Wednesday, 29 February 2012

108 flowers at her feet

By Tulsi Badrinath

Meenakshisundaram Pillai, custodian of his traditional art, was initially reluctant to teach Rukmini Devi, because she was a brahmin. It took her months to persuade him. When he did agree to teach her, he gave freely of his art. In his teaching her Sadir and her learning it from him, both Guru and student simultaneously broke a taboo. Neither of them could have foreseen the far reaching consequences of this act.

Rukmini Devi’s arangetram took place in 1935 on the grounds of the Theosophical Society. Soon after, Kalakshetra was formed. At a time when no students were forthcoming to learn the dance, Rukmini Devi had to begin with her own niece, Radha, and Leelavati. Many students came from outside Madras— Kunhiraman, Mohan Khokar, Balagopal, V.P.Dhananjayan, A. Janardhan, and from outside India as well— Shanta Dhananjayan and Nala Najan, to name a few. They were neither Tamil, nor brahmins.

The main criterion she sought in her students was the willingness to learn. She had to negotiate “the double bind and the paradox of disassociating an art from its immediate context with its sociological background, but retaining the content of dance outside the sociological religious milieu in which it was nurtured, that was the challenge; a challenge of the deepest kind,” as Kapila Vatsyayan puts it. It was as simple and as difficult as that.

From 1935 to 1986 when she passed away, Rukmini Devi used all her creative energies to meet this challenge. In those fifty years, she established Kalakshetra as a centre of excellence in the performing arts, created an environment that integrated art and aesthetics with a way of living, produced as many as 26 brain-children, her dance-dramas, and broke many other taboos— women took up nattuvangam, men danced Bharatanatyam that was Sadir and girls across varied social strata began to learn dance.

As a dancer, I know this avenue of self-expression was made possible for me by her, by the tremendous scale of her vision. On her 108th birth anniversary, I offer her a hundred and eight lotus flowers with all my heart.

What art can do

By Sruti
(In Rukmini Devi’s words)
Art fosters spiritual growth
“The arts have a much more important role to play in human life and human endeavour than the development of individuals. In an invisible overall way, art fosters the spiritual growth of humanity, When you partake of an art, somewhere, somehow, perhaps like a hairline, there is a development of your own nature, your higher self. The change is so subtle that you cannot easily define it. It is a gradual but sure change of civilization itself.”
Essential for human development
Artists have a deep, emotion-charged sensitivity. They are sensitive to everything, to beauty, to sorrow, to cruelty. So they cannot stand ugliness in life, and cruelty is an ugliness in life. With their natural instincts tuned to this fine, sensitive pitch, they get a better mental understanding of life. But since the change wrought by artists is neither preceded by a sudden upheaval nor followed by a total change, you may think that there is no change. The change is taking place all the time, and artists are helping civilization to change. I think art is essential for human development because it contributes, immeasurably yet imperceptibly, like a drop in the ocean, to the evolution of noble and good character in people.
Artists can be cruel
“People say that art makes you grow. But anything that inspires you makes you grow. Learning and practising any of the arts will add to your poise and make you more graceful, expressive and articulate. But the personality doesn’t grow by the attention given to a subject. It grows by an inner understanding. Artists and art lovers are sometimes very cruel. So don’t think that mere learning of music or dance will make a person more compassionate.
(Excerpted from Rukmini Devi: A Quest for Beauty by Gowri Ramnarayan, Sruti Issue 8, June 1984)

Priyamvada Sankar honoured with Medal of the Quebec National Assembly

By S. Janaki
Priyamvada Sankar, Canada-based Bharatanatyam exponent and teacher, was honoured with the Medal of  the Quebec National Assembly on January 19, 2012 during the New Year  celebration in Brossard attended by more than 500 people. The First Vice-President of the National Assembly and Member for La Pinière, Fatima Houda-Pepin, praised the work of representatives of institutional and community organisations dedicated to community service and paid tribute in a special way to Priyamvada Sankar, to whom she presented the medal.
Excerpts from the citation:
“It is a privilege for me to present the Medal of the National Assembly to Mrs. Priyamvada Sankar, for her commitment to the arts and for her significant contribution to the advancement of Quebec and the influence of Indo-Canadian culture in our society. I have great admiration for this woman of great elegance that gives each of her Indian classical dance performances a touch of purity and authenticity that reminds us of the richness of this magnificent ancient culture. Mrs. Sankar has charmed audiences representing the most diverse in the arts and in many cultural centers in Quebec, rest of Canada, the United States and India. She also has helped establish the Interfaith Council of Montreal where she has worked for the reconciliation and harmonious relations between different cultural communities. Humanistic in her commitment, she makes every effort to provide young people the desire to excel and in aesthetics. Congratulations to Mrs. Sankar for what you are and for the love of the art that you share so generously with us all.”

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Mandolin Shrinivas is 43 today

Mandolin Shrinivas, who is 43 years old today, has been giving Carnatic music recitals for over 30 years.

A Retrospective
(Sruti 195, December 2000.)

In this article, N.R. RANGANATHAN, who has closely followed the mandolin maestro’s career and musical growth, offers an assessment of the young man’s achievements and also records his future plans.
I begin this exercise with a simple statement concerning the appeal of any music: It is the quality of sound that determines the appeal of music. However, this statement needs to be supplemented by the observation that a listener’s cultural background is decisive when he estimates the quality and appeal of music. Even among listeners within the same culture, depending on the exposure, diverse tastes prevail among them, as was stated by Kalidasa centuries ago.

Each great musician projects a unique sound quality of his own which envelopes his musical excellence. True, classical music is governed by a grammar and tethered to a tradition, but prominent classical musicians are able to please all types of rasika-s, from novice to pundit, by the sheer mesmerising quality of the sound they produce. They also make a tremendous impression on their fellow musicians. Illustrative examples are: M.S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Bismillah Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, M.D. Ramanathan, T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, Flute Mali, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, Palakkad Mani Iyer, and Veena S. Balachander. It can be asserted on this count that Shrinivas belongs to this club.

I offer my assessment of Shrinivas in three parts: as an instrumentalist; as a musician, and as a music teacher.


It was a bolt from the blue when Shrinivas started playing Carnatic music using an electronic mandolin (a flat board instrument, different from the acoustical mandolin which has a resonating chamber like the veena). His music, projecting the best traditions of Carnatic music, was of top quality. Many attributed its appeal— and his success— to the novelty of the instrument, while some made dire predictions that the nature of the instrument would eventually stunt his music. The latter observation was repeated more than a decade ago in Kalakshetra journal. But Shrinivas has proved them all wrong; interestingly, his continued and continuing success has prompted quite a few other musicians to use the mandolin as the vehicle of their expression.

In the beginning, Shrinivas used a plectrum, as a consequence of which the notes from the mandolin lacked the rich gamaka-s found in vocal music. But, as a pioneer, he constantly experimented with and developed the techniques necessary to produce notes which simulate top class vocal music until the point we now feel we are listening to the sahitya being sung when he plays kriti-s. (He creates this effect by using the plectrum only at appropriate places and moving his fingers to convey continuity). In other words, he ‘sings’ even though his vehicle for musical expression is an instrument. A discerning rasika will readily concede that the amazingly rich and proper gamaka-laden sounds which Shrinivas coaxes from the mandolin are equal to those produced by the great vainika-s, if not a shade better.

The appeal of Carnatic music is at its attractive best when the artist dwells in mandra sthayi. Realising this, Shrinivas has adapted the Western mandolin to suit his purpose. He uses a mandolin which has five strings, with the fifth string tuned to the shadja of the lower octave. The other four strings are tuned to mandra panchama (G); adhara shadja (C); madhya panchama (G); and tara shadja (C). Contrastingly, in the Western mandolin, the set of four double strings is usually tuned to E, A, D and G, respectively.

