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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > D.K.Pattammal

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

D.K.Pattammal

N. Pattabhi Raman, Courtesy - Hindu 27 March 1994
[see also D.K. Pattammal at Musical Nirvana.Com
A lifetime for Carnatic music -Interview with D.K. Pattammal,  and
D.K.Pattamal Songs at Raaga.com ]


An extraordinary woman is D.K.Pattammal, with her appearance and achievements contributing to a seeming paradox.

She is quite traditional in appearance. She will be 75 on March 28 and not surprisingly, she looks like an elderly matron. But, even in her twenties, when she had a radiantly beautiful face, she wrapped herself in a sari so well that, projecting a picture of modesty, she could have aroused the envy of Draupadi. On stage, then as now, she sat like a rock as she sang, moving little and gesticulating not at all; interestingly even the music she offered was solid as a rock.

In her role too as a wife and mother, she has been deeply conservative, showing deference to her husband, R.Iswaran, in all matters, including music. So much so, because Iswaran disapproves of the cinema, she stopped going to see any after they were married! She sat on pins and needles for more than 35 years eagerly waiting to see M.S.Subbulakshmi in `Meera' and had her wish fulfilled only when the film was telecast.

Traditional and conservative -- yes, indeed. And yet she has been a revolutionary, a pathfinder, and a liberated career woman, expressing her individuality as a musician. Perhaps those interested in women's liberation in the country would find that her life and career represent a unique blend of tradition and change.

Even as a little girl, Pattammal had an aptitude for music. She learnt to sing without going through formal step-by-step lessons, although she had teachers then as later. And she was neither shy nor scared to sing before an audience. None of this, however, could have led anyone to expect she would have a professional career in music, given the social circumstances prevailing at that time. Among women -- insofar as art music was concerned -- singing for the public was restricted to those who belonged to the Isai Vellala caste. Virtually no Brahmin family would dare allow its daughter to enter the performing arts arena. Moreover, Pattammal's father was a conservative who had difficulty in contemplating anything but an early marriage for her.

In the event, these circumstances could not hold Pattammal down. Her musical gifts were too precious to be ignored and the Columbia Gramaphone Company came forward to record her after seeing in a newspaper, a photograph of Pattammal which the headmistress of her school had arranged to be published in order to draw atten tion to her talents. Thereafter, although still troubled by the idea of deviating from tradition, her father yielded to sugges tions that the young girl should be groomed as a musician. He took her to Madras from Kanchipuram, where the family lived, and arranged for her further training. And it was not long before Pattammal made her debut as concert musician. This was in 1933, when she was but 14 years old. In retrospect, it was a historic event, for she was the first girl from among the forward communities to break through the caste barrier and take to singing in public. She was, indeed, a trailblazer.

In the years that followed, as her music gained in depth and amplitude, she crossed yet another barrier, that of the gender. In the early Thirties, it was taboo for women, even devadasis, to display their manodharma when performing in public; they were expected to restrict themselves to rendering the song demurely. As I wrote elsewhere commenting on this aspect; "Manodharma, it seemed, was considered a man's dharma and women had to follow Manu's dharma and refrain from pushing themselves forward. Such taboos were, of course, enjoined by men, even if they were per haps willingly respected by the womenfolk of those times. It was therefore ironical that the men, especially male musicians, at the same time described the circumscribed music of the women derisively as ladies' music and considered it inferior to their own.

M.S.Subbulakshmi, D.K.Pattammal and M.L.Vasanthakumari -- the Carnatic music trinity of the modern times -- finished off this fashionable fallacy that ladies' music was inferior. In this context, I should like to recall what I wrote about DKP in `Sruti': "Pattammal's contribution has been that of a pioneer. She it was that emerged as the role model for other women singers by daring to do on the concert stage what had earlier been proscribed. Manodharma was nor her forte, may be, but she deployed her mastery of laya to render ragam-thanam-pallavi as no woman had even attempted to do before. She broke the ice not with a pickax but with an icebreaker of a ship. Many a male chauvinist musician has perforce acknowledged that, yes, indeed women can sing like men -- that at least Pattammal could."

Pattammal was thus a pathfinder too, providing inspiration to other women musicians to sing with freedom, without being inhib ited by the accident of their gender.

