Mayavaram Saraswathi Ammal’s service spans over eight decades.
She has always been applauded but accolades have been rather late to reach Mayavaram Saraswati Ammal, accomplished vocalist and flautist. She is one of the veterans Sangeet Natak Akademi has chosen to honour with the Tagore Samman in commemoration of the 150 birth anniversary of the Bengali genius. Crowning glory, indeed, at the age of 91.
But Saraswathi Ammal never aspired for kutcheri opportunities or fame. Music held her in thrall. Period. If her singing mesmerised listeners, her flute play amazed them. She found joy in teaching those who had the interest. “It was so fulfilling, sharing my knowledge,” smiles the doyen, a picture of dignity. Behind the frailty is a razor sharp mind that travels back to another century pausing only occasionally to ferret out names. Gentle music wafts as she puts the flute to her lips.
To use a cliché, Saraswati Ammal’s musical journey began when she was seven, at Mannargudi, where she was born in 1921. Inspired by the flute play of Keeranur Papa, the child wanted to learn the instrument and parents did not stand in the way. The family moved to Mayavaram and that explains the prefix.
Muthu in the initial years and Tirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai later were her gurus. Mayavaram Venugopala Iyer taught her vocal music. She made quick progress to the delight of the teachers. Walking down the street one day to the petty shop, she was intercepted by a person, who introduced himself as a government official. A farewell party had been organised the next day, 4 p.m., for the Collector and would the young girl present a flute recital?
“‘Oh yes,’ I said without batting an eyelid. No inhibition and I didn’t think of checking with the elders,” the lady laughs softly. She was picked up and escorted by a family member, reached the Collector’s office. The mini-concert went off smoothly and the audience was charmed. Dikshitar’s noteswaram floored the British Collector, who scooped the child in his arms, placed her on the table filled with mementos. He put a garland round her neck to thundering applause. Saraswati had made her debut.
At 18, she qualified to be an AIR artist. The base was Tiruchi and she presented several vocal and flute concerts. Kothamangalam Subbu invited her to take part in the shows he produced for AIR, Chennai, and she happily obliged. She sang the song he had composed and tuned when Independence was declared. “Aangila Aandu Ettam Madham, Padhinanaindham Naal…,” went the lyric. Saraswathi Ammal’s eyes glow as she relives the moment.
She was the asthana music teacher for many of the industrialists’ families in Chennai. Not only for the children, but the older women too. “They learnt earnestly although they never ascended the concert platform,” she observes. “Waiting in the consulting room for my turn to see the physician, I was humming a song. The doctor’s wife called me in and said, ‘Please teach me music. You were humming so beautifully.’” It became a long association that included the grandchildren.
“Enfield had organised Madhuvanti, a cultural show at the Music Academy, in which a group of women presented music. I played the flute. Among the audience were famous vidwans. At the end of the programme, M.S. came over and praised my performance, holding my hands. I felt so happy,” narrates Saraswathi, whose prowess was very well utilised by Bharatanatyam exponents.
“Director K. Subramaniam provided the auspicious start. Listening to my flute, he simply said, ‘You are playing flute in my daughter Padma’s orchestra.’ I was in a dilemma. Was it a come-down? Will it affect my creativity? But I took the plunge and enjoyed every minute of it.
“I travelled widely all over the country with Dr. Padma Subhramaniam, including Leh, where we entertained the Armed Forces. When the programme scheduled in Srinagar was cancelled due to heavy snowfall, we got the opportunity to perform in New Delhi. We met the President Dr. Radhakrishnan, who was so warm.”
A stint with Dr. Vyjayantimala Bali took Saraswathi abroad – Germany, France and Brussels. The audience was bowled over so much so that in Paris, she had to take the bow repeatedly as the ovation never subsided. “The performance ended, the dancers retreated and the orchestra packed up too. But the audience wanted me on the stage. Each time I went inside they called me back. An unforgettable moment,” she recalls.
Saraswathi Ammal taught with passion, giving all she knew. Some of her disciples wanted to learn the veena but only from Saraswathi teacher! Promptly she approached Pitchumani Iyer for lessons. “How can I refuse when my dear students wanted me teach them veena? It was a simultaneous affair of learning and teaching. I was not a great vainika but certainly was good enough to teach,” she says as a matter of fact.
“Students continue to come, to clear doubts, to get a song honed or just to be with me and take my blessings. I look forward to Vijayadasami. Among the brood is a fourth generation boy. “I taught the six-year old slokas and catchy songs. The family was going on a tour and he refused to get into the car until I finished the song that he was learning. He gave me a big hug before leaving. That is the best award I could have got,” she says.
The humility is touching. “That’s what endears her to all of us,” endorses Charumathi, lawyer and disciple for nearly two decades. “I’ve been learning the flute since my school days. I have never seen her lose patience or say anything negative. It is like a family when all disciples gather,” she says. Saraswathi has composed songs and set them to tune. The album of songs was released recently.
“Music has been my companion, for a life time. I can still play the flute. Thank God for that. There are moments when I feel a kind of void. At once, I pick up my flute. A short session is enough to make me fine.” That sums up this remarkable personality, who breathes music, literally.
“She was an asset to the team,” says Dr. Padma Subrahmaniam. “She was a great singer and played the flute superbly providing rich embellishments. It was a treat to hear the soulful strains as she filled in the pauses. The audience loved it. Besides, she emerged as a kind of caretaker during tours. I was young and there were younger dancers in my group. Pappamma, as we called her, kept an eye on all of us. She played the veena too and got along very well with my mother who was a vainika.”
‘Taught vocal approach'
K. Bhaskaran, disciple for 40 years, says:
It has been a great blessing to be a student of my revered Guru, who not only laid the foundation but encouraged me all the way. She guided me in my efforts to integrate vocal gamakas into flute play giving it sahitya bhava. Several hours of listening to records of her vocal alapana and kalpanaswara enriched my manodharma.