Early every morning for a month last year, I
pushed open a stubbornly creaky gate and walked passed her home. My steps
slowed, stopped for a moment, and my eyes quickly scanned the verandah. Nothing
stirred. The only sounds were the raucous caws of squabbling crows high on their
treetops, and the muted hum of traffic from nearby Gandhi Mandapam Road
Here lived a family, whose lineage seems almost too
fantastic, too sublime, to be true. The gods of music could not have dreamed up
a more exalted, distinguished, or glorious musical pedigree. The grande-dame of
the family was D.K. Pattammal, one of Carnatic music’s most beloved icons. She
lived downstairs, with her husband. It
was she whom I fervently hoped to glimpse every morning, on my way to my music
lesson upstairs. The patriarch was Palghat Mani Iyer, a legendarily brilliant
mridangist, whose name, more than a quarter of a century after his death, still
inspires reverential awe. Pattammal’s son, Sivakumar, married Mani Iyer’s
daughter, Lalitha. Lalitha and Sivakumar held their palms outstretched and
received the priceless musical bounty that poured down from Pattammal and Mani Iyer.
In a glorious alchemic act, their daughter, Nithyasree, was born with all her
grandparents’ musical brilliance coursing through her veins.
Every morning, I studied music with Lalitha Sivakumar. It was
a wonderful experience, made so much more special because of the precious
weight of musical history that buttressed it. Lalitha was an excellent teacher,
patient and thorough, and one of the few people in this world whom I
instinctively appraised as a really good person. I know that that sounds vague
and possibly even corny, but it was just what I felt, a gut instinct. She was genuinely fond of her mother-in-law who had warmly encouraged her musical efforts and career, and they enjoyed a relationship that would be the envy of most mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Lalitha was
simple and humble, and I mean it in a laudatory, good way, not in the
disparaging way these words are sometimes used. How apt, that she should have
been the daughter-in-law of Pattammal. Because whoever knew Pattammal would say
this about her: she was a good person. She was simple, humble, sincere, gracious and
dignified. And her music….ohhh, her music!
I grew up listening regularly to the great Trinity of lady
singers: M.S. Subbulakshmi (MS), M.L. Vasantakumari (MLV) and D.K. Pattammal
(DKP). They were trailblazers, and I
loved them all, equally but differently. MS, whose every concert was an
unlikely but brilliant mix of glamour and devotion. MLV, who thrilled with her
lightning-fast brigas and gamakas and incomparable renditions of Purandaradasar
kritis. And DKP – to listen to her singing was to be caressed by charm and
grace, to float on an ocean of mellow sound, to be cocooned in a warm blanket
of serenity and repose, to be in a place where all the elements of music
blended together into something utterly precious and unique. To experience a
DKP concert was to feel the warm love of a grandmother’s lap, where all was
beautiful and right with the world. But behind that sweet smile lay a steely
resolve – to aim for the sky, to cut no corners, to meet and conquer any
musical challenge. She sang thrillingly intricate ragam-tanam-pallavis that
once and for all put to rest the idiotic notion that somehow this form was
beyond the ken of women, that they were not strong enough, or intelligent
enough, to do it justice.
Looking at her smiling face, who would think that this gentle lady was a groundbreaker, a trendsetter, a pioneer? Remember, she grew up during the nineteen twenties and thirties, when all a good Brahmin girl from a good family was supposed to aspire to was a good match with a good boy from another good Brahmin family. Good – in the case of the Brahmin girl – meant: obedient, docile, pious, modest – and invisible. She did not expose herself unnecessarily to the outside world, lest unwelcome, lascivious eyes fell on her. Her place was in the home, where her husband’s family provided for her while she cooked and took care of the family. And any girl who stepped out of this rigidly controlled world would most likely be sentenced with the worst punishment of all – the life of a spinster.
Luckily for us, Pattammal did not meekly accept this state
of affairs. She was too talented, for
one. Besides, trailblazers cannot blaze
trails by themselves. They also need the right people around them, to push and
stimulate, to help break down barriers, to give comfort when the going is
rough, to never waver in their belief. Pattammal had these in good measure,
from Ammukutty Ammal, her school’s
headmistress, who recognized the extraordinary talent of the little girl and
pushed her to perform on the school’s stage (to the appalled horror of her
family), to Vai Mu Ko (Kothainayaki), a
novelist and trailblazer herself, who fervently pushed the emancipation of
Brahmin women, from Naina Pillai, whose musical influence shone throughout
Pattamal’s career to Ambi Dikshithar (descendent of Muthuswami Dikshithar)
whose stint at teaching her was cut short by his untimely death, to the great
Tamil composer Papanasam Sivan, who looked upon her as a daughter, and taught
her many of his lovely songs right as he composed them.
I learned some of those Papanasam Sivan songs from
Lalitha, who had learned them from Pattammal. Just a hop and a skip from where
it originated – this awes me.
I never did see Pattammal on my visits to my music lessons. A few times, I almost gathered up the courage to ask, can I see Pattammal, seek her blessings? But I knew she was old and tired by then, and it did not feel right to barge in and break the peace of her morning. And now she is no more. Pattammal passed away on July 16, at the age of 90. This meeting will never happen now.
I never met you in person, Pattammal, but every time I listen to your music, I see your tender, smiling face before me, almost as if I were sitting by your side. To me you will live for ever. I will cherish those songs I learned, just a few feet away from you, like a precious treasure. May your soul rest in peace.
Some of the facts for this came from Sriram V.'s lovely book Carnatic Summer