Laya was of course only one facet of her music which won her respect and admiration. She excelled too in rendering kriti-s, with perfect diction. As a critic once observed: "With her deep-toned voice.... her deep roots in classicism and sound knowledge of gamaka, she could render every song unhurriedly, with progressive and logical sangati-s, and the musical expres sion became enjoyable."

Pattammal was a pioneer in regard to another aspect of art music as well. At a time when even those musicians who included Tamil songs in their performances relegated them to the tailend of their concerts, she began singing a Tamil composition or two even in the pre-pallavi segment.

It was entirely consistent with this remarkable record of achievement that she played a leading role in popularising, through her recordings, the songs of Subramania Bharati, the freedom poet, and that she embellished the music of films like `Naam Iruvar' with her mellifluous singing.

There was an yet another barrier that this steeplechase runner of a musician had to jump over. Yet another gender barrier, in fact. The combined impact of the separate contributions of Subbulakshmi, Pattammal and Vasanthakumari had, by the Sixties if not earlier, smashed the silly notion of male superiority in music. The maestros and the mandarins who ruled the Music Academy of Madras, that mecca of carnatic music, had inevitably to consider inviting a woman musician of their calibre to preside over the annual conference of the Academy and to receive the title of Sangeeta Kalanidhi that goes with the responsibility.

At that time, if both MS and DKP were respected as well as popular musicians, the congnoscenti seemed to respect Pattammal's music a bit more even as they acknowledged MS was the more popu lar of the two. Yet, the record shows that the credit of being the first woman musician to receive the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title went to MS. Not many know even today that it was DKP who was initially selected for this honour and that she was even apprised of it by some of the numbers of the Experts' Committee of the Academy. Reportedly even at this stage some influential members argued in favour of MS and Pattammal herself agreed to the suggestion that MS might be honoured first. A sequel to this story is that, in the following year, when there was a wish to honour Madurai Srirangam Iyengar a senior musician, Pattammal volunteered the suggestion that she should wait yet another year. In the event, Pattammal received the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title in 1970.

A paradigm of tradition in personal life, Pattammal as a musician has thus been a revolutionary, a trailblazer and a pathfinder. If her contribution to music has been immense, her role in the emancipation of women musicians can only be termed historic. Significantly, and in contrast to the present day trend, she has made her contribution almost unobtrusively, without media hype.

There was yet another notable achievement. In her heyday, she stood shoulder to shoulder with giants of Carnatic vocal music like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G.N.Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer, all senior to her in age. Like them, she too played a crucial role in building up an audience for Carnatic classical music, without compromising her artistic integrity, after the patronage of the art had shifted from princes and she landed gentry to the lay public organised in sabhas. She and MS were among the icons who transformed thou sands of casual listeners into devotees of art music.

In an appreciation of Pattammal's life and career, a veteran "observer wrote 10 years ago (in Sruti)." Up and coming women vocalists -- and why not men as well? -- could do no better than take DKP as their guide and model. Her uncompromising adherence to tradition while putting her own individual stamp on it, her willingness to blaze new trials, her sense of moderation, her dedication and systematic approach to learning -- and continuous learning at that -- and her innate grace and sense of humility are virtues worthy of emulation. This sums up the unique personality perfectly.


Interview with D.K. Pattammal - Courtesy Frontline,13 August 1999

.....Pattammal, in spite of her ill-health, has been training youngsters and giving concerts. On July 11 she sang in the 18-hour Carnatic music concert conducted in Chennai for the Kargil soldiers benefit fund. Severe arthritis has left her almost immobile. But the unassuming and ever-smiling DKP readily agreed to meet Chitravina exponent Ravi Kiran (RK) and Frontline Special Correspondent Asha Krishnakumar (AK) at her Chennai residence . In the two-hour-long interview, DKP looked back at her life and music. She also spoke about Carnatic music, and about musicians and audiences then and now.

Excerpts from the interview:

RK: Can you share with us the experience of your first stage performance?

I gave my first public concert in 1932 at Madras' Rasika Ranjani Sabha. I was 13 then. It was a group concert in which five of us sang. But before that I had given a concert on Madras Corporation Radio (run by the Corporation of Madras before the All Ind ia Radio came into being) in 1929. In those days it was a rare feat.

