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Dignity personified

D. K. Pattammal is a remarkable musician. Titles and honours have adorned her. Yet she amazes one with her humility. LAKSHMI DEVANATH writes...

``SHE IS 82... a lot has been written about her... What can you add...'' D. K. Pattammal's husband and mentor, Mr. Easwaran tries to discourage me from talking to the veteran. But I persist and he relents. Also he stays to listen. As Pattammal spoke we embarked on a journey. The odyssey revealed the toil and sweat that go into the making of a great artiste, that success is something, not to be envied but appreciated. Titles galore and honours aplenty have adorned her. However, Pattammal is the personification of humility, born out of wisdom and not out of knowledge. This is how she began:

``I don't like to take the credit for all the success that you are attributing to me. I thank God for all the gifts and support given to me in various forms. Do you know that I was the first woman from a Brahmin family to ascend the concert platform.''

This achievement she owes to the first man in her life - her father. Damal Krishnaswamy Dikshitar defied the social norms of his time and launched his young daughter `Patta' as a concert artiste. It was a proud Rajammal (mother) who watched her little prodigious daughter successfully storm what was hitherto considered a male bastion. ``Not just my mother, my mother-in-law too was very proud of me.'' DKP reminisces.

The unstinted support of her life partner, the second man in her life, was also a very significant factor in the recognition of Pattammal - the musician. Assessing the true worth of Pattammal's unlimited potential and realising that his career could probably stand in her way, Easwaran did not hesitate to resign his job in 1942 - just within three years of their marriage and devoted himself to promoting his wife's career. Thus fortified by supportive pillars on all the sides Pattammal not only quickly reached the pinnacle of achievement and fame but also stayed there.

Pattammal leans back and reminisces: `` In those days, I never thought about anything but music. My father would wake me up at 3 a.m., wipe my eyes with water and then make me practice. I sang up to 6 a.m., took a short break and then practised again from 8 a.m. Facilities like tape-recorder and scripted songs were not available then.'' Memory being the only learning and recording tool available, music aspirants were required to work hard. A kriti had to be memorised to the extent that it could be recalled at will. In the process it acquired a refinement that left a lasting impression on both the singer and the listener.

She draws my attention to the contrasting situation of today. ``The present generation is undoubtedly very intelligent. But look at the number of activities they are involved in. Academically, they aim at reaching great heights. In addition they learn swimming, karate, tennis...hmmm, one should put in a minimum of three to four hours of singing in a day. It is an absolute must.''

At this point she breaks off and remarks - ``If any child is willing to take this up as a full time subject, the Government of India should take care of all related expenditure. This is my request to the Government. Please do not forget to mention it.''

``But... in spite of all their varied activities, the children are doing exceedingly well and there seems to be a big spurt in music...''

``Oh yes, I agree that there is a vast spread of music. Unfortunately it is a spread without depth. (Sings the first line of Brova-vamma in Manji and draws my attention to it). Observe, Inda azhuttamoda Padanum (it should be sung with this emphasis and emotion). I learnt this from Nayana's mother. When she sang the phrase `Devi thaalla,' I cried. Such was the feeling she evoked with those words. At a later date I remember Rukmini Devi crying when she heard me sing this song. My sincere advice is that if you have chosen this subject, devote your life to it.'' She declares with an air of finality.

Pattammal echoes the views of most members of her generation. ``One hour of morning practice is equal to two hours of slogging at any other time of the day. You know, even now on the days I feel like singing I get up at 4-30 a.m. I made Nitya (Nityashree) get up at 4 a.m. and practice. Practising varnam in two kalams is of supreme importance and one should draw up a practice schedule and stick to it.''

Thus Pattammal worked with such concentration that her treasury soon overflowed with kritis of different kinds. Also, considering the lack of facilities, it was amazing that she acquired a vast repertoire that evoked the admiration of veterans like K. V. Narayanaswamy.

Pattammal with her characteristic humility says, ``Honestly I feel I do not know much but one must learn a wide variety of songs for a proper understanding of different aspects of this subject. My repertoire includes songs of Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri, many songs of Dikshitar (which I learnt from T. L. Venkatrama Iyer), Gopalakrishna Bharati, Papanasam Sivan, (that I learnt from Sivan himself) Tiruppugazh and Tevaram that I learnt from Appadurai Achari, Bharatiyar songs (these I tuned myself), many pallavis from Tirupati Narasimulu Naidu and several others.

``Pallavi Pattammal'', as she was admiringly known, invaded another closely guarded male terrain quietly but surely. Pattammal reveals with a glint in her eye, ``The Pallavi formed the main item in my concert. You know Dr. V. Raghavan would look forward to the Pallavis that I presented in the Academy year after year.'' But probably what she considers as the ultimate tribute was that mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer appreciated her laya gnanam and accompanied her on several occasions. ``Mind you, not in the capacity of a sambandhi but in recognition of my vidwat,'' she smiles and adds ``he has said this on several occasions.'' Therefore, it is not surprising that she disapproves of the abridgement and sometimes total eschewal of this all- important item in a concert.

