Guru Kalpakam Swaminathan will be remembered for her impeccable and vast patantharam

Kalpakam Swaminathan performing Veena concert at The Music Academy, on October 23, 2009.

Kalpakam Swaminathan performing Veena concert at The Music Academy, on October 23, 2009. | Photo Credit: R. Shivaji Rao

It was a sunny Sunday in July 1982, in Chennai, when my parents took me to meet my guru, vidushi Kalpakam Swaminathan, at her Raja Annamalaipuram residence.

We were asked to wait in the living room, where two beautiful veenas were placed on a paai (traditional mat). Kalpakam teacher came in, greeted us, looked at my mother (assuming she was the student) and asked her to play a bit of ragam, tanam, and a kriti. My mother, pointing at me said, “We are here for Nirmala. She will be blessed if you can accept her as your disciple”. Teacher gently smiled and looked at me: I played ragam, tanam and the kriti ‘Marivere dikkevaraiyya rama’, taught by my Bangalore-based gurus vidushis G. Chennamma and E.P. Alamelu. She next asked me to join on an auspicious day. Thus began my 29-year long journey with the veena doyenne, who was and continues to be my guiding spirit.

Kalpakam teacher was born on August 15, 1922 in Tiruvarur district, the birthplace of many great Carnatic composers and artistes. She lost her father when she was very young and was raised by her mother, grandmother and extended family. Her first guru was her mother, Abhayambal. Her maternal uncle brought the family to Chennai, where she continued her training with some of the best teachers and performers of the time. She trained with Kallidaikurichi Ananthakrishna Iyer, who belongs to the direct sishya parampara of Muthuswami Diskshitar. She always credited her mpther for her passion towards Dikshitar’s Abhayamba vibhakti kritis. She further learnt from renowned vidwans such as Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tiger Varadachari and Mysore Vasudevachar, when she worked at Kalakshetra in the 1940s and 1950s.

Kalakshetra days

Recalling how she joined Kalakshetra, Kalpakam teacher shared how she almost didn't attend the interview because she was apprehensive of teaching. It was veena maestro S. Balachander’s father, Sri Sundaram Iyer, who persisted and advised her to attend the interview., Tiger Varadachari and Rukmini Devi Arundale were so impressed with her playing that they asked her to join immediately. She groomed many students while at Kalakshetra.

She would often talk about her stay in Baroda, a city she moved to following her husband Sri Swaminathan’s transfer. She was fascinated by the music that she heard there, which inspired her to learn some of the Hindustani compositions. Among the treasures is the Tulsidas bhajan, ‘Nainan me siyaram’ that she taught me.

Kalpakam teacher served as Professor of veena at the Tamil Nadu Music College from 1964 till she retired in 1980. After retirement, she served as the director at Kala Peetham School of Music, Chennai, for some years along with Dr. S. Ramanathan, B. Sitarama Sarma, Calcutta K.S. Krishnamurthy, and Ramanthapuram Kandaswamy. She created a large community of disciples, who are today well-known musicians, performers, and teachers, such as Guru Kamala Aswathama (mother of the veena vidhushi E. Gayathri), and the late Sivasakthi Sivanesan (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London). Her daughter-in-law, vidhushi Mangalam Shankar, is a vocalist and a much sought-after guru.

All of 4 feet and 10 inches, yet Kalpakam teacher stood tall in the world of Carnatic music. She is remembered for her impeccable and vast patantharam (a repertoire that includes many rare compositions), adherence to the vocal tradition of veena playing of the Thanjavur bani, her graceful and precise gamakas, and her simple and approachable demeanour. Her presentation of ragam, tanam and niraval on the veena were extraordinary. Audiences would attend her concerts especially to listen to her creative exploration of these elements .

At the Cleveland Aradhana in 2008, Kalpakam teacher performed twice on audience request, something that is unheard of.

Kalpakam teacher received many awards in her long career including the Kalaimamani (Government of Tamil Nadu), the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, Sangeetha Kala Acharya (Madras Music Academy), Acharya Choodamani (Sri Krishna Gana Sabha), the Veena Seshanna Award (Veena Seshanna Trust, Bangalore) and the Sangeetha Kala Saagaram award (Cleveland Aradhana Committee, USA).

Her lecture-demonstrations especially on the ‘gamakas of Carnatic music’ were very engaging.

She had a special way of imparting knowledge, tailoring it to suit the needs of each student. She taught tirelessly for hours, coaxing gently to get the best out of her sishyas. She would meticulously write the notation for us.

Kalpakam teacher would make it a point to attend many of my concerts to encourage me. And after the concert, she would discuss and offer advice on various aspects. I have accompanied her at many concerts. I have watched her on and off the stage, and often thought how lucky I have been to be her student.

When she had a fall in November 2010, her overriding thought and concern, despite the pain, was how would she sit and play the veena. Such was her dedication to the art.

An epitome of knowledge, humility, dignity, and grace, my guru Kalpakam Swaminathan passed away on April 6, 2011, at the age of 89. But the sound of her veena continues to echo in our minds and hearts.

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Printable version | Aug 11, 2022 4:53:23 pm |