AK: You were the first Brahmin woman to come on stage in Carnatic music. It must have required a lot of courage. Who encouraged you?

It was indeed a big thing in those days. I was the first Brahmin woman to come on stage in Carnatic music as Rukmini Devi was for Bharatanatyam. Everyone was supportive. At first my father opposed it. But later he gave in.

AK: What about the support from fellow musicians and the public?

Colleagues were supportive. But I have heard some people make remarks like "How dare a Brahmin girl sing in public?" and so on. I did not give up. At that time women from one particular community used to sing in public. It was anathema for a Brahmin woma n to sing in public. My mother, Kanthimathi (Rajammal), used to sing very well. But she never sang in public.

AK:Who encouraged you to sing in public?

Primarily my father's friends. I was 10 when my father's friends approached him to let me sing for a gramophone record company. First, my father refused, fearing that the record will be played at all and sundry places. He did not want the works of great masters like Thyagaraja and Dikshitar and his daughter's voice to he heard at such places. Then Dr.Srinivasan of Kancheepuram, who is my husband's uncle (I was not married then), persuaded my father to let me sing. My school headmistress, Ammukutti-amma, also urged my father to let me accept the offer. After a lot of pressure from a number of his friends, my father finally agreed.

RK: You were the first woman musician to present layam in pallavi. Whom did you learn that from?

Naina Pillai used to sing pallavi with kuraippu. I used to go to his concerts repeatedly to learn the technique. I then practised it on my own. I have set pallavis such as "Mamava Pattabhirama" inspired by Muthuswami Dikshitar's mast er-piece in raga Manirangu.

RK: What were your practise methods? This may be a useful tip for youngsters.

I used to practise whenever I got the time. Untiring practice is most important. My father was my first guru. Even when I was four he would wake me up at 3.30 a.m. for practice. First he taught me to sing shlokas (hymns) and later, kritis(c ompositions). I used to sing 10 kritis in different ragas everyday. My father would make a weekly time-table. Every day the songs would be different. To perfect the songs, I had to sing each one for about 50 times. After that I would have to do alapana (delineating raga in extenso) for each one of the raga. I used to practice till 6 a.m. (from 3.30 a.m.) every day. Then again, after I returned from school in the evening I used to practise singing shlokas such as Mukundamalai, Shyama la Dhandakam, Meenakshi Pancharath-nam and Lalitha Pancharathnam. And, then, more kritis.

My father never allowed me to look into a notebook and sing. He used to say that it will divert concentration. Nowadays youngsters use notebooks all the time, even during concerts. I wonder how they can concentrate on singing.

RK: Did you ever practice under Naina Pillai?

No. I did not. But even when I was five, he was an inspiration for me. My father used to take me to all his concerts, and I would come home and practise the songs he sang.

Naina Pillai used to conduct a Thyagaraja Utsavam in Kancheepuram every year. Carnatic music giants such as Ariyakudi (Ramanuja Iyengar) and Musiri (Subramania Iyer) used to sing there. I used to attend all the concerts. Rajaratnam Pillai was another ins piration for me. I was also encouraged by my elder brother, Ranganathan (he is no more).

When I was eight, Naina Pillai conducted a competition at Kancheepuram. I got the first prize, singing "Raksha Bettare" in Bhairavi. Naina Pillai was impressed. That was a real turning point in my life.

RK: I have heard a lovely rendition of "Raksha Bettare" by Palghat Mani Iyer. From whom did you learn the song?

I learnt it in Kancheepuram from Chinnamma, who used to live in Pattu Iyengar's house. I learnt about 10 kritis from her.

AK: Who were your other gurus?

Naina Pillai was my primary inspiration. It used to be a wonderful experience hearing Naina Pillai sing "Nenje Ninai Anbe", a pallavi in Jaganmohini. I also learnt from his student, N.S.Krishnaswamy Iyengar and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar's student Vaidyanathan. Kancheepuram P.B. Srinivasan and Chinnamma were my other teachers.

