Zeal for research

V ocalist and researcher Sukumari Narendra Menon is the quintessence of how grooming by outstanding gurus and exposure to great exponents during one's student days, can go a long way in moulding the musician in a student. She is, perhaps, one among the few musicians in Kerala to have been tutored by ‘Sangita Kalanidhis' only. Even as her performances are evocative of her the deep insight into the realm of ragas, a zeal for continuous research into the varied genres of music over the past four decades has been the hallmark of her career. It was her passion for kutcheris that compelled her to quit her permanent job in Kerala Kalamandalam. Her lecture-demonstrations were the most sought-after as they brought to limelight the correlation between Carnatic music, Sopana Sangeetham, folklore of Kerala and Kathakali sangeetham. During her stint as member of the executive committee of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, she proved her dexterity as an able organiser of cultural programmes as well.

Excerpts from a recent interview ...

Initial days of music

I was born in the family of Mannur Swaroopam in the village of Mannur in Palakkad district. My father, K.C. Rama Varma, was a discerning rasika of music and took special interest in training my mother, Chinnamani Nethiar. Mother herself initiated me into music at the age of five. In my school, at Pathirippala, we had a music teacher, P.R. Subramanya Iyer, who was a graduate in music from Annamalai University. I had the fortune of being taught by him in the gurukulam style as he stayed with us.

With stalwarts

As I completed school, my obsession for music had reached a zenith. Father asked me which course I would like to pursue in college. Naturally, I opted for music. So he decided to take me to Chennai's Central College of Carnatic Music. This was a reputed college, especially because of its outstanding faculty. After an entrance examination, I was selected. My joy knew no bounds. Musiri Subramania Iyer was the principal. He took individual care of all of us and exhorted us to practise whenever time permitted. The College itself was functioning in an old palace with lot of space for each one of us to practise individually. The faculty constituted of the best musicians of those times. They included Chittur Subramanian Pillai, T.N. Swaminathan Pillai (flute), T. Brinda (padams), M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar (veena), Varavoor Muthuswamy Iyer (violin), T.M. Thyagarajan (Dikshitar kritis), Balakrishnan (musicology) and T.R. Subramnia Iyer who was a junior lecturer. They were all recipients of ‘Sangita Kalanidhi' titles from the Music Academy, Chennai.

Sterling concerts

Our principal was particular that his students listen to standard concerts. According to him ‘kelvi jnanam' was important. So he took special interest in arranging concerts by stalwarts in the college exclusively for us. Imagine our fortune of being able to listen to maestros such as Semmangudi, Chembai, Musiri, Ariyakkudi, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Flute Mali, M.S. Subbulakshmi, and M.L. Vasanthakumari apart from our own teachers. We could also interact with them, as we, the students, had to invite these maestros in person and do all the arrangements for the concerts. I sincerely believe that it was this exposure that had dealt a lasting influence on me as a musician. I also remember T.K. Govinda Rao teaching us Navarathri kirtanas and Navaratnamalika.

Into the world of teaching

I passed the ‘Sangita Vidwan' examination with first class. My first stint as a teacher was in Raja's High School, Nileswaram. Then, I was selected as a lecturer in the Music Academy, Palakkad. I landed a permanent job in Kalamandalam in 1964. It was a fascinating experience: teaching music to dance students, singing for dance performances, close interaction with great danseuses and so on. I had to leave Kalamandalam after my marriage in 1974. My husband, P.T. Narendra Menon, continues to be a source of inspiration for me to pursue my career.

Concerts and research

As I left Kalamandalam, chances for concerts soared. I had the privilege of singing in major festivals in India and abroad. Even as a child I had a passion for Sopana Sangeetham, folk songs and Kathakali sangeetham. In 1989, I was awarded a senior fellowship by the Department of Culture, Delhi, for research in Sopana Sangeetham. In this area, the inputs from Trikambaram Krishnankutty Marar and Puthukkode Sadasiva Marar have been significant. My researches in folk songs were fruitful and Sangeetha Cassettes, Chennai, invited me to record a cassette called ‘Folk songs of Kerala.' Balamuralikrishna's guidance in this connection has been very useful.


Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar liked my singing and he conferred on me the title of ‘Ganakallolini' in 1974. While in Chennai, he once told Musiri, “Sukumari is my child.” The Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi honoured me in 2000 with its award.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 7:19:30 AM |

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