A.R. Sundaram’s voice, memory and interests remain undiminished at 89

She will be 90 in October, but her zest for life, Carnatic music in particular, is contagious. A.R. Sundaram, popularly known as Sunda, and her student treated one to delectable music recently. She remembers every word and every swara. For instance the kharaharapriya padavarnam, ‘Rama Nive.’ Her sruthi suddham is incredible even in the famous padam, ‘Payyada,’ at Madhyama Sruti. The two pieces and ‘Chetha Sri Balakrishnam’ in Dwijavanti were pure aural delight. It is only physical constraints that stop her from moving out on her own to concerts. But Sunda still teaches those who are interested.

All India Radio, which is celebrating its 75th year, recently honoured Sunda as the only surviving artist, who sang on the inaugural day in 1938. She was just 15. One day Sarvasri D.T. Sastry and N.V. Raghavan, accompanied by her grandfather, T.R. Venkatrama Sastry, came to her house to ask her father, A.K. Ramachandra Iyer’s permission to let her perform on AIR’s inaugural day. And she did so on October 2, 1938, without any accompaniments. There was only one mike, which she had to share with the announcer Vijayakrishnan, T. Brinda’s brother. After that she periodically performed for AIR but not on stage, because her father did not allow it.

A.K. Ramachandra Iyer, one of the prominent personalities of Mylapore and the owner of Midland Theatre, knew many leading musicians personally and put Sunda and her elder sister under the training of Chinnakutti Amma (T. Brinda’s aunt). Sunda, who was asthmatic, could not cope with her high sruti, so her father brought T. Brinda home to teach her. (Last year at the centenary celebrations of Brinda at the Krishna Gana Sabha she performed with the support of her disciple and dedicated the concert to her guru and her father.)

Brinda was a strict disciplinarian. She would teach just for an hour every day and at the next class the student had to sing the item perfectly. Writing down notations was not allowed and recording of course was unheard of. Her style of singing demanded taking long deep breaths, which helped Sunda get rid of asthma.

Felicitated by the alumni

Sunda started going to the Church Park school from the age of 12. She completed her Senior Cambridge at 17 and was married the same year to Dr. Ramachandran. Recently she was felicitated at the alumni meeting of her school as the oldest surviving student.

After marriage, she continued to learn from Brinda whenever possible. GNB’s disciple T.R. Balasubramaniam, Maruthuvakudi Rajagopala Iyer and T.K. Govinda Rao also taught her. She had won the first prize at a padam competition conducted by the Music Academy.

Sunda proudly recalls the opportunities she had to sing along with Jayamma and her daughter, Balasaraswathi on two occasions in the Kuravanji programmes on AIR. She had also presented Thevaram accompanied on the veena by Dandapani. Memories of accompanying T. Brinda and M.S. Subbulakshmi in their concerts and providing vocal support for Balasaraswathi’s dance programmes are still fresh in her mind.

On the music scene of that time, she says, “There were not too many concerts and they were mainly held during weddings, which were four-day affairs. There would be at least two concerts by leading musicians. Noted nagaswaram vidwans would perform during the processions – first for the Maapillai Azhaippu, and then for the Oorvalam on the last day.”

She adds, “At the wedding of my sister, Balasaraswathi performed. It was the first time that my grandfather, T.R. Venkatrama Sastry, had witnessed a dance programme because he generally did not like this art form. But he was so impressed by Bala’s abhinayam that his dislike for dance evaporated.”

Sunda points out, “I was the last one to sing for Bangalore Nagarathinamma – she built the Tyagaraja samadhi at Tiruvaiyaru – I sang ‘Upacharamu’ in Bhairavi and she did abhinayam for it. It was a great honour.”

With gratitude she remembers the occasion when she sang Sundararmoorthy Nayanar’s thevaram, ‘Azhugu Mei,’ in front of the Kanchi Mahaperiyaval, who blessed her and advised her not to stop singing.

The television set in her room was showing the India-Australia cricket match. “Oh! I watch cricket. I am crazy about it”, she declares. As one was preparing to take leave of her, she sprung another surprise by saying, “I used to play the piano; I had to give it up when I was doing the 4th grade of Trinity College as I got married”.

According to her, whatever she has done in the field of music had the whole hearted support of her husband, Dr. Ramachandran.

Little nuggets

Remembering her younger days, Sunda says, “We used to look forward to the Music Academy in December. We would plan the sarees and jewellery to be worn days ahead for important evenings.”

Before so many sabhas had sprouted, a concert by M.S. or a dance recital by Kamala Lakshminarayanan or Vyjayanthimala were important social events, when one could see women in gorgeous silk sarees and matching diamond, ruby or emerald jewellery.

According to Sunda, it was her father who started Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore specifically to promote Nadaswaram. He was also the one who encouraged Papanasam Sivan. He heard Sivan him singing in a temple along with a group, impressed he brought Sivan home.

She used to form groups of women to sing different types of compositions. Their ‘Gananjali’ was the very first group that began performing in the early morning programme during December season at the Music Academy with ‘Thiruppugazh’. Then she formed the ‘Sangeethanjali’ for rendering bhajans learnt under Srinivasa Rao. ‘Sankaramanohari’ was a group that was taught by D.K. Jayaraman.