The 1930s and ’40s were turbulent and exciting times for women in the classical arts.
The old Devadasi system was on the wane, with legislation in 1928 outlawing the practice. Women from other communities were still hesitantly taking steps towards full-fledged performing careers. Among them, some pioneers were C. Saraswathi Bai, Vai Mu Kothainayakai Ammal and D.K. Pattammal, all of whom had their debut concerts in Madras city.
Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan, who passed away last week, was not in the same league as these women but she, along with several others like her, contributed to women from middle-class backgrounds becoming concert and recording artistes.
Born in 1928 in Madurai, her debut performance was in that town in 1939. That led to an invitation to perform for All India Radio. It was a time when it was unusual for girls from her strata in society to record. Ananthalakshmi’s grandmother insisted on visiting the studios and ascertaining the conditions for herself. The old lady was more than satisfied. AIR, she declared, was a very respectable institution as, unlike in concerts, it seated accompanying artistes at a considerable distance from the main performer! Above all, AIR only broadcast the voice and did not expose the face. Ananthalakshmi was then unmarried and if her picture had appeared in the press that would have dashed all prospects.
In 1943, Ananthalakshmi married and while waiting to join her husband at Simla, participated in the Music Academy’s annual competition. She won the gold medal and that brought her an invitation to record for the Gramophone Company of India (GCI) under the HMV label.
The Music Director at GCI was the talented but short-lived C.R. Subburaman, remembered today for his small but exquisite oeuvre of film songs. The recording took place at HMV’s studio just off Mount Road, in a building that no longer exists.
The Tamil Isai Movement had just begun, with Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar founding an institution that Rajaji christened Tamil Isai Sangam. Not many Carnatic music aficionados supported it, for the general belief was that Tamil was a non-musical language. It was then that Subburaman and Ananthalakshmi hit upon the idea of recording a full-length Tamil concert to be released as a kutcheri set, comprising several discs. Other kutcheri sets existed but none had an exclusive Tamil bill-of-fare. In Ananthalakshmi’s release, every song, from the varnam by Tiger Varadachariar to the mangalam by Arunchala Kavi, was in Tamil.
When released, the kutcheri set was hugely popular. It played a role in making people realise that Tamil was concert-worthy after all.
A husband with a transferable job made Ananthalakshmi perform concerts only sporadically thereafter, and in later years she became a guru.
When asked about the first Tamil concert recording, she would wave it aside and smile. If pressed, she would give all credit to Subburaman, saying that her only contribution was locating the varnam by Tiger.
But then, those were different times.