Did you know that a singer born in the city became one of the most popular recorded women artistes in South India? Subha J Rao finds out more about Coimbatore Thayi
Coimbatore, 1872. A daughter was born to celebrated singer Vengamaal. She named her Palanikunjaram. The little girl grew up amid music and dance — her grandmother was the famous courtesan and dancer, Visalakshi. They belonged to a culturally rich devadasi family where the arts were revered. The child, affectionately called Thayi, was introduced to sadir (as Bharatanatyam used to be called) and music. In 1908, she was among the most popular singers in Madras. The Gramaphone Company even allotted two weeks for the Coimbatore Thayi Recording Sessions. A few years on, Thayi slid into oblivion.
But biographer Vikram Sampath is reviving her memories as part of a book on women singers.
Thayi’s was a natural talent. She learnt Kannada songs after a chance meeting with singer Mysore Kempe Gowda. By the 1890s, in her prime, she moved to Madras, and set up residence in George Town, where most devadasis lived. Veena Dhanammal was her friend and teacher. Eventually, Thayi gave up dance and focussed on music, narrates Vikram.
The Gramophone Company set foot in South India in 1904. Among their early recording artistes were Salem Godavari, Kancheepuram Dhanakoti Ammal and Bangalore Nagarathnamma. Soon, Coimbatore Thayi joined the list. From August 1908 to the first week of September that year, they had the ‘Coimbatore Thayi Recording Sessions’. “Those days, records were colour coded based on the artiste’s popularity. Thayi was coded violet, which indicated she was most popular,” he says.
The French connection
Thayi was also a prolific recording artiste; she cut about 300 discs in her lifetime. She was popular abroad too. In 1911, a French musician Maurice Delage heard her soft, bhakti-filled voice in Paris and was smitten. He wrote to his teacher, Maurice Ravel, about her microtonal effects and variations (gamakas) and voice. “It sent chills up and down my spine”, he wrote. He met Thayi in Madras and even composed two sets of Western music pieces— Quatre Poèmes Hindous, one each dedicated to the cities of Madras, Banaras, Lahore and Jaipur; and a Ragamalika said to be inspired by Thayi’s rendering of an arutpa.
Thayi died early (in her 40s), but she left behind a rich repertoire of songs, including the compositions of Tyagaraja, Shyama Sastri and Dikshithar, padams, javalis, the Thirupugazh… Sadly, most of them are lost to time. However, some of them can be heard on YouTube and Vikram’s Archive of Indian Music.
The recording those days was not of great quality. “Recording was a logistical nightmare. The artistes had to sing into a horn; people would hold their hands and push their head into the horn so that their voices were audible,” says Vikram. But, Thayi and her contemporaries made a lot of money in these recordings. They knew how to strike a bargain. And, they had attitude. Many showed nationalist tendencies and did their bit for the Independence struggle. They also loved to dress up. There are stories of how they would sport their finery and wear exquisite jewellery for a recording, so what if their only audience was the horn!
It is unfortunate, says Vikram, that though Thayi has always been associated with Coimbatore, courtesy her name, little else is known about her. Photographs show a woman with a quiet dignity about her. But, what was her life like? How did she spend her childhood? Thanks to some existing recordings, we know that she sang her heart out into the horn. And that she had a voice which touched a chord even in faraway Paris.
(If you know something about Coimbatore Thayi and have access to photographs and anecdotes or her relatives, write to email@example.com)