super crisp masala dosai or degree kaapi like a traditional housewife, fussing over him after his return from the tennis court with Ovaltine or lime juice.

With cricket-playing sons, she developed a keen interest in attending Test matches. She knew just what to say to Sachin Tendulkar when he greeted her at the national awards function, You are Indias great treasure! Did he echo the words to her?

Unexpected sidelights include a penchant for mimicry. A video recording captured this skill. Her reproduction of dance diva Balasaraswatis Aduvum solluvaal drew peals of laughter from friends, ending a in a nonchalant flourish of Adiye podi! (get lost!). Grandchildren found in her a delightful companion, ready to tease and joke, play carom or cards, even dance to ABBA songs with them on occasion. Granddaughter Nithyashree, herself a frontline musician today, loved to lie down on Pattammals lap as she practised with a sruti box at home. I still feel the vibrations, she sighs.

The 20th century saw four great women musicians enriching Carnatic music. M.S. Subbulakshmi, T. Brinda (with sister T. Mukta), D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari. Each had her own original style and unmistakable aura. All except Pattammal had an ancestry in music, a family heritage of performance, a social circle of traditional musicians. Their mothers and grandmothers were their first gurus and role models. Pattammal did not have that advantage, nor did she have a liberal, forward-looking background as Rukmini Devi Arundale did, to foster radical thinking or promote iconoclasm.

In a rare moment, M.S. Subbulakshmi recalled how back in the early 1930s she noticed a slim teenager in her concert in Madurai. Her intensity made her stand out in the crowd. Later, when M.S. enquired about the new face, she was told that the girl had wanted to see how a woman of her own age group conducted a recital, as she herself was trying to plan and present concerts. Patta was her name. DKP had to manage her first recital in 1933 without having once been able to rehearse with violin and mridangam. How well she got on can be gauged from a 1936 review of her concert at Jagannatha Bhakti Sabha, Egmore, Madras, recorded by the writer/critic Kalki Krishnamurti: She renders the imposing kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar with depth and command and a smiling, undistorted face. I expect her name to become very famous in the future. In 1945, he summed up Pattammals distinct stylistics: To master the Carnatic idiom the first requirement is an inborn sense of melody, coupled with relentless effort and grooming, and vocal timbre to refract the art luminously. Ganasarasvati D.K. Pattammal is fortunate in possessing all three attributes. A voice melodious and regal, singular laya expertise, profound gamaka skills, clarity in sahitya enunciation these are the hallmarks in Pattammals music.

Kalki was to become a family friend and write songs especially for Pattammal: Kuzhalosai kettayo kiliye, recently revived by Nithyashree, the forgotten Alai Oyaado, and Poonkuyil Koovum, now part of many musicians repertoire. Kalki was only an occasional lyricist, but this song caught the imagination of the public and gave DKP a new name: Poonkuyil Pattammal, a tribute to her haunting vocalisation.

Poor Poonkuyil Pattammal did not even get to learn the basics. She found her music in concerts, advanced, full-bodied. Extraordinary will power kept little Patta going as gurus came and went sporadically an early teacher was remembered only as Telugu Vadyar; Appadurai Acharyar taught her Tiruppugazh in 108 talas; Narasimhulu Naidu groomed her in pallavi singing; Krishnaswami Iyengar increased her repertoire; Periyasami Thooran gifted her his book of original compositions; T.L. Venkatrama Iyer shared his Dikshitar heritage; Papanasam Sivan and Kotiswara Iyer taught her their songs. She had the opportunity to learn from Rajalakshmi, the daughter of Veena Dhanammal. DKPs deep voice and unhurried gait were assets in padams like Dari juchu chunnadi (Sankarabharanam) or Mogudochi (Sahana) or the rare javal, Itu ra rammani (Behag).

Difficult as it must have been to acquire such an array of multi-sourced, multilingual, multi-genre treasures, it must have been even more difficult to preserve them with form and soul intact and pass them on to disciples. Perhaps the best tribute from musicians of all schools is the recognition that in Pattammals music everything is so well-thought-out that there are no weak links or questionable areas. They agree that when in doubt Pattammals repertoire is their ultimate authority for reference. For who could gird Raksha bettare, Koniyadi, Ranganayakam or Adigi sukhamu with so much light and steel?

The vocalist Neyveli Santhanagopalan recalls how after hearing Pattammals Ragasudha rasa, his guru T.N. Seshagopalan, famous for fireworks, exclaimed, The intellectual element is so submerged that this simplicity becomes divine!

Pattammals reverence for sahitya was legendary. The great composers poured their hearts out in their words, so sacred that to mispronounce is to blaspheme, she would say. After all Tyagaraja composed Eti janma not to show off his Varali but to pour out his bhakti. Her greatest ire was reserved for those who mangled the text, which sometimes resulted in a travesty of the meaning. She was particular that sangatis should not interrupt the flow of words, but highlight their meaning.

Pattammals raga alapana was her Achilles heel. She never let herself go but stayed within safe ramparts. But classic restraint melted into a flood of emotion in viruttam or slokam, unrestricted by tala beats. Who could be left unmoved by those outpourings of anguish, grief, longing, love or faith in melodised poetry? Did she draw her emotions from the personal experience of having helplessly watched her own Ram, her elder twin son, die in her arms?

Pattammal shared a special bond with brother Jayaraman. My best accompanist, my best disciple, she would proudly declare. She saw him carve his own niche and win the Sangita Kalanidhi title. His death left an unfillable void. To Jayaraman, his Patta was a beloved goddess. Once, when a disconsolate DKP got down from the train in Vijayawada where she was to perform that evening, saddened by Jayaramans absence following a sudden heart attack, husband Iswaran chivvied her along until a shrill voice stopped them on their tracks. There he was, scurrying from his unreserved third class compartment. Jayaraman had stolen out of his hospital bed to join his sister in the concert. Warned that he could lose his life by this careless haste, Jayaraman replied, If I must die, let my breath stop as I sing with Patta!

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