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The evergreen M.L. Vasanthakumari

M.L. Vasanthakumari: great Master, perfect disciple

With her own sparkling touches, MLV enhanced GNB’s innovative style

June 28, 2018 03:54 pm | Updated 06:48 pm IST

MLV would have been 90 on July 3. Had she lived, would she have been active or slowed down? We shall never know. What we do know is that MLV shall remain eternally fresh in our memories, bubbling with life — quite like her music. Just one word would suffice to sum up MLV — magnificent. But, I will call her ever-enthusiastic, positive and never jaded.

Carnatic music flowed constantly at my home. Both my father and my early-departed mother worshipped music, especially that of GNB. Dad and his group of friends were instrumental in the establishment of Bombay Shanmukhananda Sabha. GNB’s concerts were held to raise money for the sabha. GNB would go along to Plymouth Mani’s home, after the concert, where over dinner, the group would gather to discuss further measures for the sabha’s future.

MLV’s performances too were hugely popular in Bombay — both her own concerts and her singing for Padmini’s dance. MLV’s film singing was at an all-time high, and Padmini’s glamour drew huge crowds. MLV was that rarity — perfect both on the Carnatic stage, and as a vocalist for dance. Singing for daughter Srividya’s dance too was a delight for the audience. Urmila Satyanarayanan, student of K.N. Dandayuthapani Pillai had this to say —“in KND’s school the orchestras were permanently present.

“Even singers like M.L. Vasanthakumari would come to class almost daily [prior to a performance]. There were three vocalists on a permanent basis — Abirami, Yogam and Suryakala. Mridangist Karaikudi Krishnamurthy, and a flautist, violinist and harmonium player were there almost daily, during the rehearsals. It was common to see Srividya playing the veena while MLV sang.” [from Shanmukha ]

No challenge was too great for MLV — she was ever enthusiastically conquering new heights. Her ‘Shakuntalam’ for Rishi Valley students was a dance-drama with outstanding music — over 60 ragas were used in this effort. MLV carried some of the dance delights to the concert stage, even film numbers and tillanas became a regular finale in her concerts. Lalgudi’s tillanas were learnt and sung. “Her singing was so bold, like that of a male singer. She would visit my home to discuss, and learn, and keep the hired car waiting for even three hours, mindless of the cost. MLV was a perfect disciple, but she also added her own wonderful touches to the music she had learnt from GNB.” [as told to me by Lalgudi Jayaraman, in his home].

MLV’s repeated emphasis on certain key phrases, each with different effects, was perhaps an influence of singing for dance, where the dancer would portray different expressions and postures for the same phrase — phrases like ‘ thayige bai alli jagavanne thoridha’ of the child Krishna opening His mouth to show mother Yashoda the entire universe — it had an electrifying effect on the listener, who hungered for more.

MLV’s keenness to learn saw no limitations — she learnt abhangs, adding them to the concert repertoire long before today’s artistes claiming abhang territory, and some Annamayya kritis [Tirupati deity was her favourite god] — I’ve a recording of MLV at a Tirupati University concert, announcing the next song as somewhat folkish, and going on to thrill with ‘bhale tandanana’— long before it became popular. She learnt from T.M. Tygarajan, and from her own student Charumathi, whose musical acumen MLV always thought to be great.

Her inimitable style

MLV’s musical enthusiasm was so infectious, carrying along her accompanists, with whom she shared great rapport. Rare raga, rare talas, rare songs — it was just joyous adventure. ‘Prasannaroopam’ — Dikshitar’s use of this word typifies MLV — ‘joyous figure.’ Her singing of ‘Ekambranatham’ in Purvikalyani could bring tears to anyone hearing it — the young soaring voice scaling the raga, and a younger-voiced Charumathi matching her challenges. Dikshitar’s Yamunakalyani masterpiece ‘Jambupathe’ too has the inimitable MLV touch — I feel the subtle charm lies in MLV’s handling of the words ‘maam paahi’ and ‘nijananda’ — melding them together meltingly.

The greatness of GNB’s music was its freshness and constant strife to bring a newness to the old — new wine in the old bottle, so to say. He sought to learn, and thus instantly popularise, rarer kritis and ragas. The challenge must have been enormous, for many of the ragas were small, comprising just five notes, thereby giving less scope for elaboration. Ragas like Valaji, Tilang, Gambhira Nattai, Suddha Saveri, Abhogi, Andolika, Sriranjini, Jayantasri, etc., came to prominence, and MLV too revelled in these.

I used to always wonder at the audience, for MLV’s concerts — there were always so many men, many hardened old rasikas, with formidable knowledge of music, enough to make anyone nervous. But not MLV. Their ‘sabhash’ and vigorous nodding of the head spurred MLV to greater innovations on stage — out came flurries of ragamalikas, of titillating swaras, of manodharma at its best. GNB’s practice of ‘Sruti bhedam’ too was followed, sending the audience into a tizzy. The women, of course, would go home and try to sing like her, to recreate the magic. MLV willingly taught many students, many of them winning titles and honours. She also fostered great accompanists —Tiruvarur Bhaktavatslam Mannargudi Easwaran, Kanyakumari and G. Harishankar. M.S. Gopalakrishnan embarked on his career, willingly playing second fiddle to MLV. He marvelled at her music, and like GNB, MLV too appreciated MSG’s Hindustani acumen, and revelled in singing such ragas, when he was the accompanist.

Anything artistic or aesthetic appealed to MLV. She dressed well for the stage, and offstage too. Cooking was something she enjoyed, and of course, hosting friends lavishly was a must. Every Kalanidhi awardee was hosted at her house. She even had a temporary kitchen set up at home for Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s meat dishes, during his visit. Nothing was ever too much trouble. Her generosity was legendary, as was her shopping.

The beauty is that most of her shopping was done to be given as gifts — she never forgot anyone, least of all her faithful taxi driver. She made lifelong loyal friends. She would make time to do two things definitely when travelling — visit friends and the local temple, between concerts.

Her enthusiasm was varied — from cricket, to films. Comedy sent her into hearty laughter — after all, her life otherwise held little laughter. Navaratri saw her at her best — Kolu at her home was always special, with both Vidya and Shankar dressed up as Radha and Krishna, the roles exchanged at times. The Krishna idol would be dressed by MLV, in silks, and her own jewels. She would have her favourite badam halwa packed in little butter paper packets, to be given to guests. The singing at her Navaratri can only be imagined… literally, music for the gods.

With jaadhi malli blooming profusely at her home, one can imagine the redolent atmosphere — women and gods wearing the fragrant jasmine, both dressed in silks and jewels. A change in fortunes came, and MLV’s home went — troubled times on the financial front, and some time later Vidya too left home, to marry and return later. MLV’s misfortunes were forgotten on stage — the audience never knew the extent of her troubles.

She sang on, the strain showing in the upper ranges. Sudha’s rising notes helped on the concert stage, soon establishing the new disciple too. Ambujam Krishna’s songs, new pallavis, new tukkadas, ragas new to her — Sumanesa Ranjini is memorable — MLV’s music went on, never staid, never jaded. Dasar kritis of course remained part of her forte.

GNB’s music was no platitude of the platonic — his unjust critics would say ‘just speed.’ MLV’s music adhering to the ‘great new bani,’ as S. Rajam described GNB’s music, has firmly established this school of music, followed by thousands — performers and rasikas.

MLV —Marvellous Lady Vasanthakumari. She was no shrinking violet. She was a flamboyant Heliconia, chosen to stand out, with her range of music.

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