A day after her guru’s Remembrance Day (October 31), Charumathi Ramachandran recalls the evergreen voice that was M.L. Vasanthakumari…

In the realm of Carnatic music, there have been many gurus and many sishyas. But not all gurus were known for their generosity of spirit. There have been stories of how sishyas struggled to survive in the homes of their gurus…

In that respect, I consider myself extremely fortunate. I had a guru who was not only a genius but also generous to a fault. In this year, which marks the 85th birthday anniversary of my Guru M.L. Vasanthakumari, and her Remembrance Day (October 31) yesterday, it is but right that I recall her munificent and giving nature on and off the stage.

My first guru was my mother Alamelu Viswanathan, a vocalist who trained under Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer in Kumbakonam. Along side, she also learnt to play the veena and violin even before she turned 13. At that point, my father’s family , which hailed from nearby Papanasam, heard her singing and playing the violin at the same time, and being interested in music, wholeheartedly accepted her as their daughter-in-law.

Though she was caught up in domestic duties, and bringing up seven children, my mother had music uppermost on her mind. When she realised that I had a natural talent for singing, she taught me songs from the time I was three. She knew all the great vidwans and vidushis of the time and had supported them in many ways. She attended many concerts, played the veena on the radio, and many artists visited her regularly, encouraged by my father who was himself a trained vocalist.

Becoming MLV's student

When I was 12, my mother felt that training under a great guru would help me in my musical journey. One evening, she took me to visit her close friend, M.L. Vasanthakumari, and made me sing a kriti before her. MLV Akka was getting ready for a concert that evening. She looked gorgeous, dressed in a silk sari which she had matched with a brocade blouse. Her long plait was adorned with jasmine flowers. Her face was bright with a big, red kumkum on her forehead. Her lips were coloured by the ‘paan’ she was chewing. Her eyes were shaped well and were full of keen intelligence. She had a warm smile.

She looked questioningly at my mother, asking “Enna mami?” (What is it, aunty?). My mother, anxiety writ large on her face, asked, “If Charu sings well, can you take her as your student?” I was staring at her all the while, taking in MLV Akka’s arresting personality. She laughed, looked at me and said, “Come on. Why don’t you sing a song?” After I sang, she told my mother, “Charu sings well. I think she can come up well… Fine, I will take her as my disciple. Send her in the evenings after school.” That was it! A brave shot that my mother had taken, found an accurate mark. I had found a wonderful guru, thanks to her.

Most evenings, after school, I would take a cycle-rickshaw from Santhome and go to her house on Edward Elliots Road. On the opposite side was the house of actress Padmini, who was MLV akka’s close friend. MLV called her Pappi. She had sung many hit songs for Padmini’s dance in films.

Sometimes, my guru would take me to Padmini’s house, much to my excitement. They would discuss dance sequences and songs. I remember Padmini’s face… it was as fresh as a rose.

Training on stage

After a couple of years of music lessons, I graduated to playing the tambura and singing along with my guru in concerts. She was very generous in her encouragement. During concerts, she would sing songs that I had learnt. One evening, at a wedding concert, which was being recorded by Appu (GNB’s son), Akka suddenly asked me to sing kalpanaswaras for a kriti. Though I was taken by surprise, I responded with a presence of mind and did a good job. After that, as they say, there was no looking back.

In almost all the concerts which I sang with her, Akka gave me a chance to sing neraval and swaras. (including AIR shows and commercial cassettes). Sometimes, she allowed me to sing a bit of alapana in tara (upper) sthayi. Then she started encouraging me to sing during the RTP. I realised that she was training me on the concert platform itself. Time and again, she voiced the opinion that music cannot not be taught during formal, sit-down lessons.

More generosity was in store for me. In 1977, when The Music Academy’s title, Sangita Kalanidhi, was announced for MLV, ghatam and mridangam maestro K.M. Vaidyanathan declared that she should sing a pancha-nadai (five laya combinations) pallavi and that I should sing along with her. Manoeuvring five types of rhythm is at best a tightrope walk on five different ropes. A minimum rehearsal was gone through as Akka did not like pre-rehearsed music. She relied totally on her spur-of the-moment brilliant improvisations. When I exhibited a presence of mind during the rendition (on stage) and stuck to a complicated talam with aplomb, I won praise from everybody on the stage and from that colossus in the audience – Subbudu -- the feared and revered critic, who gave generous praise to Akka and a little to me too. Those days, Subbudu’s praise was enough for an artist to move ahead with confidence.

Under her watchful eye and careful training, I soon developed all-round concert skills. Apart from this, MLV was generous other matters too. She shopped for gifts for her family, friends and her various staff members. On our maiden trip to Malaysia and Singapore in 1975, she bought many exotic gifts for everyone. She doted on her family. She gave me some dollars and made me shop for my whole family.

MLV Akka seemed very cheerful, but her mind was wrought with worries. However, they did not reflect in her music which was always a joyous burst of creativity. Her voice trilled like a nightingale with freshness and sweetness. And once on the concert stage, she breathed only Melody, Laya, and Virtuosity… just as her initials (MLV) denoted…

(The writer is a Carnatic vocalist and musicologist)