In Madras, I learnt some Dikshitar kritis from Ambi Dikshitar and T.L. Venkatrama Iyer. I studied under Papanasam Sivan, the great composer. I learnt about 50 Tiruppugazh songs from Appadurai Achari. I also learnt a few compositions of Tirupati Na rayanaswami and also many varnams, pallavis and javalis from Vidyala Narasimhalu Naidu.

RK: I have listened to the records you cut when you were young. You had not only a high sruti (pitch) but also tonal depth. How did you marry the two? Did it come naturally?

From shadjamam to panchamam (lower to higher octave) I had the same depth in voice. This, I think, was because of my intense, and long hours, of practice from very early in the morning.

RK: Did you learn music from the beginning, say, from sarali and janta varisai?

I have never learnt sarali and janta varisai, geetham and so on. I practised some varnams on my own. Now, I start from kritis to my students.

AK: How has the audience culture changed? What is the difference between the musicians and the audience of your times and now?

There is a change in the attitudes of both listeners and artists. At the beginning of a concert the youngsters sing a swaram and then a korvai, for which they get a long applause. They sing that way to get that applause. There needs to be < I>bhava and depth, without sacrificing vidwat (scholarship). The youngsters need to practise a lot for that. Art should be performed for art's sake. It should not become commercial. If it does, then we would be forced to sing for the audience and not for the sake of the art. Music is now being sung with great speed. It has become very commercial. That is very sad.

As for the audience, only genuine music lovers used to come to concerts in the earlier days. But, now, it has become fashionable to go to concerts.

RK: Has the kutcheri pattern changed over time?

Earlier pallavi was the central piece of any concert and hence varnam was very important. They used to sing only four to five songs.

RK: What pattern do you follow?

I follow the pattern set by Ariyakudi and Naina Pillai. I sing a varnam, a few krithis of different types, a ragam-tanam-pallavi, some javalis and padams. In some concerts I sing thillanas, patriotic and other lighter s ongs .

RK: I would like you to clarify a few doubts about Dikshitar kritis. Subbarama Dikshitar has put together 250 keertanas in Sangeetha Sampradaya Pradarshini and we all accept that as authentic. But now, many songs that are not in that co llection are also passed off as Dikshitar kritis. How authentic are these?

Yes. There are many spurious songs attributed to Muthuswami Dikshitar. Some such as the popular kriti "Akilandeswari", in Dwajawanthi, are not Dikshitar kritis. But they are all passed off as his. T.L.Venkatarama Iyer made a specific point when he said that "Akilandeswari" was not Dikshitar's kriti.

RK: There are also some other keertanas in this category. For instance, "Sri Ranganatham" in Poornachandrika. The chittaswaram in that song is the same as the one rendered in "Paluka Vemi". How did that come about?

I was responsible for that. I tried it and then discussed it with Venkatarama Iyer, who encouraged me to go ahead.

RK: What about "Gananayakam"?

Again, there is a problem with that. Some say it is in Rudrapriya and others say it is in Poornasajjam. I am not clear on that.

RK: You sing "Gananayakam" in Poornasajjam. Isn't it?

Yes. I learnt it from Venkatarama Iyer.

RK: Some other keertanas, such as "Gajanana Yutham" in Vegavahini, do not have the grandeur of Dikshitar kritis...

Yes. Also, "Gajamba Nayako" in Junjooti, which even I used to sing. Some composers have spuriously introduced such songs as Dikshitar kritis so that they become popular especially when rendered by leading artists.

AK: You have sung many swathanthara geetams (freedom movement songs) in Tamil...

Yes, I have sung a number of freedom movement songs. Even before the Tamil Isai Sangam was formed, I popularised Tamil songs composed by Gopalakrishna Bharathi and Muthuthandavar.

AK: How did you get interested in Tamil songs?

The works of Papanasam Sivan and Gopalakrishna Bharathi are among those that inspired me to sing Tamil songs.

RK: We don't have Gopalakrishna Bharathi's original compositions. Do we?

I do not know whether or not they were original compositions, I only learnt those that already existed. There are books on Bharathi's songs now. Not in those days. In fact, the infrastructure was poor - no records, television, radio or books. We just had to listen to musicians during concerts and learn. I had to struggle to get the lyrics of the songs. My elder brother used to help me. It used to be very difficult.

RK: From whom did you learn Gopalakrishna Bharathi's songs and Arunachala Kavirayar?

