It was her mother's dream and Savithri Satyamurthy fulfilled it by mastering the violin and passing on the tradition to three generations of students.
As the Sangita Kalanidhi of the year, her guru was one of the judges at the Music Academy (Chennai) violin competition. The assembled vidwans greeted the 14-year-old disciple's Sankarabharanam with `Bhesh!' and `Sabhaash!' But the girl got the second prize. An angry Papa Venkatramiah openly declared that she should refuse to accept the prize. The guru explained, "You played brilliantly. But can I overlook the first phrase where you oscillated the gandhara in a manner suggestive of Kalyani?'' "What an unforgettable lesson!" exclaims violinist Savithri Satyamurthy, moist-eyed as she recalls guru Rajamanickam Pillai's just impartiality.Savithri grew up listening to grandmother's `pedal' harmonium. Her mother dreamt of the violin that she was prohibited from learning because the available teachers were men. She longed to fulfil her ambition through her children. Young Savithri alone showed interest, with initial lessons in Hosur from Madurai Subramania Iyer. In Madras, the training continued with Kattuputhur Ramakrishna Iyer, whom she also began to accompany in concerts. A shift to Tiruchi brought strict tutelage of Erode Viswanatha Iyer.Performance began at age 12. A lucky pairing with Ariyakkudi's disciple Dhanammal made the maestro notice the child. "Are you my friend Seshiar's grand daughter? All right, from now onwards I will take care of you," said he. That is how Savithri became the inmate of Ariyakkudi's household for three years in Kumbakonam, with K.V.Narayanaswami, Madurai Krishnan and Rajam Iyer as co-disciples. As Dhanam's accompanist, she found herself most privileged. Ariyakkudi did not teach directly. He would sit on the swing and sing. Sishyas would absorb by listening. But he made Savithri join the direct lessons he gave Dhanammal, as the girl became her regular accompanist.One day, the master said, "Go and learn from Rajamanickam Pillai." The girl walked down to the next street with her violin for lessons on the tinnai. Savithri smiles, "My life was between oonjal and tinnai on those two streets. Concert tours with them provided great learning experience." From Pillai, she absorbed the art of accompaniment. "Pillai was six feet tall dwarfing Flute Mali on the stage. But he never forgot that Mali was the main artiste. For five minutes' alapana by the main artiste, Pillai took three minutes.
Emphasis on team workFor two avartanams of kalpanaswaram, he took one. "Show all your skills within that," he would smile. He thought brevity brought not only crispness but depth as well. He emphasised teamwork. "If the singer is not very good, you must still make the concert good, but without domination or overshadowing," he advised her.Directions changed with marriage. Savithri bloomed as a teacher. "I have three generations of students!" She played for local artistes, the AIR, and for top vidwans visiting Bombay. She learnt from T.Brinda who spent months teaching in Bombay, as also from her aunt Jayammal to whom she became particularly close. "I remember roaming and shopping with Bala (T. Balasaraswati)," she laughs. Savithri gravitated towards them during her Madras trips. The influence of the Dhanammal School deepened her musical awareness, particularly when she played for Bala's and Lakshmi Knight's dance."My music developed because of such interactions with musicians. They encouraged me wholeheartedly. Why, Ramnad Krishnan even wrote a letter appreciating my Sahana." Occasionally, she sang for Bharatanatyam recitals by students of the Rajarajeswari Dance School where daughter Anuradha studied. "Ariyakkudi had taught me vocal music. Rajamanickam Pillai too used to sing what he taught me to play." Returning to Madras in 1972 was to feel out of things. Krishna Gana Sabha opened its doors, but the Music Academy refused to recognise her despite recommendations by senior-most musicians. "The turning point came when Dr. S.Ramanathan told me, `I will teach your daughter, but henceforth you are going to be my violin accompanist.' " For eight years Savithri played for the master, a walking encyclopaedia of Carnatic music. After their recital at a Bombay seminar the late T.S.Parthasarathy of the Music Academy said, "Give me your address. No need to apply anymore for performance." Doyen Pinakapani asked, "Who are you? From where did you spring?" as he commended her violin's aesthetic qualities. Vidushis R. Vedavalli, Mani Krishnaswami and Suguna Purushottaman were happy with her support. "I was in Bala's house when M.S. came to visit. I ran and hid myself. But she found me and said, "Savithri? I heard you years ago in your debut at the Academy. You were so good that I was sorry you didn't get a solo turn during the viruttham." Subsequently, Savithri felt blessed to accompany M.S. in concerts and recordings.Teaching continued in Chennai, with children like R.K.Sriramkumar and Mullaivasal Chandramouli. Dr. Ramanathan made his playful pupil P. Unnikrishnan find direction from her exacting guidance. Daughter Anuradha teaches music in the U.S. A beaming Savithri discloses, "Do you know that she is now in the Guinness Book for her Kuchipudi arangetram at age 60?" Savithri's meticulousness is reflected on every page of notation transcribing the songs she has learnt over the decades from different gurus.The imposing files, packed with her neat hand, fill the shelves...The room is ablaze with colourful calendar pictures of Krishna ... stealing butter, sporting with Radha, playing the flute... "My best friend," she says with a smile matching the God's twinkle.(A fortnightly spotlight on music gurus, musicologists and representatives of different schools, who have enriched Carnatic music.)