The soft and sweet voice on the other side of the phone sounds like that of a woman in her twenties or thirties. So I hesitantly ask for “Mrs. Alamelu Mani.” The voice responds, “That’s me,” belying the age – 76.

Alamelu Mani has just added another feather to her already adorned cap – the Dronacharya Award from The Rotary Club of Madras East. “I feel truly honoured that my work as a music teacher is being recognised time and again,” says Mani, who quietly completed 50 years as a teacher.

For a classical musician to be based in Mumbai and yet, make a name for herself in the Carnatic firmament is quite an achievement. And she has done so without much ado. She explains, “Actually, those days, Bombay too had a strong Carnatic base. Many stalwarts would perform here, and there were ample opportunities for artists like us to listen to and practise the classical art form,” reminisces the shy doyenne, who was the first head of the Shanmukhananda Music School, Mumbai.

Born into a household where the arts were revered, music came easily to young Alamelu. Her father, Varadhan, used to play the harmonium for Tamil dramas staged in Mumbai. “Thanks to him, musicians such as Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer and Papa Venkatramaiah, came and stayed with us. So, my sister Janaki and I were exposed to ragas and kritis early on. I was always humming some raga or the other and did so quite effortlessly. So my father decided to give us formal training.”

When Alamelu was 10, she and Janaki were put under the tutelage of H.A.S. Mani, who was running the South Indian School of Music, and had many students including the Bombay Sisters.

Alamelu recalls, “He (Mani) was a taskmaster and under his strict tutoring, both my sister and I blossomed.” What was, however, unexpected was a marriage proposal from Mani. “I was shocked initially, and refused at once. I still remember I told him it was one-sided love!” she laughs. “But he was determined, and sought my parents’ approval.” Alamelu’s father was only too happy with the idea and the 19-year-old married her 12 years senior guru in 1954. Son Hariharan arrived a year later to complete the family portrait.

Surprise win

Around that time, AIR announced its first ever music competition. Alamelu was among the 45 chosen vocalists. “I vividly remember the event. I had to travel to Madras. I was a nervous wreck when I saw the judges on the dais – Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer, Musiri, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu and Dandayudhapani Pillai, among others. Each of us had 15 minutes to sing RTP. I chose the Pantuvarali kriti ‘Paripalaya,’ and then left. So I had no idea I had won the Gold Medal. Later, I went to Delhi to collect my award from President Rajendra Prasad, a memorable moment.”

By 1960, having presented several cutcheris on AIR and other venues in Mumbai, recording a few albums, Alamelu decided to become a full-time Carnatic teacher. Things were going smoothly when tragedy struck. Her husband Mani suddenly passed away in 1963. Alamelu was just 28, and son Hariharan, eight. “It was a tough time, but music gave me solace.”

Something else happened to help Alamelu cope with her grief. “In 1964, (the doyenne) Brindamma came to Mumbai for her annual month-long vacation. She was staying with Aruna Sairam’s parents. Aruna’s mother introduced me to Brindamma, something I am ever grateful for. That meeting proved therapeutic in more ways than one. She taught me many padams and javalis. After that, she made ten trips to Mumbai, and every time, she taught me something new. A gentle soul, her voice and her words were a balm to my troubled soul.” Finally, Alamelu got to perform with her idol in 1992.

The other strong musical influence came from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. “During my visits to Chennai, I would visit Semmangudi Mama and learn some kritis from him.” She adds, “These music greats taught me a lot more than music… they helped me to respect and appreciate other artists and imbibe something from everybody.”

But why did she stay on in Mumbai when she could have moved down south? Pat comes the reply, “For the sake of my son, Hariharan. I did not want to disturb his studies and his music lessons. He was learning Hindustani classical at that time.”

Alamelu Mani made quite a few sacrifices, but she has no regrets. The veteran who appreciates the masters such as Brinda, M.D. Ramanathan, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, ‘Flute’ Mali and Ramnad Krishnan, is today at peace with herself. “For 50 years, I have trained over 1,000 students from all over the globe, and that I believe, is my life’s mission.”

The proud mother

That Alamelu Mani is proud of her only child’s achievements is evident when she talks about him. “Since he lost his father very early, we are very close. It would not be an exaggeration to say he’s my life.”

Despite the many musical arguments they have, the mother and son share a common love for classical music. “Whenever we travel together, we communicate only through ragas. I begin a raga alapana, he improvises on it, then I add swaras… it goes on till we reach our destination.” Does she listen to his film songs? “Not all of them. But I like his ghazals, as I like Hindustani music.”

Equally proud is Alamelu when she talks about her two grandsons who too have strong a musical sensibility.

Keywords: Carnatic music