M.L. Vasanthakumari was a rare phenomenon. No stage ever unnerved her, and at no stage did she lose her musical perspective. Was it her native deity Kuthanur Saraswathi, who blessed MLV with such an extraordinary talent, in-depth knowledge and that simply unique voice? MLV must have thought so, for she never failed to visit the temple in Thanjavur district.
Born on July 3, 1928, to a Brahmin father, and a mother of devadasi origin, MLV was naturally inclined to singing, and learnt many Dasar kritis from her mother Lalitangi. Keen on studies, MLV's academic plans, however never fulfilled thanks to fate, and guru G.N.Balasubramaniam.
My parents were fans of GNB and MLV, who was a special friend of the family.
One, a disturbed MLV visited our home in Royapettah, to meet my father. The purpose? To seek his advice on setting up a textile export business for her son Shankar. That morning, my granny spent her time organising delicacies for the VIP guest. MLV duly arrived, and the neighbours gawked. My granny spoke of this visit for many months after.
It was her humility that differentiated MLV from most artists, and her capacity to appreciate others. She had an easy approachability, and a never ending thirst for knowledge.
A big fan of hers mentions how on an occasion, she took some recordings of T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, GNB and Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, to prepare for a lec-dem on the raga Thodi, in Bangalore. Lasting for around three hours, it was a fantastic demonstration of Thodi where MLV explained how for different compositions her style of alapana would differ, depending on the emotive content of the song.
In 1971, the Academy saw M.S. Subbulakshmi, Sadasivam and Radha sitting in the front row, for MLV's concert. From the Kedaragowlai varnam to ‘Yadava Raya', she was in fine fettle. “MLV's ‘Gamanashramam' that day left MS and Radha simply stunned,” recalls P. Vasanthkumar.
Violin legend Lalgudi Jayaraman remembers MLV as a kind and generous person. “She would visit my home often, keeping a hired car waiting for three hours, unmindful of the cost. She was keen that her daughter Srividya should learn the violin from me. She liked my teermanams very much, and my thillanas. MLV's raga alapanas were very good, elaborately sung. Her artistry showed in the lovely way she used to organise Navaratri kolu, with music sessions. Her music had verve and enormous imagination. I remember how she used to sing Dandapani Desikar's ‘Unnai endri' in the rare raga Bhavani — it has no panchamam. She sang it so well,” says Lalgudi.
MLV indeed had no fear of the stage or of experimentation on the spot. Sruti bhedam and she seemed intertwined — a fabulous Sankarabharanam saw her foraying into Kalyani in a flash. She had the aplomb to sing Thodi in front of TNR, considered the Thodi king, and won praise from him.
She seemed to absorb GNB's tutelage like a blotter, soaking up every nuance. Carried away by her enthusiasm, she publicly presented the song ‘Kaaranam Kettu Vaadi' in Purvikalyani, at a time when this song, tuned and sung by GNB, was to be released shortly on plate. A furious GNB cut off ties with her for some time. Of course, guru and sishya were later reunited. To quote GNB, “Vasanthi typifies real discipleship -- she absorbs all, but presents her own glorious creations.” Truly, no one could have summed up MLV better.
Foray into films
MLV's foray into films brought her more fame and money. Her ‘Adisayam Ivanadu Arivu Mayam' in ‘ Vikramadityan' could well be adapted to describe MLV as ‘Adisayam Ivaladu Arivu Mayam'! The film ‘Krishna Bhakti' saw MLV on screen, charmingly decked up, singing ‘Enta Veduko' in a concert setting. N.S. Krishnan's ‘Manamagal' gave the all-time hits of ‘Ellam Inba Mayam' and ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye'. Originally, GNB was supposed to sing this ragamalika with MLV. GNB had some rehearsals too, when T.R. Balu protested that GNB should not sing for the film. Thus a great duet was dropped.
Waning in films saw her waxing in the concert scene—her Natabhairavi and Nagagandhari thrilled listeners. Her singing for Srividya's dance recitals became a double treat. Also unforgettable was the tambura support given by Srividya for MLV at the Mylapore Fine Arts.
Her Dasar kritis were sublime expressions of melody. Her renditions of Dikshitar kritis were fine examples of enunciation. She would clear doubts in Sanskrit with Embar Vijayaraghavachariar.
A liking for Marathi abhangs came through after hearing Charumathi's sister singing them. MLV at once wanted to learn the same from her, and did so. She learnt the beauty of Sindhu Bhairavi from Bade Ghulam Ali, who once even stayed at her house. ‘Om Namo Narayana' in Karnaranjini, tuned by Charumathi, became a favourite for MLV in her last years. Her Tiruppavai singing seemed to lend the Margazhi month of December a special charm.
Mandolin Shrinivas recalls his association with MLV. In his own words, “MLV asked me to play at Rishi Valley, way back in the 1980s. That particular day, my mandolin strings played truant. I looked at MLV, helpless. She understood the situation, and looked at me in encouragement. After the concert, she presented me with a shawl which Kanchi Maha Periyaval had given her. ‘This will always protect you', she said. I will never forget that moment. Once she heard my Vagadeeswari on the radio. She called me and said it was very nice, but that I should try to include a gana raga. I took it as an important piece of advice, and I follow to date.”
Spontaneity was indeed a hallmark of MLV's singing. Sometimes her enthusiasm overrode her preparedness, leading to a bit of on-stage confusion. She had just learnt the Suddha Dhanyasi kriti ‘Azhaga Azhaga', and presented it at the Academy. The words did not come readily to her mind halfway down, and somehow the song reached its conclusion. But, that was MLV, ever game, ever sharing her keenness, and not one to be deterred by such things.
Manonmani Rangaswami remembers going to MLV's home on Edward Elliot's road, to learn a song for the AIR Mellisai programme. “She taught me the song, as soon as I asked her. In 1967 or 1968, I went to her home in Mandaveli, to get her to sing for my niece's wedding. She agreed at once. Again after two years, I arranged her concert, for another family wedding. She asked me sternly if I was continuing to sing, and practise my music. She had a special affection for me, as I too had learnt from GNB, for some years. I last saw her at her 60th birthday function at Narada Gana Sabha.”
Mrs. and Mr. T.T. Srinivasamurthi recall MLV visiting their home, for their son birthday. Some years later, at the same boy's wedding, she sang an Oonjal song with her disciple Sudha.
AIR, Chennai, in a rare moment of perception and astute choice, relayed a prime recording of MLV with Charumathi and Kanyakumari, on the morning of July 3, MLV's 81st birth anniversary. A fantastic Kalyani alapana was followed by Syama Sastri's ‘Biranavara', and Madhyamavati with ‘Palinchu Kamakshi'. Vintage MLV reigned supreme, her voice everlasting and her appeal evergreen.