Ariyakudi tuned Arunachala kavirayar and I learnt it from Vaidyanathan. I also learnt thevaram in Kancheepuram. I sing a lot of thevaram songs such as "Sirai Arum", "Adukkanai", "Bhanthathal" and so on.

AK: How did you start singing in films?

It was Papanasam Sivan who introduced me to films. Then K.Subramaniam, the well-known director, also encouraged me to sing in films. I used to sing only bhakti and patriotic songs. I never sang romantic songs. Thyaga Bhoomi was my first fil m. After that I sang for Naam Iruvar and so on.

RK: What are the concerts you cherish?

I feel elated to have sung at the shastiabdapoorthi (60th birth anniversary) celebrations of many great musicians such as Swaminatha Pillai, Papanasam Sivan and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhaga-vathar and on many such occasions in T. Brinda's and some ot her musicians' houses. I am proud that I sang in Brinda's house before a dream audience well-versed in Carnatic music. There was Jayamma, Brinda, Mukta, Balasaraswathi, Periya Kuttiamma, Chinna Kuttiamma, T.Sankaran, Swami-natha Pillai and others. I sang "Rama Rama Prana Sakhi" (padam in Bhairavi) and it was well appreciated. That was a memorable experiences for me.

RK: From whom did you learn to sing padams?

Ariyakudi's student, Vaidyanathan, taught me a few padams - Sankarabharanam, Atana, Gaulipanthu, Panthuvarali, Kambodhi, Bhairavi and so on. Mukta also taught me some padams. I love singing padams in concerts.

RK: When did you first go to Mumbai?

In 1934. I gave a number of concerts there. I used to sing a lot of Tamil songs. Chidambaram Iyer, a music critic in Bombay, used to write: "We are all fortunate to be treated by Pattammal's Tamil songs". Since 1934, I visited Bombay every year.

AK: How many students do you have now and how promising are they?

I have seven students now. Two are very promising. I have students all over the world, including French, German, American, Canadian and Japanese people. Akiko, from Japan, was brilliant. She sings very well. Absolutely impressive. Carnatic music is popul ar in the United States. But in Japan it is unfamiliar. She sang at the Thyagaraja Aaradhana in Tiruvaiyar near Thanjavur, a few years ago. It was well received.

RK: When did Palghat Mani Iyer play on the mridangam for you?

He played for me first in 1967. Till then he would not play for women. I did not ask him, but he himself volunteered to play for me at the Music Academy. Not because he is my son's father-in-law but because he thought I sang in the traditional manner.

RK: Initially you gave only solo concerts. When did your brothers join you?

Much later. First Nagarajan (now in Washington) sang with me in concerts. My other brother, Jayaraman, was first my student and later started to sing with me.

RK: When you sang with Jayaraman, did you have to compromise on sruti?

I reduced sruti a bit and he increased it a little. But it was very difficult for him.

RK: You have given many concerts abroad and popularised Carnatic music...

First I went to the U.S. on an invitation from the Carnatic Music Association of North America. Then I went to France for the Festival of India. Since then I have been to many places - Berlin, Bonn, Geneva, many places in Canada and the U.S. and so on.

AK: How many concerts on an average do you give every month?

During my busy days I used to give 20 concerts every month. But not now.

AK: Who would manage the household when you were away?

My mother-in-law used to be at home. We had a cook. For my husband, home was very important. Even when I had to go off somewhere on tour I had to buy all the household items before I left. When I was at home, my husband was particular that I took care of the house and everyone at home, even the cows!

AK:What is your advice to youngsters?

They are very talented. They can sing any raga. But they should have a sense of proportion. They should avoid extensive swarams and raga alapanas for a small keertana. Proportion is very important. They should practise a lot and sing for the sake of the art and not, as I said earlier, for the applause. They should understand the words of every song and enjoy singing. They need to desist singing with great speed. They should not get into the commercial tangle.

RK: People like you have been an inspiration for the younger generation. You have done Carnatic music proud...

Carnatic music is like an ocean. There is so much to learn. How much ever you learn, there is always more. One lifetime is not enough even to fathom the depth of the art. My wish is that I should die singing. I ask for nothing more.

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