A traditionalist, yet she broke glass ceiling

Parassala B. Ponnammal, who passed away in Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday at the age of 96, was a remarkable Carnatic classical singer and guru who broke the glass ceiling of gender.

A recipient of Padma Shri, Sangeet Nataka Akademi Award and Swathi Sangeetha Puraskaram, she used to perform till a few years ago. Her passion for music lasted a lifetime, rather a long one at that, of course.

She was the first female student to join the Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram, where she would also become the first woman to join the faculty. She was also the first woman Principal of RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Tripunithura.

She had begun her teaching career at the Cotton Hill GHSS, Thiruvananthapuram, while she was still in her teens. All this was extraordinary, especially for someone coming from a conservative Tamil Brahmin family in the small town of Parassala.

The turning point in her life was winning the first prize in a Carnatic music competition held at Thiruvananthapuram when she was 16. That contest was judged, among others, by Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who would also become her guru.

In 2006, Ponnammal ended a three-centuries-old tradition, when she became the first woman to sing at the Navarathri Mandapam of the Padmanabhapuram Palace in Thiruvananthapuram. She, however, hadn’t performed much outside Kerala in her prime.

“She certainly deserved to be heard more on India’s prestigious stages,” Carnatic musician and composer Sreevalsan J. Menon told The Hindu. “Twelve years ago, I had gone to Mumbai to watch her sing at the Shanmukhananda Hall. She was 84 then, but nobody would have noticed that. She sang perfectly. I have also had the privilege of learning some music from her.”

Carnatic singer K. Krishnakumar also grew up listening to her in concerts in Thiruvananthapuram. “She always tried to maintain the purity of the classical music,” he said. “Her style was a great example of uncompromising, traditional singing.”

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 10:39:52 PM |

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