Music

The unsung star

From the good old days Gowri Kuppuswamy. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K  

“I am unable to believe that you have come from such a big organisation to interview me. In what capacity do I qualify?” queries the charming 80-year-old Gowri Kuppuswamy earnestly. “You are a successful vocalist, teacher, musicologist and author of many books…. ” she seems thoroughly overwhelmed. “I always thought memory is too short and nobody would even remember that I was associated with all these. The fact that Gayana Samaja brought me here to be this year’s Conference President and be a recipient of its notable Sangeetha Kalaratna is in itself a value-addition to my life,” says the proficient lady, her frail body belying her strong opinions.

Quantifying success is unnecessary, especially in terms of titles, awards and public performances. Even here veteran Gowri has gained a Gana Kokila, Gana Praveena and Karnataka Kalashri. Her treasured memories seem to be her performances when she hopped platforms throughout the country for more than two decades until the late 1970s. But a sampling of her academically active and significant phase is mirrored in her staggering 55 books that she has written in English, Kannada and Tamil, all pertaining to the scholastics in classical genres. Her book ‘Anthology of Indian Music has 32 articles on various facets, and her book for JSS Sabha in Mysore had her take up rare Tyagaraja kritis with notations in Kannada.

Earning ‘Sangeeta Vidyanidhi’ also seems apt as her proficiency in passing on her vidwat shaped some of her students as Sukanya Prabhakar, Nagamani Srinath, M. Hariharan, Manjula Sriram and K. Seshadri. Gowri has authored hundred of papers in music, and has been a guide to more than two dozen Ph.D. aspirants and has been on Board at Universities in Kerala, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Hailing from Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu that was a seat of music before Independence, Gowri recalls her life literally soaked in melody as she grew up under her strict grandmother and maternal uncle Muthukrishnan who was the man behind the acclaimed ‘Pudukottai Sangeetha Sabha.’ “My uncle was a landlord and possessed a massive bungalow that stretched to two roads. Every star musician coming over to perform in the entire Chettinad region there stayed upstairs at this ancient villa. I was fortunate enough to lodge myself at the stairs for hours and listen to the practice sessions of vidwans, even as I was entrusted with the responsibility of serving tea and eatables! GNB was my uncle’s classmate and I learnt several compositions informally from him. I was only five when I heard T.R. Mahalingam practice his soulful Yadukula Kambodhi and Kedara Gowla at midnight. I would listen to Madurai Mani in awe, his swara passages flowed like a gushing stream! When MLV and her mother Lalithangi came there often, I learnt several devaranamas,” she says immediately slipping into an endearing ‘Yaare Rangana.’ “I remember the audiences’ ecstasy when they heard T. Chowdiah yield his seven-stringed violin which had a rare tonal effect.”

Gowri goes on to explain that even with so much of music everywhere, the irony was she wasn’t allowed to sing in public, for her grandma believed that “tapping tala on the thighs wasn’t considered too feminine.” As years passed by she persuaded and won over her uncle and joined the Meenakshi Sangeetha Vidya Salai for a monthly fee of Rs. 1.50! She had daily lessons from S. Ramanathan and Calcutta Krishnamurthy who were teaching there. After her marriage to Kuppuswamy, she stepped into Bangalore in 1947 and later settled down at Mysore when her husband joined the newly established CFTRI.

Gowri’s life saw a turning point when she accidentally met Mr. Nandi, Station Director of Akashavani Mysore. In the next few days the director had asked her and guided her into singing for the radio. “I was in seventh heaven as I got Rs. 40 in 1950 for half-an-hour of singing for Akashavani! And luck didn’t stop there. R.K. Srikantan was working at Akashavani then, and when he heard me sing, he was more than happy to guide me as a student. Stepping beyond, he even convinced my mother-in-law that ‘singing in public is no crime’ and thus encouraged me to take up more concerts. Srikantan proved to be a pillar of support; a point when his assistance shaped my career to take off in all directions with performances.”

It was later that Gowri’s husband encouraged her to pursue academics and due to T. Chowdiah’s recommendation to the registrar, joined the University College of Fine Arts, Mysore as a Music Lecturer. “My Ph.D. in ‘Comparative study of Carnatic and Western Scales’ is now a textbook at the Music Dept of Tirupathi University,” she says.

While comparing contemporary musicians with yesteryear greats Gowri says, “Those were times when music cutcheris were a relaxed three to five hours. We had time to absorb and experience the genre’s classical profundity. And we learnt more, even as we heard more. Although the vidwat now is nothing less, it’s the ‘racing with time’ that restricts being sincere towards the art form.”

Just as we sign off, student and daughter-in-law Rama pitches in, “She may not have told you, but Gowri-amma hasn’t accepted a single paisa as fee from her students all her life. In fact, she has spent more by providing food and stay, educated several more by paying school and college fee.”

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 1:23:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/the-unsung-star/article4054510.ece

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