For quite sometime during his early years as a concert artist, Shrinivas used to be worried by the weaker level of the sound from the mandolin as compared to that of the accompanists. However, with improvement in the amplification of the mandolin’s sound and using speakers of superior quality, he now concentrates more on music and less on its amplification, much to the delight of his rasika-s.


Since his concert on 28 December at the Indian Fine Arts Society in Madras in 1982 which brought him to the attention of rasika-s, music critics and fellow musicians, Shrinivas has made great strides as a musician. He has also become a complete concert artist.
  • His raga alapana-s, as often as not fired by a vivid musical imagination, have always a fresh look. His mastery of even the vivadi raga-s is near perfect.
  • He has acquired a large repertoire of compositions and he is thoroughly at ease playing even the most difficult piece.
  • His kalpana swara matrices are frequently based on interesting and attractive musical phrases occurring in the composition and are noteworthy for innovative melodic as well as rhythmic ideas and phrasing.
  • He has shown a capacity to present ragam-tanam-pallavi even in raga-s generally believed to offer restricted scope, like Bindumalini and Chitrambari. His alapana essays are spacious and yet focussed.
  • He manages to put his own stamp on the music even when playing songs made popular by other great musicians; believe me, this is a notable feat.
  • In sum, he has shown himself to be a great exponent of raga music, a creative artist who understands the purpose of Carnatic music as art music is to image the raga-s taken up for performance, using the various components of Carnatic music imaginatively and skillfully.
It is no wonder, then, that the music of Shrinivas, which is available aplenty in recorded form as well, gives delight to all types of listeners— from the innocent pleasure-seeker to senior citizens given to wallowing in nostalgia about ‘great musicians of bygone days’.

Interestingly, for a practitioner of Indian music which emphasises melody, Shrinivas has shown he can offer harmony as well as melody. This he has been able to do by exploiting the technical features of the mandolin to produce ‘chords’. Srijana in Sindhubhairavi and Sangamam in Keeravani are good examples.


Despite being an artist with a hectic concert schedule, Shrinivas is very keen to impart his knowledge of music and the musical insights he has gained over the years, as well as his skills in playing the mandolin, to young aspirants. He has been guiding and teaching his younger brother Rajesh, but he has found time to teach a fairly large number of other disciples as well. A novel feature of his teaching is his insistence that the student should learn to play the initial learning exercises, like sarali varisai and geetam, in several raga-s before he starts teaching them compositions as vehicles of raga music. He feels that his teaching will enable the disciples to render with ease the musical ideas in the mind. He believes further that an aspirant should learn with dedication and practise constantly for five years before venturing to present recitals on stage.

Future Plans

Shrinivas has already shown he is adept in playing jugalbandi with master musicians like Flute N. Ramani, as well as in fashioning fusion music. He is particularly keen to interact with classical musicians of other systems and come out with novel compositions. But more than anything else, he is keen to make Carnatic music attractive to the youth in India and to listeners of various nations—to do both without compromising the traditions of Carnatic music—just as the great Ravi Shankar has succeeded with Hindustani classical music.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Vellore Ramabhadran passes away

By Sruti
Veteran mridanga vidwan Vellore Ramabhadran, known for his gentle touch, passed away at Chennai on 27 February 2012. He was 82.
Born on August 4, 1929, Ramabhadran learnt percussion from his father Vellore Gopalachariar, a well known laya vidwan. In a 70-year long career, Ramabhadran accompanied every musician of merit, including the all-time greats of Carnatic music.
A man with an amiable nature and impeccable manners, Ramabhadran was a good mimic of the great vocal masters he accompanied. He was a close friend of Sruti, with the Vellore Gopalachariar award for a leading musician an important collaboration between him and the Sruti Foundation.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Dilemma of a ‘doctor’ in the making

By PNV Ram

Listening to the morning ragas Lalit and Bibhaas live was a rare experience. I had to get up at 5 am last Sunday to do that. I had heard young Hindustani vocalist Nishad Matange a couple of years ago at friend Navaneet Venkatesan’s residence and been impressed and so agreed to forego some of my well-deserved weekend beauty sleep, to go to IIT Madras, where Navaneet had arranged a private concert of Nishad’s. Nishad has a lovely voice and a strong technical accomplishment that he owes his guru Manik Bhide of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, not to mention the foundation laid by his mother Jyoti Matange. His focused performance, with excellent control over sruti alignment and rhythm, indicated that solid effort had gone into his riyaz since I had heard him last. His vocalization in the lower register was particularly impressive. Nishad certainly did not disappoint the small audience that had gathered that morning. To my delight, he cheerfully agreed to continue singing at my residence after the concert. He also turned out to be a thoughtful and articulate conversationalist.

Unfortunately, we do not know for sure that Nishad, who has also trained with Rajshekhar Mansur and Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, whom he has accompanied vocally on stage, will pursue music as a career. He is just as passionate about science—he is in the final leg of his PhD in biochemistry at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru—as he is about music, and he will have to make a tough choice once he completes his studies. We can only hope that he will somehow combine both art and science in his career, for he is quite an outstanding talent.

Rajarajeswaram 1000 enters Limca Book of Records

By BuzyBee

On September 25, 2010, 1000 and more dancers performed Bharatanatyam at the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur as an offering on the occasion of the 1000th Anniversary of the temple’s consecration. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam (President, ABHAI) choreographed three items and led from the front. The event was organised by the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI), Chennai and Brhan Natyanjali Foundation, Thanjavur. Through the efforts initiated by K.S. Sudhakar of Swathi Soft Solutions, who documented and helped web stream the event live, the unique Brihan Natya Yagna called Rajarajeswaram 1000 has entered the Limca Book of Records as “National Record 2012”. ABHAI and Padma Subrahmanyam have received citations.

Out of the Sruti box

(First published 22 November 2006)

By V. Ramnarayan

It was a crazy idea. My uncle Dr N Pattabhi Raman, just retired from the UNDP, wanted to start an English magazine on classical music and dance from Chennai. But in my wife Gowri and me, he found two young assistants who did not run away from crazy ideas, though Gowri took some convincing when it came to recruiting her as a major contributor of articles. Working then on her PhD in comparative aesthetics, she said, “I can only write examination papers.” But Pattabhi did not easily take no for an answer, and she eventually yielded. Slowly, more members of the extended family and other animals joined us in this mad project and Sruti hit the stands in October 1983.

It was an outstanding issue, with D K Pattammal and U Srinivas on the cover, one a stalwart of the great Carnatic tradition and the other a sensational child prodigy. Pattabhi’s family was well represented in the bylines: Gowri wrote the first part of a two- part biographical sketch of Pattammal—‘the trailblazing traditionalist’—Pattabhi himself wrote an analytical piece, I profiled a number of child prodigies (former as well as recently discovered) from S Balachandar and T R Mahalingam to E Gayathri and Ravikiran, my sister Dr Sarojini Parameswaran wrote a scientific piece that tried to explain the phenomenon of prodigies, and my daughter Akhila, barely nine then, did a mini-interview of 13-year-old Srinivas!

The first issue, and those that followed, had tremendous variety, and considerable depth, but did not lack in humour. Sruti paid generous tributes to past masters but did not ignore the brilliant practitioners of Carnatic music of the day. It loved to puncture bloated egos and lampoon the foibles of musicians, administrators and sabha secretaries. It did not spare critics either. Many loved it; some thought it was an upstart that would not last long. Semmangudi Srinivasier received the first copy if I remember right, and he, at least in private, expected it fold up within months. He did not know Pattabhi then, though soon afterwards, on a road trip to his home village they made together, he really got to know that the editor was made of sterner stuff. He himself became the subject of one of Sruti’s classy publications other than the magazine. Though he did not always appreciate all of the magazine’s contents, he came to respect and approve of it.

