India at 75: Perspectives

How Pattammal became the voice of freedom

Patriotic songs became an integral part of Pattammal’s repertoire

Patriotic songs became an integral part of Pattammal’s repertoire

When you think of D.K. Pattammal, there are many musical associations that immediately come to mind, chief among them her songs of freedom.

She was certainly not the first woman in Carnatic music to sing them. That credit goes to M.L. Vasanthakumari’s mother, Madras Lalithangi, who in 1925 recorded an elegy on C.R. Das. Thereafter, K.B. Sundarambal recorded several songs of freedom. The harikatha exponents, C. Saraswati Bai and Padmasini Bai, and the publisher, author and singer, Vai Mu Kothainayaki Ammal, made sure to incorporate patriotic songs when they performed, and Vai Mu Ko recorded discs of these as well. One aspect that was common among them was their admiration for the patriot, S. Satyamurti, the man who first thought of bringing stage and other performing artistes into the freedom movement to draw crowds. This later became an integral feature of the political strategy of Dravidian parties, with a long-term impact on Tamil Nadu politics.

It was Vai Mu Ko who made many journeys to Kanchipuram to convince Damal Krishnaswami Dikshitar that his daughter Pattammal had it in her to become a concert artiste. She began performing in the city in 1932, and by 1935 had become an artiste of note. That year, when the golden jubilee of the Congress was celebrated, Satyamurti was at the forefront of organising the event that featured several performances, including Pattammal’s concert. It appears that her association with patriotic songs began here.

Pattammal’s interest, however, had been kindled earlier. A close family friend and freedom fighter, Dr. P.S. Srinivasan, chairman of the Kanchipuram municipality, had given her a book of Subramania Bharati’s songs when she was just ten. That was in 1929, a year after the government in Burma had proscribed the singing of the poet’s songs, a law that applied to Madras as well. This saw a huge surge in Bharati’s popularity and Pattammal was clearly influenced by all that was happening.

CHENNAI, 11/03/2018 : For Friday Review : Late Indian Carnatic musician D.K.Pattammal. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

CHENNAI, 11/03/2018 : For Friday Review : Late Indian Carnatic musician D.K.Pattammal. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Pattammal’s first public performance of a Bharati song happened in the year that Mahatma Gandhi visited Kanchipuram. For the prayer meet, she set Bharati’s ‘Veera sudanthiram vendi nindrar’ to tune and sang it. The poet’s songs became an integral part of her repertoire thereafter, and it is no wonder that Satyamurti included her in the Congress golden jubilee. Thereafter, gramophone discs of her patriotic songs began to be released. After a concert in Tirunelveli, Pattammal came to know that Bharati’s wife, Chellammal, had attended it and been moved to tears. In June 1945, Pattammal was the natural choice to sing at the Bharati memorial in Ettayapuram, just prior to its inauguration.

It was, however, cinema that probably cemented the link between Pattammal and patriotic songs. K. Subrahmanyam’s Thyaga Bhoomi was made in 1939, based on Kalki Krishnamurthy’s novel and themed around freedom and untouchability.

Papanasam Sivan, who played a major role in the film, composed the songs and they were sung by Pattammal. Some of the scenes are available for viewing on YouTube and even now, despite the scratchy audio and jumpy video, the voice singing ‘Desa sevai seiya vareer’ leaves us with a lump in the throat. In 1948, came AVM’sNam Iruvar, in whichBharati’s songs were an important feature. Picturised on Kumari Kamala and rendered by Pattammal, they were great hits. Forgotten between these high-profile releases is A.K. Chettiar’s film on Gandhi, Adu Ratte, made in 1940, with Pattammal as playback. Writing about the making of the film, Chettiar says he was short of money when he approached Pattammal’s father in 1938 to ask her to sing. On coming to know that the film was on Gandhi, Dikshitar readily agreed. When the song was played in the studio during production, Chettiar writes that all the employees stopped working and crowded around to listen.

But it is ‘Shanti nilava vendum’ that we most associate with Pattammal. Written by Sethu Madhava Rao, this is the song she always got requests for. When I interviewed her in 2003, she said it was her duty to sing songs extolling freedom. “After all, did we not struggle to achieve it?” she asked, adding, “On August 15, 1947, I was invited by AIR to sing Bharati’s songs. I sang and I refused remuneration. The matter went up to the minister, but I held firm. Imagine accepting money for celebrating our nation’s independence!”

The Chennai-based historian writes on music and culture.

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Printable version | Aug 25, 2022 5:03:42 pm |