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The evergreen M.L. Vasanthakumari

MLV was my guru, parent, friend, guide, says Sudha Raghunathan

The many roles she played in my life have made me who I am today

June 28, 2018 04:06 pm | Updated 06:50 pm IST

 MLV at Sudha-Ragunathan wedding reception. Photo courtesy: Sudha Raghunathan

MLV at Sudha-Ragunathan wedding reception. Photo courtesy: Sudha Raghunathan

Que sera sera, whatever will be will be! That was her philosophy. “Challenges do come by the day; you need to overcome all that and win. No challenge is bigger than the calling you have within you to overcome the challenge” — This was her maxim in life.

I have been listening to her music over the past few days on a loop, from Ritigowlai and Sumanesaranjini to Sindhubhairavi and watching her portrait intently and now, I feel equipped enough to let the pen do the talking.

MLV… where do I begin and how do I end? That’s the way the cookie crumbles — that would sum up Amma’s outlook — unfazed and positive. To me she was many figures rolled into one — teacher, mentor, parent, friend, guide and so on. I could never possibly thank her for playing all those roles in my life because it has helped in shaping me into the person I am today.

For the most part, she was an unconventional guru. She never taught lessons nor gave leads on how to perform. It was just there!

M.L. Vasanthakumari. Photo courtesy: Sudha Raghunathan

Photo courtesy: Sudha Raghunathan

na gurodhikam tattvam na gurodhikam tapah |

na gurodhikam gnyanam tasmai shrigururave namah ||

(There is no truer principle than the guru; no greater penance than the guru;

and no knowledge loftier than the guru; to that guru, I offer my prostrations.)

There are so many vivid memories of my guru. I look through the kaleidoscope and relive the spectrum of colours.

The unlimited and abundant affection she showered on me over the years at different stages of my musical journey can never be expressed in words. There are some anecdotes I have heard from MLV Amma herself and some from a few others who were with her like Sulochana Pattabhiraman, that I wish to share.

In the years when Sri GNB (her guru) was at his peak, he was releasing several gramophone records of his multiple popular kritis. On a particular day, when MLV was with him, he was practising ‘Radha Sametha Krishna.’ The recording was to happen the following morning. As MLV Amma was leaving, he told her not to sing the kriti anywhere until it was recorded and released. But Amma being the enterprising and musically adventurous artiste, sang it in a concert the very next day. When GNB came to know of it, he was incensed and seems to have admonished her. A week later he relented as he realised the genius and integrity of Amma and couldn’t see her hurt. That was the kind of mutual respect that the guru and sishya had for each other’s music.

MLV Amma had great regard for the mridangam maestro Sri Palghat Mani Iyer. They happened to be together as faculty members at the Rishi Valley School, Madanapalle. By that time, Mani Iyer Mama had already relaxed his rule to not accompany female artistes. He had started to play for his sambandhi, the great DKP Amma. MLV Amma had on one occasion expressed her desire to sing with his accompaniment. He is reported to have replied: “If I don’t play for your music, my musical journey will never be complete.”

In the 1960s, the irrepressible Subbudu, art critic, was at his caustic best. Once, after recovering from a bout of fever, with her throat not fully healed, MLV Amma bumped into Subbudu Mama in the lobby prior to the concert. She seemed to have openly expressed her apprehensions of his presence. That evening the pallavi (RTP) was intricate with a lot of kanakku (mathematics). At the end of the concert, Subbudu Mama complimented her for a flawless rendition. To that, without hesitation, she acknowledged that the pallavi was composed by her violinist, Thiruvallur Subramaniam. In turn, the violinist disclosed a secret — that the idea of the pallavi had been discussed only in the car. MLV had grasped the essence and delivered it at the concert immediately.

My several years of association with Amma, travelling together, doing her chores and learning all the time, showed me several dimensions of her personality. Amma could instinctively assess, understand and even see through people. Whatever was her opinion, her ever smiling countenance and twinkling eyes would reveal nothing, her honest charm reaching out to whomsoever she interacted with. Her magnanimous and open-hearted nature was always evident, for all to see. Even in trying times, her charitable disposition always came to the fore. Her affection to one and all is fabled.

After five years of tutelage, one day, I told her that my parents had finalised an alliance for me. She seemed kind of disturbed and repeatedly asked me if I was sure about the person and whether I had discussed my musical career, etc. She expressed with a sigh that my whole future would depend on my choice. She then insisted that my fiancé should meet with her. When that happened, MLV Amma clearly told Ragunathan that she was going to entrust him with a raw diamond and that it was his solemn duty to polish it and give it radiance, of course ensuring marital harmony. That was why she was Amma to me and many others.

I accompanied Amma for vocal support on her trip to the U.S. in 1980. At a New York concert, when her voice was not at its best, she did not hesitate to let me sing a major part. After the concert, some university students wanted me to sing a chamber concert for them in Stonybrook university. Amma agreed without batting an eyelid. What is more, she requested Kum. Kanyakumari and Sri Mannargudi Easwaran (Eecha Anna), to accompany me. That concert has become a cherished moment in my life.

MLV always believed that a woman who deliberated too much was lost. And that was why she just stood up and delivered. Time and time again!

In my 13 years of association I never saw her practise at home. No going over of raga alapanas, ‘akara saadhakam,’ swara repetitions, or even important korvais. She would just go with the flow of thought and creativity. Practice happened only on the occasions when she was learning something totally new. Even then, she would make us sing and then sing along with us. In no time she would master the composition. She would sing rare ragas like Sivashakthi, Oormika, Hamsavinodhini, Gamanasrama, Sekarachandrika, Bhavani and the likes when most artistes were content with sticking to the standard top 5. As someone once said — ‘Oru puli agazhiyai thaanda yosikkum. MLV Amma kitte agazhiyai thaandu enraal, yosikkave maataall.” (A tiger may hesitate when it comes to jumping across a moat, not so MLV). That was her supreme confidence.

As for her music, her soul was secured in her existence. A simple woman who never longed for immortality. Unlike most human beings, she realised that stars faded away and that youth was not for ever. However, she did her best to be unhurt amongst the war of elements, during crises, which ravaged her personal life. Even the untimely hug of death could not take anything away from the magic of her legendary music.

As for me, MLV Amma was, is and will always be the unquestioned queen amongst Carnatic musicians of all times. Her music lives forever!

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