Those were heady days. Pattabhi made his home Sruti’s headquarters and many, many people devoted to the cause of Carnatic music dropped in there regularly, and the quality of the resultant discourse was uniformly high, though on occasion delightfully gossipy. T Sankaran, S Krishnan, Pattabhi’s own brothers Sundaresan and Venkatraman, S Ramaswami, formerly of Burmah Shell, R Ramachandran—later of Hamsadhwani fame—and many more gathered there and the atmosphere during most of these meetings was quite electric. For someone like me, cutting his teeth in music journalism, it was a fantastic learning experience.

Friday, 24 February 2012


(First published 07 July 2006)
By V. Ramnarayan
Even as I heard the news that Hrishikesh Mukherjee was critically ill, Worldspace Radio was playing ‘Haye re voh din kyun na aye!’ that unforgettable song by Lata Mangeshkar from Anuradha, the 1960s Mukherjee-directed film that had Balraj Sahni and Leela Naidu in the lead roles.
That song was unforgettable for more reasons than one. For one thing, it was a beautiful melody (based on raga Kalavati) composed by sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, whose score for the film was outstanding, and if I remember right, won him the national award. It was sung by a mature Lata whose voice was not only still young and fresh enough to capture every nuance of the melody, but also had that quality that tugged at your heartstrings.
The scene itself was memorable. But when the film starts, Anuradha is a famous playback singer who has all of India in thrall with her wonderful voice and is riding the crest of a wave when she marries the doctor, played by Balraj Sahni who decides to work in a village. In a rather naïve depiction of a medical practitioner--who is also a research scientist—Mukherjee tells a touching tale of a very loving couple, gradually heading towards estrangement, thanks to the doctor’s obsessive involvement with his work, which will save millions of lives, no less. The singer is forced to become a rural housewife, cut off from her music and her former life.
In a melodramatic but powerful denouement, an elder family member coaxes Anuradha to dust her tanpura, tune it after years of neglect, and sing again for him—just when she is beginning to consider leaving her doctor husband for an old friend, whom serendipity brings to her doorstep as an accident victim, and whom of course her husband saves. All’s well that ends well, and the good doctor realises in the nick of time that he is about to lose his precious jewel, and Anuradha too gets over her momentary weakness.
Though there are many lovely songs in the film, based on folk and classical music (Kaise din beete kaise beeti rattiya, Jaane kaise sapnon me kho gayeen akhiyan, Saavre saavre) and these are beautifully enacted by Balraj Sahni of the noble good looks, and the frail, delicate beauty, Leela Naidu (then married in real life to Dom Moraes), the final song was the most poignant, most emotive of the lot, especially when the line ‘Sooni meri beena, sangit bina’ is sung. My wife and I saw the film in a morning show at Hyderabad in the early seventies, and the audience burst into spontaneous applause after the song, something I have never experienced before or after (in a serious film, that is).
‘Hrishida’ has made several good films in his long career (Anupama, Satyakam, Anand, Guddi, Namak Haram, Abhimaan and Chupke Chupke, to name a few) but I would put Anuradha right at the top, for its poetic treatment, for its superb black and white photography, its perfect casting, and above all for its gorgeous music.
Note: If anyone can lay hands on an article written by Sadanand Menon in ‘Man’s World’, if I remember right, on Hrishida and his Mumbai home ‘Anupama’, s/he should grab it.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

New wave Chennai season

(First published 12 October 2004)

By V. Ramnarayan

One of the worst features of the Chennai music and dance scene over the years has been the ugly distraction provided at cutcheris by the ubiquitous advertisement banners and stage backdrops, the price the audiences perforce pay for sponsorship of these concerts by business houses.

The sabhas too love to splash their names in bold print and garish colours and the result is a complete lack of aesthetic appeal. Sruti magazine is one agency that has been highly critical of such trends but its voice has rarely been heeded.

The sabha secretaries invariably blame it on the need to give their patrons visibility and mileage in return for their generous support, without which the conduct of concerts and festivals would not become viable.

In recent years, The Other Festival, Anita Ratnam’s pioneering venture featuring performances from diverse streams of dance, theatre and music from all over the world, has broken away from some of our hidebound conventions of theatrical presentation, achieving an altogether refreshing new aesthetic experience. Her Arangham Trust has succeeded in persuading sponsors not to insist on banners and other promotional displays at the concert venue.

Last year, The Hindu Friday Review music festival too presented a new look festival ambience far removed from the old sabha culture.

But change invariably brings new problems with it. The sponsors have to be appeased in other ways than the tried and tested formula of gaudy banners. So we had a master of ceremonies who did a daily spiel on the grandeur of the fare offered, but not before extolling the generosity of the sponsors who made it all possible. He coaxed and cajoled the audience to put their hands together in applause, and thought up novel ways of asking them to switch off their mobile phones. We also watched the wondrous spectacle of commercials before the concerts and during the interval - brilliantly produced and orchestrated, but not quite what the regular concert-goer expected. The Other Festival too provided similar diversions.

The day may not be far when the ad agencies of Chennai invade our sabha halls with their sophisticated, state-of-the-art promotionals before and after concerts. Before long we may even listen to announcements that a certain alapana or ragam tanam pallavi was brought to us courtesy so and so sponsor.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Magic moments

By PNV Ram

I recently had two musical experiences that I am unlikely to forget in a long while. Not often do you go out of a concert hall with the music filling your heart and mind, with the deep-felt melody refusing to go away for days on end.

It was the consummate sahrdaya Sumitra Vasudev who touched a chord deep within on the first of those occasions. She was only singing the prayer song at Nandini Ramani’s Samskrita Ranga event to pay homage to Rabindranath Tagore and Dr. V. Raghavan, but invested her ragamalika sloka with power and emotion, not to mention tender feeling for the lyrics. It was a bravura performance in miniature, and for once, I wished the prayer song would go on much longer than it did.

If VP Dhananjayan is reading this, may he forgive me for defying his fatwa against prayer songs being converted into concerts. I completely subscribe to his views on the matter, but this was an exceptional outpouring by an accomplished musician in great voice.

The second elevating musical experience was provided by the mellow violin of TN Krishnan, accompanied by J Vaidhyanathan (mridangam) and N Guruprasad (ghatam). It was a mikeless chamber concert at Arkay Convention Centre, the first in a series being planned for the next 12 months, by Oli, a team headed by Gowri Ramnarayan and assisted by young musicians Ritwik Raja, Bharathi Ramasubban and MV Swaroop. Krishnan took listeners on an enchanted journey to the past with his pristine bowing and complete mastery of the music. The acoustics, stage décor and general ambience at the venue were outstanding in their unostentatious, simple beauty.

Like Sumitra the other day, Bharathi Ramasubban sang the invocation—a song in Tamil—beautifully.

The next Oli concert will feature Amritha Murali and party on Saturday, 18 February. Please watch out for the announcement at and this blog.

Remembering Mani Madhava Chakyar: A titan in Koodiyattam

By L.S. Rajagopalan

Madhava Chakyar was born on 15th February.

A member of the clan of the Puthiyedath Chakyar, Madhava Chakyar was born in a village near Quilandy in old Malabar on 15 February 1899. Dancing and acting were in the blood of the family, and Madhava Chakyar had his early training with his mother, whom he lost at the age of nine, Kuniyil Narayanan Nambisan, and afterwards with his uncles, Mani Neelakanta Chakyar, Parameswara Chakyar and Narayana Chakyar. Along with his dance studies, he also learnt Sanskrit from Pannisseri Sankaran Nambudripad and tarka sastra and vedanta from H. H. Rama Varma Parikshit Tampuran of Cochin.

