It is the third day of the Chithirai Brahmotsavam (Chithirai Peruvizha) of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. The simmering heat not withstanding, the milling crowd heads towards the temple and the asthana nagaswara vidwans are getting ready for their concerts. After the darshan, we set out to meet the octogenarian nagaswaram vidushi Madurai M.S. Ponnuthayi, once a regular at the temple festivals.

Today, living on a paltry pension of Rs.1,000 and supported by her only son, this first lady of nagaswaram, who was once a sought after musician within the State and without, has turned philosophical and accepts life as it comes.

Though she belonged to a family of musicians well versed in the flute, the violin and the mridangam, her father decided to train her in nagaswaram. Shifting base from their native village Ayakkudi near the Palani Hills, to Madurai, Ponnuthayi came under the tutelage of Madurai Natesa Pillai. The veteran recalls, “Classes would begin in the morning and would go on for hours. In fact, my guru was criticised for teaching a tiny girl.” The instrument requires plenty of lung power and energy to produce sound in a sustained manner for several hours. Hence, the nagaswaram was dominated by male players.

Rigorous practice

After classes, practice at home went on for hours. “These hours and hours of practice helped me overcome the initial struggle of even producing a note. My arangetram was in the 1940s. A huge crowd had gathered curious to see who the nine-year old girl playing the nagaswaram was, which hitherto was considered a male bastion. Soon the word spread and I was called to play as a supporting artist for many leading vidwans. Concerts with T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, Tiruvengattaar and Tiruveezhimizhalaiyar are still etched in memory. I was just in my teens then!” Ponnuthayi has even played in the presence of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.

“I played for AIR Tiruchi first in 1946 and this went on till about 1989. This helped a lot in my name spreading faster. Offers to play at temple festivals and marriage functions started pouring in. Naturally, I formed my own group comprising support nagaswaram, thavil players and talam. It was support from temples that helped sustain us. Getting noticed at such festivals earned us opportunities to play in marriages. I was never bogged down by the taxing schedules of temple processions which went on for 12 hours at times! As if to prove a point against my detractors, I withstood this strenuous schedule, thanks to the Blessings of the Almighty,” Ponnuthayi remembers and shows us some old photographs of hers with child-like enthusiasm.

“My popularity grew beyond Madurai and I started playing elsewhere in the State. Once during a performance in Kerala, I received a medal from the organisers after I was pitted to play against a local nagaswaram player. Mind you, it was an impromptu competition.” She has played continuously for three years in the late 40s in Sabarimalai, as a thanksgiving to Lord Ayyappan, the presiding deity of the temple, whom she believes, saved her life when she was seriously ill during a concert tour of Kerala. She considers her concert at the Second World Tamil Conference a prestigious one.

Ponnuthayi has many titles to her credit, the first being ‘Nada Gana Arasi' awarded by the Madurai Tamil Sangam and the last being the Kalaimamani. She values the appreciation of the audience during and after a concert more than titles and awards. “It is those humble words of appreciation that pep up the proceedings for me,” she says.

The master of Thodi

Her favourite ragam and player? “Thodi and TNR,” pat comes the reply. She continues, “Yes there are other ragams that I like but with Thodi, we can go on exploring its depths for hours. Again, TNR was the master of it.”

Incidentally, Microsoft has taken a recording of Ponnuthayi's Thodi to be played at its headquarters in the U.S. under the category of Indian Music. Apart from M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ponnuthayi was the only other woman musician from South India to have been featured in an exhibition in Japan several decades ago. “An American girl Karisha King who visited this exhibition came all the way to learn nagaswaram from me for about a year.”

Happily married to Madurai Chidambara Mudaliar, she went on to scale greater heights as he encouraged her tremendously. He was a Legislative Council Member for about three years and was part of the Congress party. It was after his passing away in 1972 that her professional life took a downward slide; engagements for playing in weddings abruptly stopped because of the prevalent stigma of a widow playing the mangala vadyam.

About music then and now, Ponnuthayi has this to say. “We had to really toil hard to learn a kriti or a ragam. It took several months before we could master them. Today it is vice versa. Everything is available in capsules and is just a click away. Kritis are grasped at a rapid pace and forgotten as quickly.” She demonstrates by singing the Hamsadhwani varnam which she learnt when she was nine. The sruti alignment at this ripe age is something unbelievable.

Her grandson Vigneswaran, a mridangam vidwan, has started learning the basics of nagaswaram from her. He teaches music in a local school and heads a group called Madurai Ponnuthayi Isai Alayam that gives Carnatic performances in and around Madurai. Ponnuthayi also teaches music to the locals there. Vigneswaran is planning to start a music school in his grandmother's name to perpetuate both music and Ponnuthayi's name.

As Ponnuthayi blows the seevali to pose for photographs, we request her to play. But she politely turns us down saying she is weak. As this writer takes leave of her, he remembers the days when his father would tune in to AIR Tiruchi with difficulty just to listen to late night concerts of Ponnuthayi and make everyone at home listen to her.