Into a man's world

Dandamudi Sumathi Ramamohan.  

She is the first woman artist in the country to storm the male bastion and become a professional on the mridangam. As articulate as the rhythm that gushes from her percussion, Dandamudi Sumathi recalls her love for the instrument at a very tender age, “an age when gender significance hardly exists.” Recipient of the Best Mridangist Award thrice by Madras Music Academy and also an ‘Amateur' Awardee (Central government), she honestly admits that the creator (Brahma) had ordained that she master this Herculean art (Brahma vidya) and so it happened. “My father Nidumolu Raghavayya was a mridangam vidwan and my very first guru. My mother Venkataratnamma was my pillar of strength. We were a large family of 14 children and economically in a bad shape. My father had, in those days, a great fascination for Dandamudi Ramamohan Rao's style of playing the percussion and wanted to admit me as a pupil under this great mridangam vidwan. Accordingly in 1960, I was presented before the stalwart who advised my father to admit me into a music school. And it was only in 1964 after my certificate course did I gain an entry in his tutelage. I remember at that tender age, I was asked to give a demo and he rewarded me with a fine compliment that which was a blessing for me. He told my father that I would make it big one day and that he would definitely teach me. What more could I ask?” her voice quivers with emotion even now when she recalls her experience.

When was she personally impressed by Dandamudi? “I would accompany my father to concerts by great musicians as part of an exposure for a learning child. In one such katcheri, I heard Dandamudi playing for Mangalampalli. While the rest of the audience, I'm sure were enslaved by the genius vocalist, my ears and eyes were tuned to the percussionist. And I was just 10 years old,” she laughs.

With the financial crunch the family faced, Sumathi had to stop performing for a year in public, a condition her guru put while under his tutelage. The family had to undergo a lot of tribulations as her performances were a source of income to make both ends meet.

Yet, the love of art, made them willingly give up on her earnings, hoping that she would graduate under this great man.

“We were residing 5km away from Dandamudi's place and I would be seen walking back home in the middle of night after my class all alone. I had no hobbies but practise for hours together in a sort of unbridled passion for the mridangam. The credit goes to my guru for not just honing my skills but create a love for the instrument. The guru-sishya respect had to be seen to be believed. Service to guru was the ultimate goal of our lives then,” she says candidly.

How did the sishya turn into a sahadharmacharini (wife)? “Laya was the binding force of our love which united us in wedlock. I consider myself immensely fortunate to have been blessed by such a life partner though he left me half way for his heavenly abode. As our saying goes, I must have performed puja with navaratnas in my earlier janma to beget such a husband. He was not just an expert, excellent percussionist and guru. He was a treasure house of knowledge and what more, a wonderful human being - self-disciplined, diligent, warm, loving individuals whose life path was strewn with principles right from getting up at the break of dawn to going to bed at a particular hour till the last day of his life. I owe my profession and performances to him. But for him, as a female, I would have been forced by circumstances to give up my art long ago,” her voice is choked with emotion.

Together they had number of katcheris to their credit not to talk of duo concerts on the mridangam alone. Even to this day, Sumathi is a performer. She is also moulding her young daughter SriLaya in percussion.

Being an ‘top grade artist in the AIR is no joke and that too as a mridangam woman vidwan. Sumathi lives up to the expectations of her admirers.

Her way of paying respects to her profession is the founding of ‘Laya Vedika' now named in memory of her husband Dandamudi Ramamohana Rao, which conducts contests in mridangam in junior and senior categories, institutes shields, awards certificates and cash prizes apart from honouring great vidwans in music every year.

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 10:04:10 PM |

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