Madhava Chakyar had his arangetram at the age of 11 in Tiruvangayoor Siva temple. From then on he began giving regular performances in various temples. His family had hereditary rights to perform in 40 temples in north and central Kerala. Some of them allowed only Chakyar Koothu to be performed under their auspices, while others encouraged the entire gamut of Koodiyattam, including the ritualistic performance of Anguliankam, and Mathavilasam. Madhava Chakyar won high renown for the artistry of his performance in these temples, as well as in many others. His forte was netraabhinaya, the expressive use of eyes to demonstrate a wide range of emotions. Over the years, Chakyar gave performances outside Kerala too -- in Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Benares, Ujjain and Bhopal, and also before the senior Sankaracharya of Kanchi.

Chakyar taught at Kerala Kalamandalam where he trained advanced students in Kathakali and Koodiyattam. He taught Kathakali also at the P. S.V. Natya Sangham in Kottakkal, and the Gandhi Sevasadanam in Perur. For some time he also taught Sanskrit at the Sanskrit school in Lakkiti where he had his home.

Many of his students, including some of his sons and nephews, went on to become proficient performers in their own right in Kathakali and Koodiyattam. Among them are: Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Anand Sivaram and Madhava (Kathakali); sons P.K. Narayanan Nambiar and P.K.G. Nambiar (Padhakam and Koothu); nephews Neelakantan Chakyar and Damodara Chakyar; Ammannur Kochukuttan Chakyar, Kalamandalam Raman Chakyar, Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodri, Kalamandalam Girija and Kalamandalam Shailaja (Koodiyattam).

He had foreign students too: Christopher Birski from Poland and Farley Richmond from America.

In 1975 Madhava Chakyar published Natyakalpadrumam, a comprehensive treatise in Malayalam on Koodiyattam. Hailed as the most authoritative book on the subject, it deals with all aspects of Koodiyattam and is as important for the scholar as for the interested layman. Other works of his include Mathavilasam, a branch of Koodiyattam, and stage manual for the third act of Naganandam and the second and third acts of Sakuntalam. 

Chakyar made several broadcasts over All India Radio on Koodiyattam and also appeared on television in interview programmes.

Many honours came to him from his early days, and before Independence these were principally gifts of special gold ornaments from kings and temples. Principal among these was the veera srinkhala (gold wristchain) which he received from the Siva temple in Taliparamba when he was only 24. Taliparamba has, from ancient times, been the centre for Koodiyattam. Rejection of a play by the authorities in Taliparamba invariably doomed it. Story has it that when King Kulasekhara Varman of Tiruvanchikulam presented two plays he had written at the Taliparamba temple, the assembly rejected them. Undaunted, he had them presented in his own realm, with additions, criticising the Namboodris of Taliparamba for having taken to eating, cheating, sex and sycophancy instead of following the traditional purushartha-s of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. The Taliparamba veera srinkhala was important also from the point of view that, unlike such other gifts, it could be worn before any king, for it was supposed to be given by Siva himself, known in that temple as King of Kings.

Madhava Chakyar also received awards from the central Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy, the Kerala Kalamandalam and the Kalidas Academy at Ujjain. The Government of India honoured him with a Padma Shri in 1974, while the Madhya Pradesh Government awarded him its prestigious Tulsi Samman in 1986.

Madhava Chakyar was married to Kunjinmala Nagyaramma, a cousin. He had four sons and daughters, of whom Narayanan Nambiar is a famous mizhavu player and reciter of padhakam, while P.K.G. Nambiar is a Hindi pandit and a proficient performer in Chakyar Koothu and Koodiyattam.

(Reproduced from Sruti 71, August 1990.)

Monday, 13 February 2012

Remembering Prof. Sambamoorthy: Synonym For Musicology

By Prof. S.R. Janakiraman

P. Sambamoorthy was born on 14th February 1901.

In the long course of history of music of our country, we I find celestials and mythological sages who were musicians and musicologists. In the mediaeval period, we find a plethora of musicological savants credited with great and memorable treatises on music and musicology. Most of these names have been referred to by Tyagaraja in his kriti Vidulaku mrokkeda in Mayamalavagaula raga. In his Sangeeta gnanamu bhakti vina in Dhanyasi, Tyagaraja refers even to celestial musicians like Bhringi, Natesa, Samiraja, Ghataja, etc. There was a flow from 1500 AD of further stalwarts like Ramamatya, Venkatamakhin, Tulaja and a host of others. This marks the modern period of musical history widely accepted as such. Professor P. Sambamoorthy came as a legend in the 20th century.

If we analyse the treatment of musicology in earlier times, it is clear that only a partial treatment of the theme has been focused on, with conspicuous omissions of the important topics in one treatise or the other. To mention one example, Ramamatya did not cover the gamut of musical compositions and tala-s. On the other hand, Sangeeta Ratnakara of Sarangadeva (1213-1247 A.D.) offers us a full digest of the entire material on music and musicology. The beginnings of the 20th century gave us the gift of Subbarama Dikshitar, with his magnum opus Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini on music and musicology. It is no exaggeration to say that Prof. Sambamoorthy has traversed the entire gamut of musicology in the many volumes of his contributions. In the previous issue of Sruti, Dr. Bhageerathi has given copious details covering the Professor’s life and works and Dr. N. Ramanathan, a critical survey of the contribution of Prof. Sambamoorthy in several directions. In the following paragraphs, an attempt is made to touch upon certain other aspects of Prof. Sambamoorthy’s genius as a musicologist par excellence.

Prof. Sambamoorthy came from a middle class family: his father was the Station Master in Bitragunta Railway Station of the erstwhile South Indian Railway. A poor child, losing his father at the tender age of four, Sambamoorthy rose step by step with the grace of Providence, finally becoming great— greatness not thrust upon him. The Professor has said in his autobiographical account that he was lucky in two ways. First, he had the good luck to choose his own choice of a subject which he loved most— i.e. music. Second, he was extremely lucky to get a life partner who had similar interests in abundance and who helped him in his life-long pursuit. His span of untiring life was devoted to the subject of musicology and he pursued this study steadfastly and conscientiously, as described by Tyagaraja as Manasaaraga nidaanamuga salipinaanu in his Ganavaridhi kriti Daya joochutakidi velara.

We say of practitioners of music that one is the sishya of such and such a great musician. As far as Prof. Sambamoorthy is concerned, it is true that he had learnt vocal music, violin and flute from different stalwarts. From whom, and with whose grace he imbibed knowledge of musicology is a question to which we do not know the answer. He was the fountainhead of all South India musicology and was also well-versed in other systems of music of the world. He constituted the accumulated stock of wisdom of the theory of music in the ancient, mediaeval and modern periods of music.

How do we distinguish him from musicologists of learning of earlier times? simply stated, there is not a single aspect of the subject left untouched by him. Musicology, like other sciences, has both pure and applied streams. Prior to Prof. Sambamoorthy’s times, the subject of musicology had been dealt with purely in its applied aspects. Topics such as nada, sruti, swara, swarasthana, mela, raga, gamaka-s, tala-s and tala-dasaprana-s, janaka-janya schemes, instruments and their playing techniques, musical compositions and their lakshana-s, raga lakshana-s, etc., were covered in earlier musicological texts, but even among these topics, some were given expanded treatment by the Professor. For instance, the topic of mela came to be studied in its expanded spheres of mela paddhati and mela nomenclature by him. The raga lakshana-s as dealt with by previous writers were very meagre and flimsy. Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini of Subbarama Dikshitar (1904) throws considerable light on the study of raga lakshana-s in greater detail. Prof. Sambamoorthy followed the lead of Subbarama Dikshitar and expanded the subject exhaustively.

