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The evergreen M.L. Vasanthakumari

MLV adored her disciples

Suganthy Krishnamachari catches up with some of MLV’s pupils, who recall the affection she showered on them

June 28, 2018 05:14 pm | Updated 07:03 pm IST

'Prathama sishya' Saraswathi Srinivasan shares some of her experiences

MLV would refer to Saraswathi Srinivasan as her ‘prathama sishya.’ Saraswathi had not had formal training, when her mother took her to MLV in 1952. Saraswathi is the granddaughter of Tediyoor Subramania Sastri, GNB’s spiritual guru, who initiated the latter into Sri Vidya upasana. It was Sastri who named MLV’s children. “Akka began by teaching me Kalyani Ata tala varnam. I accompanied her till 1963,” says Saraswathi.

MLV would always seek her guru GNB’s opinion about her concerts. When GNB was awarded Sangita Kalanidhi, leading musicians were invited to a grand dinner at her residence.

Saraswathi Srinivasan

Saraswathi Srinivasan


Saraswathi recalls Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s stay at MLV’s house. “He sang Malkauns for more than two hours, and akka recorded it. When akka sang Hindolam at Krishna Gana sabha, she included some Malkauns touches she had heard him sing. The next day, Subbudu visited her and said that had she been older, he would have fallen at her feet for singing such a divine Hindolam. Ghulam Ali Khan liked her Andolika very much. When we drove to concerts, akka would sing a few snatches of a raga and ask me to notate. She would even ask me to notate the sound of the car horn!

“When Manik Varma stayed at akka’s house, he taught her the abhang ‘Amritahuni goad’ (Bhimplas). She learnt many bhajans like ‘Bhakti kaisa’ (Yamunakalyani) from Srinivasa Rao. She set to tune Nadathur Nambi’s ‘Aaranangal podum’ in Mayamalavagowla, and Kalki’s ‘Maamaayan vallavan Kannan’ as a ragamalika in Chenjurutti, Pilu, Desh and Sindubhairavi.” Some of the pieces she popularised were – N.S. Ramachandran’s Dayavati thillana, Periasami Thooran’s ‘Kazhanigal Soozh’ (Simhendramadyamam) and Ambujam Krishna’s ‘Kanna endradume’ (Chenjurutti). Akka heard Dandapani Desigar singing ‘Unaiyandri’ (raga Bhavani) and included it in her kutcheris.”

MLV set to tune the Ramayanam dance production of Lalitha and Padmini. She sang at their weddings, at the wedding of AVM Saravanan and at the wedding of GNB’s daughter Jaya. “She bought jewellery and silk saris for her sishyas to wear at concerts, since many of us were from families with modest means.”

Navaratari meant visits to as many as 50 houses in a day, and at every house, MLV would be asked to sing. “We would sing ‘Maamavathu Sri Saraswathi’. By the time the kolu visits drew to a close, it would be 10 p.m. Because of her film connections, backdrops for MLV’s kolu came from studios. She used to have beautiful dolls — Menaka-Viswamitra, Rukmini Kalyanam, etc.”

One Vijayadasami, Ayyasami Iyer (MLV’s father) said to Saraswathi: “I know my daughter never takes guru dakshinai. But could you not have offered my daughter at least a rupee as a token of respect today, Vijayadasami?” Saraswathi was so ashamed that she went home and cried. For Deepavali that year, her mother bought a hakoba blouse piece for MLV. “I felt very small offering akka just a blouse piece, but she was so pleased that she had it stitched at once and wore it to her concert that evening,” says Saraswathi.

With a chuckle, Saraswathi also recalls an occasion when MLV was curt with her (Saraswathi’s) husband. After a concert, MLV took Saraswathi to her house, to prepare for the next concert. Saraswathi’s husband called MLV to check why Saraswathi hadn’t returned, and MLV replied, ‘I know when to send her,’ and put down the phone. “My husband was livid and wanted me to stop singing. I just allowed him to let off steam, and the next day, I was back at akka’s house.”

For ‘Paarkadal alaimele’ (film Raja Desingu ), Saraswathi played the tambura. Accompanying MLV meant dinner at the houses of ministers, industrialists, musicians and film stars. Says Saraswathi: “When we had dinner at Finance Minister C. Subramaniam’s house, he served us coffee made with goat’s milk. In Madurai, we had dinner with Ambujam Krishna. It was because of my guru that I got the opportunity to teach music to Gemini Ganesan’s wife Bobji and his daughters, S.S. Vasan’s daughter-in-law and his granddaughters, Devaki Rangappa (niece of Dr. E.V. Kalyani) and actor Ragini (sister of Lalitha and Padmini).”


