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Uncompromising standard

A descendant of the great Veena Dhanammal, octogenarian vocalist Mukta recalls her childhood and her grooming as musician K. N. SASHIKIRAN listens.

Vocalist Mukta.— Pic. by K. Gajendran.

THE NON-COMPROMISING lineage of the all time great Veena Dhanammal has been instrumental in preserving a very special musical treasure house. To put it in simple words, the Dhanammal tradition music belongs to the elite and five-star group. The adherents would neither compromise on their attitude or the quality of music.

Brinda and Mukta formed one of the earliest duos among women musicians. And the combination came to be known for the rendition of padams and jawalis.

A sculpted figure of Veena Dhanammal greets one at the entrance to the Gandhinagar residence of Muktha. The doyen is warm and what followed was a rewarding session in which Muktha touched on various issues relating to music. Excerpts:

You were born in a family of musicians. How did it feel as a child to be the grand daughter of Dhanammal? Were you aware of your lineage?

Well, I was made aware that the household breathed music. The presence of Veena Dhanammal could be felt by her mere movement, leave alone her music. She did not attach much importance to anything else. She had four daughters who are also musically trained of which the second daughter, who was known as "Chinna Kutty Ammal" was extra special. Leading musicians would frequent our house to hear the great Dhanammal perform. My sister, T. Brinda, I was told, sang ``Chethulara" even when she was around four.

How did your formal education begin in music?

To speak the truth, I imbibed music mostly through kelvignanam.( Knowledge through listening). Since there was abundant music at home, my mother Kamakshi Ammal, the fourth daughter of Dhanammal taught my sister Brinda a few kritis, geethams and varnams, to which I was also exposed. Brinda could sing fairly well even at the tender age of seven. My mother also made sure that Brinda learnt a few more varnams from a violinist by name Sundareswaran who used to accompany my aunts Lakshmiratnam, Chinnakutty, Periyakutty, my mother and Balasaraswathy's mother. I remember, once Abdul Kareem (Hindusthani vocalist) visited our house. Brinda was woken up from sleep and she straightway started to sing ``Chetulara." My mother decided to take us to Kanchipuram Nayanaa Pillai. Incidentally, elders in my family believed that music should not be the main profession of men and hence boys were never taught the art. However, my cousins T. Viswa (nathan) and T. Ranga( nathan), were exceptions.

My mother felt that Brinda and I should equip ourselves by learning more number of Tyagaraja Krithis apart from learning to render kalpanaswaram, Tiruppugazh and so on from the Pallavi maestro himself. Naayanaa Pillai could play the ganjira as well. Here, I must mention an interesting anecdote. On hearing both of us sing, Naayana Pillai, told my mother, "Kamakshi, I will teach Brinda, but not this girl. This girl is not fit to learn Music." My mother retorted, "You teach Brinda, let this girl simply sit and listen." Naayanar Pillai reluctantly agreed. My mother put us in school at Kanchipuram. However we did not pursue our education beyond a stage.

Did you ever get to learn the basic exercises? I am not exaggerating. I learnt only by constantly hearing Brinda as she practised, and since I accompanied her in concerts, I got to learn everything that she did. My mother, meanwhile, requested Pillai's mother who used to sing along with her sister (Kamakshi Ammal and Dhanakoti Ammal,) to teach me. She obliged and taught me right from the basic varisai.

She had a very good voice even at that age (70 years). She taught me the exact way to practise akaram ukaram ikaram and so on. (Mukta amma beautifully demonstrates) Brinda and I used to sing these exercises early mornings before going to school. Back from school, we used to practice for another hour or so and by 6 p.m., Nayana Pillai would start his classes for Brinda.

He taught her over 100 compositions of Thyagaraja Swami (whom Muktha Ma refers to as Iyerval). He also made her sing kalpanaswaras, neraval raga alapana and so on. Some of the master pieces that Nayana Pillai taught include ``Maragadha Manivarna" (in Varali) ``Everimata" and ``Aadhayashreeraghu" (Aahiri) . (Demonstrates a couple of them.)

(She demonstrates a couple of them)

How did Nayana Pillai acquire such a rich repertoire of Tyagaraja Krithis?

He knew many compositions, but I remember a person by name Ramani Chetty who used to play Jalatarangam apart from organising a large scale Tyagaraja Aradhana festival in which leading artistes would participate. He also used to sing and has taught many musicians a number of Tyagaraja's Krithis. Nayaanar Pillai also learnt from him.

And what about the rare geethams and Varnams we have heard you sing?

We learnt a few rare geethams from a person by name Thenmattu Varadachari Iyengar who used to play the veena and the violin. The rare Ramayana Varnam (``Rama Ninne" in Karaharapriya) is only known to the Brinda-Muktha school and was taught by Nayana Pillai. Though he did not teach me on a regular basis, I had the privilege of learning from him on Vijayadasami Day every year. He taught me the pallavi of ``Sri Janaki Manohara" (a rare krithi of Tyagaraja). It was my greatest fortune that he used to bless me on Vijayadasami day. Nayana Pillai also taught Brinda four varnams not known to our family _

``Kamalakshi" (Kambhoji) and a varnam each in ragas Sri, Sankarabharanam and Nayaki. From whom did you learn Thevarams, Patnam Subramania Iyer Krithis, Subbaraya Sastry Krithis and Dikshithar compositions.

