I moved to Delhi from Calcutta in 1983, to do my engineering and then stayed on till 1989 to do my MBA as well. Unlike the latter metro that featured Carnatic concerts once a year, Delhi had several such events. SPIC MACAY was very active, as were several other cultural organisations that promoted classical music. The concerts happened in the various grand auditoriums that stood alongside the radial roads of central Delhi — Kamani, FICCI and the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. In addition you had a number of smaller locations in the ‘Bhavans’ belonging to various States, and the big daddy of them all — Siri Fort Auditorium. Going to the last named was a pain particularly if you lived in North Delhi but then if the music was good, you went.
I followed ML Vasanthakumari to each of these venues. She was quite a fixture in the various festivals that happened in the capital then and I must also add that her performance was the high point in each of them. Being a busy artiste she would be booked to perform on two consecutive days, at different venues and we followed her. This was easier said than done.
Tickets/passes had to be collected in advance and that meant bunking classes and going off to the house of some organiser or the other who invariably lived in South Delhi. Most often it was the Golf Links residence of Dr. NP Seshadri, a senior bureaucrat who was the prime mover behind much of the Carnatic music performances in Delhi. For MLV’s concerts you had to be doubly careful for the passes ran out quite quickly. Everyone from R. Venkataraman downwards would want to attend. To listen to MLV in person was special. On one occasion, the girl, who was to sing the prayer prior to the formal inauguration did not come, RV was already there and no further delay was possible. MLV gamely sang the prayer herself, standing at the lectern. The song? ‘Vandisu Vedadialli Gananathana.’
The alapanas that evening were magical, the tanam was breathtaking and the swara structuring, unique. The MLV team, as we referred to it, was simply wonderful – Sudha Ragunathan providing vocal accompaniment (Charumathi had become an independent concert artiste long before that), A. Kanyakumari on the violin, one of the three regulars — Mannargudi A. Easwaran/Srimushnam Raja Rao/Tiruvarur P. Bhaktavatsalam on the mridangam and G. Harishankar on the ganjira. The chemistry would be perfect from the word go.
I can still recall some of what she sang – ‘Rama Katha Sudha’ after an extensive Madhyamavati alapana at Siri Fort, a wonderful Thodi followed by ‘Enu Dhanyalo Lakumi’ at Kamani and a delectable RTP suite in Kalyani (’Un Darisanam Kidaikkumo Nataraja’). This was also the time when she made some great magic with that relatively minor song, ‘Sharanam Bhava Karunamayi’ of Narayana Tirtha, set to Hamsavinodini by T.M. Thiagarajan. The tukkadas were also special — would she sing ‘Ragi Tandiro’? Or ‘Baro Krishnayya’? That meant we had to stay on till the end.
Once at Siri Fort the start of the concert was delayed and some of us students realised we would have to leave after the RTP. But she started off on the slokam Gopala Ratnam. We stayed till the end and came out into the biting cold, walked for ages before we got an autorickshaw to take us to Kashmere Gate where the College of Engineering was. It also meant coming back to a hostel mess that had long shut, eating at a dhaba, and the cold prospect of a test/assignment the next morning that was still largely unprepared for. But the music more than made up for it.
In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Much of Delhi was engulfed in rioting, we had curfew for a week and then, the city limped back. A day-long music series was organised at the Pragati Maidan, with several artistes performing for 45 minutes each. MLV was slated to sing late in the evening. Conditions were still unsettled but some of us die-hards braved it. Her last piece in that concert was the bhajan ‘Shri Ram… Ram… Ram…’
Somehow the peace that had eluded us all the previous ten days came back to us. I came back to a firing from the warden for having gone out? But the magic of the song lingered.
‘What is this bhajan that you go and listen to,’ sneered some of my Punjabi friends. I invited them to an MLV performance. They sat through it in silence. On the way home, one of them summed it all up in his earthy idiom, ‘That old woman,’ he said. ‘How she sings yaar! Too much!’ That was MLV. Not a day passes when I do not think of her.