He did not rest content with this. His monumental contribution consists of his dictionary of music and musicians of which only three volumes have appeared. It is understood that the completion of the dictionary is under process in the Department of Music, University of Madras, headed by Dr. Prameela Gurumurthy. The dictionary is a great piece of work, with a vast glossary of raga-s, tala-s, composers, and technical terms. Quite a good number of raga-s have been mentioned with the arohana and avarohana and also their parent modes. Surprisingly, the sources for this information have not been acknowledged. Some of the raga-s mentioned by him are found in such sources as Manicka Mudaliar’s Sangeeta Chandrika, Nadamuni Panditar’s Sangeeta Swaraprastara Sagaramu, K.V. Srinivasa Iyengar’s Gana Bhaskaram and the late Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar’s Historical Development of South Indian Music. Sambamoorthy was the architect of so many other concepts in music, which, in his hands, blossomed into full-fledged subjects with an extensive treatment. They include:
  • (i) Music and mathematics.
  • (ii) Geographical factors and their impact on the growth of the musical culture of countries.
  • (iii) Comparative music—studying systems of music of different countries in two ways: taking them country by country and analysing the systems of music; taking different topics in music and musicology and studying them country-wise.
  • (iv) Music and temples.
  • (v) Musical iconography—study of musical stone pillars.
  • (vi) Moorchanakaraka and amoorchanakaraka mela-s.
  • (vii) Musical seats and their importance in the development of musical cultures.
  • (viii) Contemporary music—happy and regrettable futures.
  • (ix) Kutcheri dharma.
  • (x) Raga and rasa.
  • (xi) Mudra-s in musical compositions.
  • (xii) Theory of survival of the useful in the realm of musicology and survival of the beautiful in the practical realm of music.
  • (xiii) Musical pedagogy—teaching with the creation of university faculties and chairs and different undergraduate and post-graduate courses, curricula, syllabi, and other related topics. In this respect the whole of the musical community is greatly indebted to Prof. Sambamoorthy for all time to come.
  • (xiv) Careers in music in ancient, mediaeval and modern times.
  • (xv) History of music.
  • (xvi) Brief biographical sketches of notable composers of the Trinity and post-Trinity periods.
  • (xvii) Evolution of musical concepts from the embryonic stage to the stage of being crystallised into law.

All the topics listed above fall in the domain of pure musicology.

Prof. Sambamoorthy was connected with several music institutions in some capacity or other. The erstwhile Central College of Carnatic Music was started in the year 1949 and I was a student in the first batch of Sangeeta Vidwan title holders. I had the privilege of studying under him, but only for a few months. Even prior to that, I had been the student of the Professor when I was in Kalakshetra. I attended many classes there on an inter-collegiate basis between Kalakshetra and the Department of Music of the University of Madras, along with my senior colleague M.D. Ramanathan.

When the Sri Venkateswara College of Music and Dance was started in Tirupati in 1960 by the Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam, Prof. Sambamoorthy was the first visiting Professor. I spent considerable time with him during those four/five years. During this period, my association was so close that it was the envy of my colleagues at the College. We had discussions on many a controversial topic of musicology. On such occasions, if he felt that I was in the right, he used to remain silent and was able to appreciate my point. Prof. Sambamoorthy always spoke to the point and softly. When thinking of him, I am reminded of Bernard Shaw’s words in another context: “It is dangerous to be too good”. Being good did not prove dangerous to the Professor but his goodness was responsible for a lack of firmness that affected the discharge of his duties sometimes. Because of his being a victim of circumstances.

Prof. Sambamoorthy paved the way for many people to get decorates and post-doctorates, but with all his profundity of learning and yeoman service to music/ musicology, he did not aspire for or get any honorary doctorate degrees, which should have been bestowed upon him unasked.

(Reproduced from Sruti 252)

Saturday, 11 February 2012

A neglected birthplace

By BuzyBee
Surendranath, Amarnath, and Aparna – the Mylapore Trio – went on a two-day visit to Madurai with a group of friends. On the first day they visited the famous Meenakshi temple where they had earlier put up the Grand Golu Durbar during the Navaratri festivities. On the second day they decided to visit the birthplace of M.S. Subbulakshmi. They were surprised that no one could guide them to the house. After an unrelenting search in the scorching sun they found a small house in the congested Hanumantharaya Lane. It was the birthplace of the legendary singer. None knew about it though it was situated only a stone’s throw away from the west gopuram of the temple.
The Trio was shocked to find a tailor’s shop in the room where she was born. “There is no iota about her greatness to be seen anywhere, not even a nameboard or signboard in the vicinity, not a picture or photograph of MS inside the house,” they cry in one voice.
The only thing musical is a terracotta veena projecting from the facade of the building. We want to create awareness about the pathetic state of the house of the Queen of Melody. It should be made into a cultural landmark in Madurai.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Sruti Remembers S. Rajam on his birthday

By S. Janaki

Rajam sir respected tradition and believed in fostering it. He was a creative artist and encouraged innovation within the traditional framework. He was a classicist and a great rasika of excellence in any form. As these are the very values Sruti stands for, it is no wonder that Rajam and Sruti got on so well.

Rajam sir was a very close friend of Sruti’s founder and Editor-in-Chief N. Pattabhi Raman. In the mid-1980s, soon after Sruti was launched, Pattabhi Raman chanced to come across Rajam’s “music letter pads” with his illustrations for Tyagaraja kriti-s. Impressed by the line drawings Pattabhi Raman immediately drove down to 41 Nadu Street in Mylapore to meet the artist. That meeting laid a strong foundation for the steadfast friendship between Rajam and Pattabhi Raman, and for Rajam’s close association and collaboration with Sruti for almost 25 years. Rajam sir was a great friend of the magazine and was a grandfather figure for all of us at Sruti, especially after the untimely demise of Pattabhi Raman.

Rajam sir took the passing away of his dear friend to heart. He was so emotionally upset that he was hospitalised soon after. And when we called on him to wish him a speedy recovery, he implored us not to be disheartened but to bravely carry forward his friend’s grandiose vision. In fact, he suggested we should have someone as knowledgeable and eminent as K.V. Ramanathan to steer us through the difficult period.

In the 1980s and 90s, Rajam sir would often visit the Sruti editorial office at ‘Alapana’, which was Pattabhi Raman’s home. It was quite an amusing sight to see his tall frame clad in coloured khadi veshti or lungi, perched on a small moped, with a half-helmet on his bald head, leather gloves with openings for fingers to give him a better grip on the handlebar, and a rexin bag he had designed and stitched. He would spend hours with us discussing and explaining matters on music and art. He would not miss a birthday party, get-together or chamber concert at Alapana. Years later, when he was advised by the doctor to cut down his commuting, Pattabhi Raman, P.C. Jayaraman, Gayatri Sundaresan or I would visit him at Nadu Street and take notes. Every meeting with him was a revelation. In recent years, what we did very often was “dial Rajam to clear our doubts”! He was indeed our most dependable resource person as he was a musician, music teacher, scholar and artist – all rolled into one. His knowledge of the arts was amazing, he knew almost every music personality past and present and he so readily and freely shared his knowledge with us. He was very objective in his analysis of music and musicians. He also played a major role in the projects conducted by the Sruti Foundation on the music of GNB, Lalgudi Jayaraman, and the seminar on the North-South Divide: Carnatic and Hindustani music held in Delhi.

Rajam sir was always immersed in his twin passions – music and painting. He was probably the only person to combine both so beautifully and seamlessly – one enriching the other. His illustrations and his classical style of painting with minute details and the layers of text and context he embedded in them – both literally and figuratively, for the raga notes, compositions and composers, complemented and added depth and style to the ‘substance’ published in Sruti. His original paintings of the Saptaswara devata-s adorn the walls of our office at Cathedral Road. He was an invaluable member of the Sruti parivaar.