Chinnakutty Amma taught Brinda a number of varnams which included rare ones in Yadukula Kamboji. She also taught a large number of Dikshtar Krithis, Patnam Subramaniya Iyer Krithis. These besides 30-50 padams and javalis and Subbaraya Sastry Iyer krithis which have come as a treasure to our family through a couple of his direct disciples in Kanchipuram. We also learnt Thevarams from Tevaram Swamy an, erudite scholar. Guru Nayana Pillai asked my mother to let us perform in Kanchipuram during his last days. Brinda and I sang in the festival organised by him. At the end of the concert, he told my mother, ``Kamakshi, forgive me, this girl sang extremely well. I take back my words for not having accepted her as my disciple." Brinda and I were started on veena tuitions from none other than Veena Krishnamachari. I gave up after some time. Dhanammal who listened to our practice sessions was amused by our style of play. She taught Brinda the Begada Varnam and Kamboji varnam. We also learnt a few Swati Tirunal Krithis from M. A. Kalyanakrishna Bagavathar for a special national concert programme for AIR.

We have heard that a person named Baladoss was the one who taught Dhanam Padams and Javalis?

You are right! It was, however, Dhanamma who structured and polished them. Dhanamma was also a good singer who used to sing with her sister in concerts. Dharmapuri Subbarayar who was himself a composer of javalis used to frequent our house and sing javalis composed by him. And he would exclaim, ``This is only the outline, please fill it out and embellish it." And that was precisely what Dhanamma did.

In this context, it is said that Dharmapuri Subbarayar composed the Paras-javali, ``Smarasundarangum" in the house of Dhanammal? Well, I'm not sure of that. But it is a beautiful jawali and Dhanammal rendered it beautifully Tiruvotriyur Tyaga Iyer, a popular composer of varnams, was also a direct associate to Dhannama, who was keen on learning new compositions, whether or not she had great regard for the source otherwise.

You have performed in all the major Sabhas. Haven't you?

We performed for the Jaganmatha Bhakta Samajam, also regularly performed for Music Academy. For several years, we were slotted for night concerts only where we performed for the erudite listeners apart from other musicians.

Did you ever get to sing at marriage receptions?

Oh yes. During childhood, we sang a number of chillarai urupadi or tukudas) which are popular these days. We learnt a few from Ariyakkudi's student, Vaitha. For instance, ``Vaishnava Janatho," ``Ratiname," ``Chakkrayudam" (Chenchuruti) and so on.

The gamaka-oreinted bani is considered to be dragging one. The entire style is slow paced but those who are associated with your concerts have heard a lot of Madhyama Kala Krithis.

We do know a number of Madhyama Kala Krithis, which we always believed should be rendered during the first few songs of the concert. Brinda, in fact had a Briga saariram and could sing super fast passages efffortlessly. She would sometimes even stare at me if I didn't attempt some of those passages. However, my voice is not as fast paced. Brinda, who was by nature similar to Dhanammal, was an extremely versatile person. She was adept at embroidery apart from being an excellent cook. I was however not that brilliant. The only time Brinda made use of my musical inputs were for recollecting the passages of a forgotten song.

Having learnt from so many Gurus, how did you mould it into one Bani?

We predominantly retained whatever was taught to us by our Gurus. But since we also learnt from male artistes Brinda, with her tremendous musical abilities, structured it into our family pattern. The other advantage was that we were exposed to more of our family music.

What do you think about today's aspiring musicians and your advice to them?

There are many who are intelligent these days. However we always sang music for the art's sake and did not compromise the standards to attain fame, name, money or awards. Present youngsters probably should realise that singing long alapanas with repeated usage of same phrases makes music redundant. The essence of the Raga is best brought out by understanding the Swaroopa by constant hearing of great masters.

About your experience abroad?

Vishwa had arranged a concert in Wesleyan University and other universities. I did enjoy performing there. It was a different crowd since they were predominantly westerners. They treated us with a lot of dignity. The Cleveland Tyagaraja festival was especially good. It was predominantly the Mylapore crowd. Very knowledgeable Rasikas, who appreciated the concert.

How about your teaching experience?

My family is generally accused of not grooming a lot of people. However, I have been an exception. In fact I have taught padmas, javalis to almost all genuine singers. Nirmala Sunderarajan, Nirmala Parthasarathy, her daughter Subhashini Parthasartahy and Sowmya and many more are actively performing apart from several others who have learnt a few compositions. I have also taught at institutions like Music Academy, C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer Foundation and many more.

Do you remember your major awards?

(Calls daughter Lakshmi for help) Sangeeth Natak Academy Award in 1973 amongst other awards. I don't set much store by all these awards and rewards. I owe it all to my Guru. One has to sing honourably and stop performing when one feels one may not be able to perform perfectly.

I left the place after taking her blessings with thoughts about the virtues of this great artiste — humility, modesty, reverence to Gurus and dedication to art and the quest for perfection and above all a strong will to overcome obstacles — all of which have made her a musician of extraordinary calibre.

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