A rare gem of a musician

Carnatic vocalist Parassala B. Ponnammal.   | Photo Credit: S.GOPAKUMAR

Three of the biggest names in the history of Carnatic music are Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Syama Sastri.

There seems to be a general fascination with the number three and we can find many examples of it: The past, present and future or Satva, Rajas and Tamas or heaven, hell and earth….

The list of threes goes on and on, really.

In 20th century, in Carnatic music, the three women who generally are labelled the Trinity, are Vidushis M. S. Subbulakshmi, M. L. Vasanthakumari and D. K. Pattammal.

But, just like Carnatic music doesn’t begin and end with the Trinity of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, there have been and there are some extraordinary artistes who might not have received their due. Glowing like some sort of a rare gem, with a quiet and serene dignity in the little street of Valiasala in Thiruvananthapuram, is one of the greatest musicians Indian classical music has ever seen: Parassala B. Ponnammal.

Her biography reads like a list of “firsts.” She was the first female student to enroll in the newly started Swathi Thirunal College of Music in Thiruvananthapuram during the early 1940s. Later she became the first female member of the teaching faculty there. But since all this happened long before the advent of the media frenzy that we have now, she quietly lived her life, largely forgotten by the public, despite having taught music to literally thousands of students over several decades, at institutions ranging from the Cotton Hill Girls High School, Thiruvananthapuram, to the R.L.V.College of Music, Tripunithura.

I was fortunate enough to listen to several of her live concerts and radio relays during the 1980s and 90s when I used to study music with her neighbour and esteemed colleague, Professor Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer Sir.

From the time I was a teenager, I used to wonder why women were not allowed inside the Navarathri Mandapam, which, in fact, was the abode of a Female Deity. After questioning this tradition for more than two decades, finally the decision was taken, allowing women inside the Mandapam, both as performers and as listeners.

The question was, who would do the honours?

Though I had absolutely no contact with Ponnammal Teacher and though I didn’t know how healthy she was or not, I approached her and requested her to sing at the Mandapam.

The first time she sang there (not to mention the 10 subsequent times) remains an unforgettable evening in the memory of everyone who was fortunate enough to have been there. Opening with the grand Thodi Pada Varnam by Maharaja Swati Tirunal (which has, over the last decade, become one of the most often requested pieces for her) she left the entire gathering mesmerised!

Alhough this event received a lot of local media attention at the time, I felt that this was not enough and that the sterling music that Ponnammal Teacher delivered unfailingly, deserved to be heard by a larger section of music lovers all over the world.

Fortunately for all of us, YouTube had just arrived. Those days, it would take around four hours to get one minute of footage uploaded on my super slow, dial up connection.

But I used to stay up night after night and managed to upload a few videos of Ponnammal Teacher (recorded with a night vision camera from outside the Navarathri Mandapam) and started to send the links to all the music lovers I knew.

Enquiries started to flow in rapidly, as expected. Many people thought that this was some grand old lady from the 1950s whose videos I had managed to get somehow. All of them were shocked when I told them that this was recorded just a few months ago!

The concert invitations started to pour in, as did the awards.

Ponnammal Teacher who had spent pretty much all her life in Kerala, started to travel to places like Chennai regularly. During her mid 80s, she even made a tour of the United States! Her schedule became so tight that once she gave three full-length concerts in Chennai within the span of 24 hours! As her physical age continues to advance, her mental age as well as her musical prowess just seems to become more and more fresh and youthful! If you go to YouTube and search for ‘Parassala Ponnammal – Chala Kallaladu’ and ‘Parassala Ponnammal – Thillana - Hamsanandi’ you can treat yourself to her amazing artistry as it is right now, at the age of 93!

Despite all the awards and accolades that have come her way, she remains essentially the same. Sweet, grounded, gentle and utterly unpretentious. Unlike commercially successful, empire building new age Gurus who spout wellness advice and mint money, a typical conversation with Ponnammal Teacher would give one the feeling that one had spent some quality time with a beloved grandmother….simple talk, a lot of laughter and giggles and liberal doses of common sense and home spun wisdom, with not a hint of anything preachy about it. After every visit to her house, one feels cleansed and at peace, as though one had visited some sacred place.

In an era where much of the world follows the American maxim of “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!”, Ponnammal Teacher remains a quaint and extremely endearing anachronism, where her gestures, speech and body language, all serve to conceal the immense wealth of her knowledge rather than flaunt it.

Having been a woman in the learning, teaching and performing field so long ago, when it was next to unthinkable for a Brahmin woman to be doing what she did, she managed her entire career with not even a hint of a controversy or scandal, as she proudly says with a laugh. “I would not even move an inch or even gesture with my arms while singing, so that people would not think otherwise!” she quips.

The awards have been trickling in, during the past decade or so; the latest being the Padma Shri. In a set-up where many awards seem to be determined more by ‘Whom one knows’ rather than ‘What one knows’, this came as a pleasant surprise, though for most of us who are aware of Ponnammal Teacher’s real worth, we feel that it is too little too late.

But the lady herself quietly continues to revel in her vintage Anandabhairavis, Neelambaris and Thodis which are more precious than all the gold in the world.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 11:50:34 PM |

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