``I feel that the Pallavi should stand out in a concert. It should be preceded by a very potent raga alapana. T. L. Venkatrama Iyer even taught me Dasavida tanam. In the Pallavi there should definitely be some vishamam (a tricky calculation). For example even if it is the 32 aksharas of Adi tala you can divide it like this (demonstrates by singing tisra nadai for the laghu totalling 12 beats and khanda nadai for the drutam adding to twenty beat). Those days we also had this practice of singing the varnam and Pallavi in the same raga. My interest in laya originated from listening to Nayana Pillai's concerts.''

``But the present day trend is not one of merely abridged Pallavis but condensed concerts...''

Pattammal cuts in, ``I agree, you know in those days, the audience was also equally dedicated. They had great expectations from the artiste and would listen with attention. The audience and the artiste shared a mutual respect. I have myself performed concerts of seven-hour duration with three tanis! Also I have performed five hour concerts and...'' Mr. Easwaran adds ``Some members of the audience would go to do their Sandhyavandanam and come back! ``Those days cutcheries were attended mostly by music lovers. The audience today is of a miscellaneous nature. Some of them come for mere entertainment or other compulsions and leave midway through the concert.'' DKP adds softly ``We find a change in the value system all around. Youngsters are also not very respectful towards the elders.''

``Can you tell us about the fabled Nayana Pillai?''

``I grew up listening to Nayana's concerts but never learnt directly from him. However my patantaram includes his as I learnt many songs from his sishya, N. S. Krishnaswamy Iyengar. One should have heard Nayana sing Sukhi Evvaro (Kanada), Budhiradu (Sankarabharanam) and... What a deep sonorous voice he had! It used to fill the hall though there was no mike in those days. He would sing Pallavi alone for 3 1/2 hours and follow it up with Tiruppugazh. His laya gnanam was astonishing. Whether he physically maintained talam or not he had a superb control over rhythm. He would sing swaram in four different places for a kriti! Above all his music had Kachchitam (precision).''

What do you mean by Kachchitam?

``See, there are many things that go to make up good music. One important aspect is proportion. By this I mean the proportion of Kalpana to Kalpitam i.e. how much of manodharmam should be there with reference to any particular song. My advice is that it should be in accordance to the size and musical depth of the song. There is no need to produce a deluge of kalpana swarams. Also I do not approve of singing Kalpana swarams without raga bhavam. Talking of alapana, here again there is no need for extensive elaboration. A five-minute exposition that brings out the essence of the ragam is more than sufficient. Another important aspect of good singing is correct uchcharipu (pronunciation). There should be no pada-chedham (indiscriminate splitting of words). As a child I sang everyday before the Paramacharya of Kanchi. He said that I was blessed with Vak suddham.'' That was a great asirvadam for me. Later in my career as a professional musician I often sought the guidance of linguistic scholars. Bhasha gnanam is important for bhava-laden singing. This should be coupled with bhakti.

``Bhakti towards God or music?''

``Undoubtedly towards both. And we should have bhakti towards great composers like the `Trinity' as well. It is indeed our great fortune that we have the privilege of singing their compositions. We should meditate on their compositions. Thanks to them we are surviving. Unfortunately today money seems to be the most important factor. It is around this that everything revolves.''

And her thoughts now dwell on her musician brother, D. K. Jayaraman. ``He was really like camphor, so quick was his grasp. My other two brothers D. K. Ranganathan and D. K. Nagarajan also sing very well. In fact, Nagarajan teaches a lot of students in the U.S. - where he stays.''

``Jayaraman accompanied you in several concerts. How did you sort out the pitch variation.?''

``I should admit that it was a strain on him to sing to my pitch. In trying to match it he would unconsciously throw his neck back while singing. This later on became a habit as you might have noticed in his concerts. But he insisted on accompanying me saying that he owed it to me as his teacher. T. N. Rajarathnam Pillai used to refer to him as Isai Thambi. I remember Lalgudi Jayaraman once complimented my brother saying that his music had several good ingredients like sruti suddham, laya suddham, pathantara suddham, sahitya suddham and several other suddhams.

At this point Mr. Easwaran takes leave wondering if it is not time for us to wind up.

But Pattammal continues, ``I have toured around the world but there is no place like India. Even today I teach students, take care of some household chores and my husband still plays tennis... Dikshitar shed his mortal coils as he sang the lines `Meena lochani, Pasha mochani.' (this song describes the Devi as one who liberates the human being from worldly bondage) (Sings). I have no desire for the riches of the world. I have one last wish. I would like to die while singing.'' Her eyes shine with tears. It is time for me to leave.

There is total stillness everywhere. I pick up my things and quietly shut the doors of Shanta Sadan behind me. As I drive homewards bits and pieces of the conversation keep coming back to me. I hear her soft endearing voice. ``We should conduct our life with dignity...'' I recall the casual remarks of Vidwan S. Rajam - ``Pattammal's voice matched the dignity of Dikshitar's kritis.'' ``Dignified'' yes, that perfectly sums up both the lady and her music.

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