The year was 1963. I was 12 years old, 2nd form, Rosary Matriculation School, Santhome. My mother, Alamelu, a talented singer and veena player, asked me, “Do you remember when Lalithangi and Ayyasamy Iyer used to bring Vasanthi straight from school, in her school uniform, and make her sing sweetly for us; and Appa used to encourage her even then?’’ I stared at her and said softly — “I was not born then.”
“Oh ok never mind, we are going to her house today. Sing nicely. She may take you as her disciple.” And graciously, she did. And thus started my ‘Gurukula Vasantham’ — a long span of 27 years, under the spring-maiden (Vasantha-kumari), nightingale, child prodigy, who cut a disc at age 12 (‘Sarasija nabha murare’ in Thodi).
After school, I used to board a cycle rickshaw to Edward Elliots Road for my music classes. There the reigning disciples were Saraswathi and Prabhavathi, who welcomed me into the fold and helped me with akka’s repertoire. It was a hectic time for the famous MLV, just 35 years old. I loved to watch her get ready for concerts. Once, we visited her neighbour and friend — actress Padmini (MLV’s songs and Padmini’s dances were a rage in films) and I sat observing their banter and carefree talk.
For concerts, akka’s long hair would be plaited and a bunch of jasmine would be pinned on. Her dark, kohl lined eyes and smile captivating. She wore pure silk saris, in pleasing colours, sometimes with thin gold stripes and thick borders. She made a style statement with her gold tissue and brocade blouses, which I also happily followed, apart from imbibing some great music, to the best of my capacity. For how can one grasp and retain an ocean of genius?
As she used to advise — ‘each one should sing according to his/her voice, range and intelligence; music cannot be taught; only imbibed by listening’.
In a couple of years, I was promoted to sing along in akka’s concerts. It is a blessing that she chose me to sing ragam, niraval, swaras and pallavis , and groomed me on stage itself for concert craft. I listened closely to her vibrant and expansive raga alapanas of Kalyani, Bhairavi, Thodi, Saramathi and rare ragas such as Sivasakthi, Sekarachandrika and more. I would marvel at her lively swaras and niraval improvisations. Apart from learning new kritis she did not do any practice at home.
Her voice had power and range and was unflagging in energy, but with melody as its main component. The vast repertoire, impeccablepronunciation, judicious kriti selection, adapting new approaches for different audiences, and her pleasant stage presence without any ‘angaseshtas’ (quirky actions) added to the MLV charisma.
As I noticed constantly, she was never one to sit back and relax; the search for fresh and rare kritis, Dasar padas, tillanas, Tamil compositions, padams, javalis, bhajans and abhangs continued. Some bhajans and abhangs were sourced from the exponent Malavika Kanan.
Akka looked for authenticity in patanthara (style), and would even learn from a novice if she felt the song had some charm. Then she would polish it with a few additions and subtractions, and it would be concert-ready. She was a trendsetter in many ways.
For example, my mention of the notation for chaturdasa 14-ragamalika of ‘Sri Viswanatham’ of Muthuswami Dikshitar, my tunes of ‘Om Namo Narayana’ in Karnaranjani and Bharatiyar’s ‘Payum Oli’ , got her attention and she sang and made them famous. The way she used the mike showed her intelligence and her vast experience in film recording, where she was a megastar. The voice was projected just right and rasikas bowed down in wonder at her breathtaking brigas and subtle gamakas and her authentic raga bhavam.
She honed her pallavi skills with the Alathur Brothers and Mudicondan Venkatrama Iyer. Though she was well up in Hindustani ragas like Behag, Tilang, or Sindhu Bhairavi, she kept the two systems separate.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer once said: ‘I heard Vasanthi when she was a teenager at Trivandrum. She came there with her mother Lalithangi. I was awestruck — I just wanted to cancel everything and think about her extraordinary talent’. MS amma loved her music and used to attend her concerts.
Akka herself said, ‘As a young girl I had to care for my mother always as she was asthmatic. I had to study and sing — a tall order. Till their demise my parents never praised or accepted my music.” Strange but true of many artistes, who lead sad private lives. But what was even more of a wonder for me was to watch her juggle career and life as a wife and mother with grit and patience. After a concert, she would get into a taxi, mentally switch off from the concert mode and get into home mode. Is Srividya back from her dance classes (under Dandayudapani Pillai)? Did she take boiled eggs, Sanatogen and food with her to the shooting location? Has tailor Arumugam stitched her dance dress? Did Shankar (her son) attend to his bank studies and did her husband Vikatam Krishnamurthy have his dinner?
She and Murthy did not believe in demanding money from organisers. Generous to a fault, she loved to give gifts to friends. Once she even donated her gold chain to someone in need. She never shouted in anger, patience being her natural virtue, but sometimes one could sense something smouldering within.
In later years she could not stand media criticism. She said, ‘Why pick on super senior artiste like me? Why don’t they advise youngsters who have a long way to go?” The denial of the top grade by All India Radio vexed her so much, she cancelled her radio outings for some years.
Sometime in the mid-1970s she said, ‘You know, I want to go away to a far-off place, sit quietly and meditate. I don’t like this politics and the never-ending rat race’. In 1978, when an offer came her way to be the Professor of Music at Rishi Valley School, she grabbed it. There she went, far from the madding crowd. We exchanged letters, met and sang when she came down for concerts. For me, the time spent with this blessed, gifted, kind soul is unforgettable.