My grandfather was a leading physician and Carnatic music aficionado. Most maha vidwans and vidushis of the 1950s and 1960s made a beeline for his home clinic when they needed healing. On the list of celebrity patients was MLV amma whose profound vidwat and magnanimity he held in the highest esteem. My earliest childhood memories include listening to her radio concerts and recordings, with her name and music finding frequent mention in our everyday lives.
When my grandfather requested her to take me as her disciple, she explained that her personal circumstances did not allow her to, since she was on the verge of leaving Madras for the Rishi Valley School where she would spend the next several years as guru-in-residence. Though I learnt about it many years later, I was drawn to the sparkle of her voice and manodharma right from the start.
If I was asked to choose just one synonym for her music, it would be ‘charm.’ You encounter music that is profound, thinking, clever, applause-driven, et al but rarely the kind imbued with intrinsic, lasting charm. Many facets of music and their nuances can be taught, but not charm. An artiste’s musicality either has it or doesn’t. And MLV amma’s did. In abundance. In music, charm is one of the factors that make for what we term ‘earworms.’ Indefinable, it can only be experienced. The charm of MLV amma’s music was not the blink-and-you-miss-it kind. It dazzled. Whether in the effortless flow, play and range of voice in ‘Aadal Kaaneero,’ quicksilver brigas in ground-breaking alapanas, swarakalpana cascades at the unexpected ‘Payojaksha’ eduppu in the Madhyamavati kriti ‘Nadupai,’ emotive appeal of the Purandaradasa kritis she tuned, scintillating tanam suites and many other caches of loveliness. It was the charm of her unique vision that blazed an incandescent trail.
Not for her the rehearsed-to-death ‘manodharma’ or the painstakingly pre-designed soundscape hailed as ‘perfection’ on stage. Neither time nor the hand that life dealt her afforded that particular luxury.
Spontaneity was her middle name and her strongest creative ally. Whether elaborating a rare raga or composing a sankirna nadai pallavi on request within the brief travel time en route to her next concert at which she executed it flawlessly, she was in her element facing challenges.
Once, when I was visiting All India Radio for a recording, a violinist shared her awed reaction to a live kutcheri recording of a Charukesi by MLV amma; a piece of brilliance that warranted repeated listening. Equally at home in melody and laya, she was that rarity – a musician’s musician. While many musicians have taken their share of knocks in life, destiny reserved some of its most cruel punches for MLV amma. Yet, she took them squarely on the chin, as only a woman of substance could. Where a weaker person would have crumbled under the weight of these misfortunes, she, astonishingly, continued to sing and give back to her art. In the process, her health took a hit, which in turn inevitably affected her voice. What happened at this juncture, taught me an important life lesson.
A well-known critic commented in print that her singing was not sruti-aligned. MLV amma, that most tolerant of vidushis, reacted the only way a musician of her stature and sensitivity could have. She refused to perform unless the said critic left the concert hall. Every conscionable Carnatic musician chose to stand by her in a grim, silent phalanx of support, appalled at the critic’s insensitivity. Till then, my engagement with the written word had included pointers on how to write. That day, however, when an artiste’s pain become a rasika’s, I learnt how not to write. Ordinary rules do not apply to extraordinary music and musicians in exceptional circumstances.
MLV amma’s art is about freshness and responsible innovation, natural brilliance and unhyped genius, artistic integrity and courage. That explains why every time I hear the call of her voice, I am reeled into the magic of great music to become a student and rasika all over again.