In Seethalakshmi Venkateshan’s passing away, the music world has lost a committed practitioner and teacher
Maami, as we fondly called our revered guru, Seethalaksmi Venkateshan, June, 1926) was a legend of Carnatic music, with over 70 years of singing and performing to her credit. She is no more (November 18, 2012), but we continue to hear her resonating voice, not just in recordings, but within us too.
During our relationship as her students for over 25 years, we have been fortunate to imbibe her style and learn her repertoire... in fact, till a week before she passed away. There was a deep bond between us, and she was an integral part of our lives. Every time we went to class, we knew there was something new she would teach us – it could be a composition, tips on raga rendering, niraval singing or unique kalpanaswara patterns.
Maami always told us that we should never follow a fixed pattern and she encouraged us to extend the boundaries of our manodharma.
Her style was testimony to the great patanthara she followed of the doyens of Carnatic music right from childhood. As a young girl of seven, her parents noticed the talent in their child and put her under the tutelage of Palghat Vaidyanatha Iyer in Thiruvananthapuram. At the tender age of 10, she gave her first performance before Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bai of Kerala. Spellbound by her prodigal ability, the Maharani gifted her a gold chain. Marriage at the age of 13 to Venkateshan, an ardent lover of music, helped her blossom and she went on to become one of the finest artists of our times. It was then that she had the golden opportunity to be trained in the gurukula paddati by great artists such as Thanjavur Shankar Iyer and later Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. This enabled Maami to come out with her own unique expression of music, which she honed to perfection. Be it her impeccable rendering of compositions or delineation of ragas, her music was the essence of what we can term Raga Music.
Love for Hindustani
She was also trained in Hindustani music by Pandit Rama Rao Naik. This enabled her to render bhajans with great beauty and ease. In fact, she had a deep love for Hindustani ragas such as Brindavana Saranga, Hindola, Behag, Amir Kalyani and Yaman to name a few. She truly was a class apart and while handling such ragas, she touched a chord that few are capable of.
Niraval singing was undoubtedly her forte. The meaning of the lyrics and bhava of the raga were embellished with her wonderful ideas. It was an expression of her innermost feelings without compromising on the purity or the grammar of Carnatic music. She laid utmost stress on extempore sarva laghu and raga bhava without much emphasis on pre-calculated or kalpitha calculations.
Maami often recalled what her guru Semmangudi said: “God has given women beautiful voices, so there is no need for any unwanted circus in manodharma.”
When we went to her the first time, we never knew what aspects of music were completely governed by manodharma. She beautifully and effectively guided us into its fold without making us learn by rote, whether it was raga, neraval or kalpanaswara.
She had this incredible ability to make us learn the toughest lesson with utmost ease, never allowing us to feel disheartened. The vast number of compositions we learnt were first taught without notations; only after we learnt a kriti did she give us the notation for reference.
Yet another aspect of Maami’s style was perfect concert planning. Her insatiable thirst for knowledge and passion to share her art were evident in the fact that she took the trouble to learn something new and impart it to all her students. She meticulously planned her lessons for the following class.
Added to this was her sharp memory at the age of 86, so much so that she rarely referred to books while teaching or performing. We used to call her a ‘walking encyclopaedia of music.’ Many a time, we would forget a sangati and she would promptly correct us.
What made her art so complete was her habit of listening to good music, whether the artist was young or old. Till recently, she attended many concerts and mentally made note of what she could learn from them. Such was her humility and great reverence to the art.
Every year, she would diligently attend the Chennai Music Season, a practice she followed for 50 years. In fact, she encouraged her students to do the same and introduced us to this grand event 23 years ago.
Maami was meticulous in everything she did. The way she dressed, her diamonds and her lovely saris, the way she kept her home – everything was a reflection of her persona.
She had an excellent sense of humour, and loved to have fun. Many a time, we would go out for lunch, dinner or vacations. She was a superb cook and we have had many gastronomic delights from her kitchen.
She has left a deep void in our lives. We thought our beloved Maami would go on and on, with her zest for life and positive approach. Indeed, we have lost a true friend, philosopher and guide in its deepest sense.
(The Saralaya Sisters are Carnatic vocalists based in Bengaluru.)