His Music Appreciation Notes covering the 72 melakarta-s, janya raga-s, and notes on more than 70 raga-s were very popular. In fact, we recently revived it (with additional inputs) on popular demand. He reviewed audio recordings for Sruti under the penname ‘Sundaram Bharadwaj’ (son of Sundaram Iyer/ Bharadwaja gotram!), and embellished many writings with his illustrations. Rajam sir was very happy when we started serialising his 72-melakarta calendar and paintings. It was something very close to his heart. He was very particular about including his views on vivadi raga-s – which he tirelessly propagated. Rajam’s visualisation and exposition of the bhooloka panchalinga kriti-s and Dikshitar’s navagraha kriti-s – published in Sruti have earned us appreciation from various quarters. Even at the ripe old age of 90 he would say “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop!”

Working with him was not only a learning experience, it was great fun. He would at times ask me to search through his shelves for music notes, or climb on to a stool to locate his paintings stacked on top of the almirah! His explanations would be peppered with humorous comments, but he would never talk ill of anyone. To tell the truth, we were not overawed by his greatness, we took liberties with him as he was so affectionate towards all at Sruti. We would go to his house without prior intimation, telephone him during siesta time, and badger him to give us his illustrations in time for the next issue.

The Sruti-Rajam collaboration was mutually enriching and rewarding. During the 10th anniversary celebrations of Sruti, Rajam sir presented a unique three-hour concert of padam-s learnt from Mylapore Gowri Amma. As a good friend of mridanga vidwan Vellore Ramabhadran, Rajam was a regular speaker at the annual Vellore Gopalachariar Memorial award function organised by the Sruti Foundation. A self-effacing gentleman, he was taken by surprise when Sruti chose to honour him with the same award for his lifelong service to music. He was truly happy when we organised an exhibition of his paintings at the same venue.

Another occasion when Sruti had a memorable time with Rajam sir was on 10th February 2009. Loaded with a birthday cake, samosas, tea, special card and poster designed by the Sruti staff (which read “S.Rajam – a rare gem”) the Sruti parivaar marched into 41 Nadu Street and celebrated the Grand Old Man’s birthday in style. We too were in for a treat as he sang the Dikshitar kriti Sankaram Abhirami manoharam for us with gusto to mark the special occasion. He was visibly moved and thanked us: “You have given me the best birthday gift by playing on my name and calling me a rare gem”. He was so fond of this appellation that he mentioned it in the felicitation functions which followed.

For us at Sruti, the past two decades have been a memorable journey with Rajam sir with many an unforgettable moment. He was a raconteur extraordinaire! He is no longer there to greet us with a smile and his customary “namaste, namaste”. But this great man has indeed left his indelible imprint on the sands of time.

(Reproduced from Sruti 305)

The Dhanammal School of Music

By Gowri Ramnarayan
Only a few old-timers still among us can describe Veena Dhanammal’s (1867-1938) live recitals in her home. And few old records are left to give us a taste of her magic. The redoubtable lady played the veena in the slow tempo (without the plectrum as it was too harsh for one so aurally sensitive as she was) to bring out the subtle glints and nuances of the rakti ragas. She also sang the compositions along in a manner that left listeners spellbound.
Though we associate the padam tradition with her school, Dhanammal was equally adept at rendering the awesome kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar, and reflecting the melting moods of Syama Sastri. Such was her impact on the cognoscenti that even today her bani or style is considered to be the acme of all that is refined and chaste in traditional Carnatic music.
Dhanammal belonged to a lineage of musicians and dancers at the Tanjavur court, traceable to Papammal four generations removed. Her own art drew admirers from the ranks of musicians and critics. Many composers like Tiruvotriyur Tyagayyar, Muthialpet Ponnuswami and Dharmapuri Subbarayar, wrote songs in praise of her musical genius, such as the gem-like javali “Sarasundaranguni” in Pharaz.
Dhanammal has been the fountainhead of three generations of artists in her family—her four daughters (Rajalakshmi, Lakshmiratnam, Jayammal, Kamakshi) were exemplary vocalists. Her grandchildren included Brinda, Mukta (vocal), Abhiramasundari (violin), Sankaran (musicology), Ranganathan (mridangam), Viswanathan (flute), and Bharatanatyam legend Balasaraswati. Great grand daughters Lakshmi and Vegavahini continued to bear the torch.
Anyone who has seen Balasaraswati perform will know that to her, dance was nothing but sangita, it was visual music. No wonder she noted that every adavu in her guru’s dance compositions was perfectly aligned to the swaras. She never forgot mother Jayammal’s teaching, “Your head, your whole body, must move with the sangati, the gamaka, not just with the tala.”
Sadly, despite the zealous guarding of their musical wealth by family members, the Dhanammal School has few proponents today. The widespread feeling that it is too pure and profound to satisfy current preferences for speed and fireworks has led to its near-obsolescence. The style extracts tremendous discipline, sensitivity and breath control as it at once demands weighty rendition, powerful oscillations, and delicate loops and links.
However, if such a resplendent style disappears without a trace, mainstream Carnatic tradition will be the poorer for it; it will certainly lose depth and sophistication. Bharatanatyam will equally be the loser, as it is the music, which evokes, colours, enhances and modulates the dancer’s rhythms of expression.
(Based on a presentation at the Natya Kala Conference (2000) at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha)

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The musical genius of the Tanjavur Quartet

By Gowri Ramnarayan
Ten centuries ago, South Indian music and dance had reached high levels of sophistication in Tanjavur, where royal patronage of three dynasties (Chola, Nayaka, Maratha) and the connoisseurship of the people, had nurtured the arts with love and discernment.
Among the galaxy of poets, musicians and composers of that green belt, the Tanjavur Quartet of the brothers Chinnayya, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu (early 19th century) stand out for their attainments in both dance and music. They are credited with having systematized the “margam” of what we know as Bharatanatyam today.
Apart from the continuation of their tradition through natyacharyas in their own family, like the late Kittappa Pillai and Subbaraya Pillai, their unmistakable stamp is left on the entire genre through the two major (and contrastive) influences of Balasaraswati and Rukmini Devi. Their gurus Kandappa Pillai and Minakshisundaram Pillai carried the legacy of the Tanjavur Quartet.
Born in a family of oduvars, the brothers inherited a sense of laya and raga, along with the spiritual heritage of a ritualistic art. This was strengthened when they became disciples of Muthuswami Dikshitar. With patronage from the Maratha rulers (Serfoji II and Sivaji II), the Mysore court, and Swati Tirunal in Travancore, they established themselves not only as vidwans and nattuvanars, but also as composers of merit, mostly paying homage to Brihadisvara, the reigning deity of Tanjapuri, and to their royal patrons. Some of the songs express their devotion to their guru, and their pride in him.
Their collective works span a variety of compositions for both music and dance - tana pada varnam, kriti, padam, javali, swarajati, daru, kavuttuvam, sooladi and tillana. Sivanandam excelled as a veena player and was an expert in abhinaya; while Vadivelu popularised the western violin in Carnatic music, and contributed to the growth of Mohiniyattam in Kerala.
It is evident that the brothers viewed classical dance and music as allied art forms. This imparts a special glow to their compositions in both the rhythm and bhava aspects. The ragas are treated with imagination, depth and respect for tradition. The compositions offer tremendous scope for emotional interpretation, not only for the dancer, but for the musician as well.
Carnatic musicians have not drawn as much from the heritage of the Tanjavur Quartet as dancers have done, despite the fact that their compositions are steeped in ragabhava, reflecting many moods. There is variety here, for both expansive treatment and for lighter expressions.
(Based on a presentation at the Natya Kala Conference (2000) of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha).

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Hero as a Musician

GN Balasubramaniam

To talk about modern Carnatic music is to talk of Sri Ariyakudi, the architect and maker of our music today. He is 74 years young and very much in his strides as a top performer and musician. His record is unique in the annals of music history, in its consistently high level of performance and reputation. As a man and as a musician, he is many-sided, entertaining as well as instructive. Throughout, his career has been the cumulative result of professional dignity, business acumen and artistic ideals.