T.M. Prabhavathi on her gurukulam style of learning

T.M. PRABHAVATHI was a fan of MLV’s music, before she became her student. She would tune into All India Radio’s ‘Thozhilalargalukku,’ because it invariably had MLV’s popular film songs. Prabha’s father, K. Madhavan, was a famous artist, who also designed sets for films. “Lalitha and Padmini would come home, when father designed the sets for their Ramayanam dance-drama and akka (MLV) accompanied them. Appa once designed the backdrop for Lalithanghi amma’s kolu. For kolu, Lalithangi amma would give everyone a packet of badam halwa, instead of the customary sundal,” recalls Prabha. MLV was cast in a major role in the P.U. Chinnappa film Sudarsanam (1951), for which Prabha’s father took care of stills and publicity. But she dropped out midway through the film.

“I had a gurukulam style of learning,” says Prabha, who accompanied MLV from 1960 to 1974. Ayyasami Iyer, MLV’s father, reclining on his easy chair, would teach the students. After just six months of training, Iyer suggested that Prabha accompany MLV. “My first kutcheri with akka was at the Academy. Akka, with characteristic magnanimity, would leave gaps in between singing for me to fill, and she was very pleased that the audience liked my singing.”

T.M. Prabhavathi

T.M. Prabhavathi

Prabha says that MLV was deferential towards her father Ayyasami Iyer, who counted many musicians as his friends. “Akka told us that when she returned from a concert, her father would take her to sing at the house of established vidwans. She said the guidance of these stalwarts helped in fine-tuning her music.”

When MLV and Prabha returned from live radio concerts, MLV would whisper, ‘Is father inside his room?’ If Iyer had gone to his room, that meant he didn’t like MLV’s concert. His presence in the hall meant approval. Once during a Rama Navami concert in Mambalam, MLV sang an elaborate Shanmukhapriya alapana. Iyer walked up to her, and whispered, ‘I think that is enough. Start singing the kriti.’

Prabha had been witness to MLV’s star status. “In Bangalore, after a concert, she was mobbed by the audience. With great difficulty she managed to extricate herself from the crowd and we reached the station just in time to catch our train!” At Kannanur, Kerala, in an open-air concert, the audience sat through heavy rain. “All we could see from the stage were hundreds of umbrellas!” says Prabha.

“At recording sessions, when a retake became necessary, because of technical reasons, akka would come up with an entirely different alapana for the same raga.”

MLV took good care of all the artistes who accompanied her. Once, the car, in which MLV, Prabha, violinist Thiruvallur Subramaniam and mridangam vidwan Krishnamurthi Rao were travelling, met with an accident near Kanchipuram. It was midnight, and while MLV and Prabha had minor injuries, the others had broken bones. MLV flagged down a revenue inspector’s jeep, went to the hospital, and brought an ambulance. After the artistes were discharged from hospital, MLV took them to her house and looked after them until they were back on their feet.

When MLV and T.K. Govinda Rao discussed mettus for Purandaradasa songs, it was Prabha who took down the notations. “Whenever President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan came down to Madras, he would arrange for akka’s concert at his house on Edward Elliott’s road. Upon King Birendra’s invitation, akka sang at the palace in Nepal.”

At wedding dinners, if MLV liked a dish, she would ask the cook for the recipe. “When we returned home, I would cook the dish for her. In fact, I improved my culinary skills only by cooking for akka,” laughs Prabha.

Disciple's choice

NIRMALA SRINIVASAN (85), who accompanied MLV on vocals for 17 years, stresses her guru’s concern for disciples. Once for a concert in Bangalore, Nirmala reached the city by bus from Coimbatore. MLV was to meet her there. But the train was late and Nirmala left for her aunt’s house. MLV, who reached the bus stop was overcome with anxiety on not finding her disciple. The next day Nirmala found out from the newspaper where MLV was singing and went to the venue. “Akka became emotional on seeing me,” says Nirmala.

MEENA SUBRAMANIAN went to pay her respects to MLV, and ended up accompanying her. Her first concert with MLV was at a wedding reception in Coimbatore. MLV asked her to make out a list of songs she knew, and chose from that list. “That was her nature. She always put her disciples at ease,” says Meena.


YOGAM SANTHANAM: “I was grateful for the privilege of accompanying akka, and never expected any remuneration. But she would press money into my hands and say, ‘You must take it. You have eight sisters-in-law to be married.’ It was because of the MLV connection, that I was asked to sing for dancers such as Alarmel Valli, K.J. Sarasa, and Jayalalithaa,” says Yogam.




Music enthusiast TAFE Mahadevan would often drop in at MLV’s house, to discuss the day’s concert. And in the next room, MLV’s sishyas would be attempting intricate pidis in ragas which MLV had sung. MLV would peep into the room and say, “Having trouble? Keep trying. That is the only way to learn.”

“I was blessed to have akka stay in my house for two weeks, in the 1980s,” says Yogam, who runs the MLV school of Music in Mandaiveli.

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