He has been an outstanding, long-established success. It is not due to luck or adventitious chance that it is so. There are solid grounds for it. Moreover, it is, it will be admitted, more difficult to maintain leadership in a public career than to gain it. His repertoire is as varied as it is big. He is as firm in his ideals as he is adaptable in his music and manners. He is as alert and aware of contemporary musical trends and movements as he is composed and convinced in his belief in tradition and sampradaya. His is probably the one instance of a unique wedlock of seeming incompatibles, sastra and sravya and tradition and modernity.

There are a good many amongst us now who have followed his musical career for the past four decades and more, who have noticed all the qualities which conduced to make him an undisputed leader in the profession, ever since he entered the music world. Many musicians have come into the music field after him and risen to prominence. He still retains his sovereignty. Why? If one such tries to make a mark by specialising in any aspect of performance, this aspect is immediately taken up by him and he has unfailingly demonstrated that he could do it and more, in a better way. This naturally presupposes that his stock and resilience should be sufficiently big and tough so that he could meet these moves and prove himself superior to them. Incompatibility in equipment and musical temperament of the accompanists has never stood in the way of his making a success of the performance. He is at home with both great senior accompanists as well as rising junior ones. He never allows himself to be nonplussed on the platform.

His adjustability, stock and diplomacy are in ample evidence when new and young accompanists perform along with him. He is a musician with a classical ideal, with a definite choiceful awareness: choiceful because, there is all round fullness from which to choose. He knows what he is about, leaving nothing to chance or the moment, preferring “how” a thing is done to “what” is done—a typically classical ideal, based on conscious, deliberate artistry, rather than haphazard musical adventure This is why he is so dependable and never below par on any occasion.

It cannot be denied that his is the greatest share amongst all the musicians for making Carnatic classical music as popular amongst the laity as it is now. He effectively exploded the myth and illusion prevalent for a long time that sampradaya and tradition were not pleasing to the ear. The music world is and should be indebted to him for the long and signal service he has rendered in stabilising and presenting our prasiddha and rakti ragas in their true basic and traditional form and with their characteristic and unmistakable sancharas, sangatis and prayogas.

Excerpted from Gandharva Ganam, edited by Lalitha Ram and V Ramnarayan.
To buy the Music of GNB set of CDs or the Ariyakudi e-book, go to

Monday, 6 February 2012

Child MS meets a teacher

By Gowri Ramnarayan

The following is an excerpt from MS and Radha by Gowri Ramnarayan. For limited period offer of a special price of `550 on the book, go to or at Chennai at Sruti, 9, Cathedral Road, Chennai 600086.

One day an old man walked down the street and smiled at the child as he passed by. He wore a saffron veshti and ash marks on forehead and arms, a rudraksha round his neck, and carried a bronze kamandala. The child smiled back shyly, liking him on sight. He looked devout and kind-hearted. After that, she continued to see him everyday – fresh from his bath, with the same sweet special smile for her.
One day he stopped. “Child, I want to teach you. Will you learn from me?” he asked. Surprisingly, Kunja, who was so scared of strangers, immediately nodded “Yes”. He promptly sat down on the doorstep, closed his eyes, folded his hands and began with a sloka, Ghrita guda payasam

The child imitated his gestures carefully and repeated the words after him. The lessons were launched. Strangely enough, he did not teach her Sanskrit, the language of the scriptures, nor her mother tongue Tamil, but the obsolete Grantha script that survives in old books, in inscriptions on temple walls, and on copper plates maintaining old records.

The family watched these ‘classes’ with astonishment. Perhaps they were amused by this white-haired man teaching a tiny tot, but no one stopped them. Poor wandering soul he may have been, and craggy with age, but as a scholar and renunciate, the old man was accorded respect. However, Vadiva and Sakti found it impossible not to laugh when they saw him. They teased Kunja dreadfully. Sakti called the teacher ‘Old dhritakula payasam’, after the funny sounding prayer he recited at the start of each day.

The lessons continued until eventually the guru returned to Kasi, from where he had come south on a pilgrimage to spend the winter month of Dhanur in the sacred birthplace of Minakshi, another form of Visalakshi whom he worshipped on the ghats of the Ganga. That is how the first script the child learnt was Grantha, and an old pilgrim whose name Kunja never knew, and nobody else cared to ask, became her first guru.

When the old man stopped coming, Kunja studied up to class five in a regular school. She might have continued but for a severe beating from a teacher for no reason that she could understand. The fright intensified her whooping cough so much that the elders at home decided to stop her formal schooling. Kunja did not miss school. She had been scared of teachers and classmates. Staying at home was a relief.

Her education was by no means over. There was so much to learn from Shanmukhavadivu. She never sat down to give her children formal lessons. It was more a matter of picking up as she practised, or taught the few students who came to her, and singing with her as she played the veena.

Vadiva was chosen to learn the veena, but Kunja’s voice made the mother chose Srinivasa Iyengar to train her in vocal music. He was the younger of the Srirangam Brothers who performed together, and represented a dignified school.

On an auspicious day and hour, a small puja was performed at home; a coconut was cracked and offered in worship. A plate of vetrilaipakku, pazham and pushpam – the propitious betel leaves, fruit and flowers – were placed before the guru, a mat was unrolled in the front room and the tambura placed on it. Kunja prostrated before God, her mother and the guru. She sat down on the mat for her first lesson. A shiver ran through her small frame. She wondered how she would overcome her diffidence before a stranger and learn to sing. There was also the excitement at age six of being considered ready to start formal lessons.

The guru checked the tambura strings. They were correctly tuned. He began to pluck them. Kunja’s hesitations vanished. He sang out loud and clear: Sa ri ga ma pa dha ni sa. The child repeated the notes after him in three speeds.

The guru must have been caring and affectionate as he laid a proper foundation by going through the beginner’s exercises – sarali varisai, alankaram and gitam. Sadly, he did not live long enough to guide her as he wished to. The guru went back to his hometown promising to return speedily. But death put an end to that hope. For Kunjamma this was a big shock. What was going to happen to her now? How could she go on without his guidance?

It took time for Kunja to recover and resume her music. She practised for long hours and with great involvement. Fortunately she was used to discipline, to being woken up at 4 am, given a glass of neeraharam – a nifty name for water drained from the top of the previous day’s leftover rice soaked overnight. This had to sustain her through swara exercises sung in akaram, ukaram and ikaram modes in three speeds. A varnam or two followed. At 7 am, a glass of thin hot coriander coffee signalled the end of the session. Evenings were given to ragas and the kritis which enshrined the wealth of their melody.

The sruti box was unknown and the harmonium was deemed unsuitable for drone accompaniment. And so the child learnt the art of tuning the tambura to perfect sruti fidelity and maximal resonance very early on. And then the sound overwhelmed her. She had to make a conscious effort to break that enchantment in order to start singing in the predawn dark, lit by an agal vilakku, the little clay lamp. All her life, Subbulakshmi was to be hypnotised by the sound of tambura strings. There was clinical absorption in her act of tuning the two tamburas, Lakshmi and Sarasvati, each with ivory vignettes of the goddesses on the stem. With multi-stringed Miraj tamburas, this became sheer obsession. (She rewarded daughter and vocal accompanist Radha with her warmest smile whenever she achieved perfect tuning in the twin tamburas). Time stood still as she played the strings and sang slow phrases, pausing on different notes to exult, “Can you hear the gandhara now? Madhyama? Nishada?” Then, reluctantly, she would place the tambura on the mat, touching the stem with her fingers and pressing them lightly on her eyes in a gesture of worship.

Even her childhood games revealed Kunja’s absorption in the art form. One of them started with tuning the tambura carefully until the plucked strings cast a spell with their resonance. Eyes closed, she was lost in another world. Then she stopped, sang without the tambura, and plucked the strings again to check if she had stayed true to sruti. Throughout the day, in between household jobs, she kept returning to the tambura to see if she could recall that pitch steadily and accurately.

Singing on the stage happened so naturally that it seemed part of the daily routine. Kunja’s first public appearance was something to recall with laughter.

The child was making mud pies in the backyard when an uncle picked her up, dusted her skirt, washed her hands and took her straight to the dais at the nearby Setupati school where her mother was giving a concert for an audience of fifty, a large gathering in those days. The child was used to seeing her mother play the veena for visitors at home. She felt no fear when Shanmukhavadivu asked her to sing a Marathi bhajan, Anandhaja. At once, unhesitatingly, Kunja sang the song she knew so well. She was too young to appreciate the significance of the smiles and applause. In fact, she was eagerly wondering how soon she could get back to her mud pies!

The atmosphere at home fanned Kunja’s love of music. Shanmukhavadivu was a worthy though by no means legendary artiste like her illustrious senior contemporary Veena Dhanammal who lived in Madras.

Grandmother Akkammal had been an unremarkable violinist, who probably took up that instrument as a second-level performer had more chances as an accompanist than as the main artiste. She must have died before the children were born as they hardly remembered her.

Musicians who came to Madurai to give concerts rarely left without greeting Shanmukhavadivu, stalwarts like the Karaikudi Brothers, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar, Nagasvaram Ponnuswami Pillai, violinist Malaikottai Govindaswami Pillai, and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar among them. They were in no hurry. They tucked vetrilaipakku into their cheek, or took a pinch of snuff, and talked endlessly about great music and great musicians. Somebody would begin, “Do you know what happened when Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer was scheduled to sing after Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer? After listening to Pushpavanam Iyer’s concert the singer said to the organizers with tears in his eyes, ‘The young man has rained sugar and honey today. I am deeply moved. I can’t sing now. Let me come back and sing tomorrow.’”

Those visitors rarely left without singing or playing their instrument for the hostess. A nod from Shanmukhavadivu was applause. Sometimes she would pluck the strings and start playing as they sang. Usually Kunja would be asked to sing something. A nod meant satisfaction. A terse “You will come up” was approval. If they taught her a song, it meant high praise.

Local musicians, too, would drop by. Veena players were always anxious to impress Shanmukhavadivu. Some of them played dreadful music. Subbulakshmi recalls, “The veena is a delicate instrument. It has to be plucked and stroked gently, but this vainika pulled and grabbed and pushed and banged. What made it worse was that he had chosen to play the soulful raga called Sahana. And he chose to repeat the words Rakshasa Bhima, or terrible demon. Vadiva, Sakti and I could not stop our giggles. Mother glared icily at us, but how could we stop laughing, especially when, with an explosive twang, the string broke and curled up with a squeak!”

Kunja attended few concerts but listened to a lot of music on the radio. The family could not afford a radio but the neighbour’s could be heard clearly if she sat beside the window halfway up the staircase. The radio introduced her to Hindustani music. How enchanting it was to hear Abdul Karim Khan, Amir Khan or D.V. Paluskar, their voices sweetened by the silence of the night! Kunja would not have imagined then that one day she would sing Paluskar’s signature bhajan Thumak chalat Ramachandra in a Tamil version (Engum nirai nadabrahmam) and in a film in which she played the heroine, Sakuntalai!

Watching the world from the staircase window introduced her also to fashion when she saw the girls in the opposite house dabbing something white on their faces. All the cosmetics she knew were turmeric and gram flour, homemade mai to line the eyes and chaandu paste stored in a coconut shell for the pottu on the forehead. Knowing nothing of talcum powder, the girl once rubbed her hands along the whitewashed wall and tried the effect on her face. The furious mother gave her a slap for being stupid.

The neighbour’s gramophone was sheer magic. Inspired by the gramophone company’s logo of the dog listening to his master’s voice, the little girl would make a paper cone and sing into it for hours. This dream came true sooner than she expected when her mother took Kunja to the recording studio in Madras. Kunja was ten years old when she recorded her first disc, singing at an impossibly high pitch.

Shanmukhavadivu had chosen to live with a single partner. Through the long years of career establishment and longer years of celebrityhood, Subbulakshmi never mentioned her father. Many assumed that it was the brilliant vocalist Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer.

Finally, in the mid 1980s, when her journalist grandniece interviewed her for a children’s magazine, Subbulakshmi spoke about her father for the first time. Unasked. And the words locked in her heart tumbled out in a rush of emotion. To someone belonging to a different generation and a different world, it was amazing that she felt no rancour or sense of ill usage. She thought of his affection, devotion and piety, never questioned even by tone or look the social code that had made it impossible for her to live with the man she obviously adored. Shanmukhavadivu was undemonstrative, seemingly dour. As Subbulakshmi talked, it was easy to see how much she had looked to her father for affection.

Kunja’s father Subramania Iyer lived with his family on a street nearby. He was an advocate. His heart was not in the courtroom, but in his puja room with his ishta deivam Sri Rama. Every year he celebrated the Rama Navami festival with great love and care. The portrait of Rama, splendidly decorated with flowers, was taken from his puja room, placed on a saarattu or horse-drawn buggy and taken through the streets in a grand procession. Kunja, Vadiva and Sakti attended the function.

“Appa had other children. How proud I felt when he picked me up and made me sit beside him on that saarattu! I snuggled up to him, and thought I was the luckiest girl alive!”

The procession returned to the father’s house. The portrait was carefully taken down, and into the house. After puja, the father led the group in bhajanai and namasankirtanam. The distribution of sundal marked the end of the proceedings. Kunja walked home with the uneaten sundal in her hand.

From her childhood, friends and family knew Subbulakshmi by her pet name Kunjamma, but her father had another special name for her. “He always called me ‘Rajaathi, my little princess!’ Sometimes he would make it more affectionate and say, ‘Rajaathippa!’ in the caressing tone he had. He was very proud of my singing. ‘I will find you a husband who will cherish your music,’ he promised. Then he would laugh and tease me ‘So how about a nice boy who plays the tambura? Do you fancy such a husband?’ How I laughed with him! My father died when I was barely ten.”

Until the 1990s, no mention was made of Subramania Iyer in public, until Justice M.M. Ismail, a Tamil scholar who had been consulted through the recording of lyrics from the Kamba Ramayanam, spoke on the occasion of its release, and made glowing references to him as an able lawyer and a good human being. He also gifted Subbulakshmi with an enlarged portrait of her father, which was hung up in her house beside the old photograph of Shanmukhavadivu with the veena across her lap. If anyone remarked on the close resemblance between father and daughter, Subbulakshmi would beam with joy pure and simple – just how much, could be sensed in her frequent references to him ever after. “He was a man of character, so affectionate, so full of bhakti…”

Those who heard Subbulakshmi sing Bhadrachala Ramadasa’s kriti Ennaganu Ramabhajana were always transported when she repeated the line Rama, rama, rama yenutsu with exquisite poignancy. Now her grandniece knew why. She also realised that grandaunt Kunjamma was an inspiring role model, not only for the miracle of her music, but because she represented in her simple, everyday life, the values of an ancient culture – humility, compassion, consideration for others and unwavering principles of conduct. They were ingrained in her from childhood.

Her quest for perfection, sincerity of effort and concentration were not reserved for the stage. They were visible in the camphor light that she circled around the gods and gurus in her puja room, just as she remembered her father doing so long ago, in a home where she was a mere visitor. That is why she filled you with the same rapture when she sang a prayer at home, as she did on the concert stage with her eyes-closed finale Kurai onrum illai – ‘Lord, I have no regrets’.