Recipients of the Padma awards this year talk about their respective journeys

Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and his wife Kaleeshabi Mahaboob. Photo: M.Srinath/ THE HINDU

Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and his wife Kaleeshabi Mahaboob. Photo: M.Srinath/ THE HINDU  

The stories behind the winners: Recipients of the Padma awards this year from the Cauvery delta talk about their journey in their respective fields

Three personalities from the Cauvery region have done the district proud by being named winners of the Padma awards, among India’s highest civilian honours announced annually on the eve of Republic Day (January 26).

MetroPlus speaks to this year’s Padma Shri awardees Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and Kaleeshabi Mahaboob (from Srirangam), and Padma Bhushan recipient Krishnammal Jagannathan (Thanjavur district) about their experiences.

In complete harmony

Like most long-married couples, nadaswaram exponents Mahaboob Subhani and Kaleeshabi Mahboob tend to complete each other’s sentences, and laugh out loud at shared memories. On stage, their concerts resemble a tandem ride, delicately balanced, and smooth in movement in the Thanjavur style of Carnatic music.

“We compete in a healthy way when we play our instruments. But when Kaleeshabi excels, I stand back a bit, so that she can garner the audience’s attention. She does the same when I have a good turn,” says Mahaboob Subhani.

Representing the 8th generation of a family of nadaswaram vidwans (exponents), the Srirangam-based couple has another reason to be proud this year — both Mahaboob Subhani, 66 years, and Kaleeshabi, 62 years, are among the winners of the Padma Shri awards. The latest honour is an acknowledgement of the years of hard work that preceded the couple’s rise. The story of Mahaboob Subhani’s transformation from an office worker in a tobacco factory in Andhra Pradesh to a seasoned performer is an interesting one, intertwined as it is with his wife’s own struggle against orthodox attitudes that discouraged women from taking up artistic professions.

Originally from Peda Kothapalli village in Prakasam District, Andhra Pradesh, Mahaboob learned to play the nadaswaram from his grandfather and Andhra Pradesh State Government awardee Janab Sheik Chinna Peer Sahib, and later his father, Sheik Meera Sahib from the age of 7.

“But I was not serious about music at the time, because I had to support my family by working after completing my SSLC,” he says.

Kaleeshabi, his first cousin, from the nearby village of Cherukapadu, wasn’t allowed to go to school by her conservative Muslim family. But as she showed an early talent for the nadaswaram, her paternal uncle Sheik John Sahib trained her. “Initially, nobody wanted me to go on stage, because women were not meant to be seen in public, especially performing with men. But once the vidwans started saying that I brought something special and feminine to the nadaswaram, my family had to relent,” says Kaleeshabi.

Mahaboob used to attend Kaleeshabi’s concerts in their village as a spectator, not knowing that she would be his life partner one day. Marriage offered Kaleeshabi a way out of parental objections to her choice of profession, even though Mahaboob was a newcomer to the concert circuit.

Musical achievers
  • Mahaboob Subhani and Kaleeshabi have toured extensively throughout India for their recitals, and have also performed abroad in US, Canada, UAE, France and Germany, among other countries.
  • They were appointed the Asthana Vidwans of Sri Sarada Peetam in Sringeri in 2001.
  • In 2005, they gave a 2-hour recital at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, for then-President APJ Abdul Kalam.
  • On his advice, they have been offering free music concertss to children with mental disability.
  • Among the many honours bestowed on them, is the Kalaimamani award, from Government of Tamil Nadu, in 1994.

“When we got married, my skill with the nadaswaram was almost nil, because I lacked practice,” says Mahaboob. “I asked Kaleeshabi for a year to relearn the instrument, enough at least to support her in concerts.”

Their first concert in Tamil Nadu was held in Dindigul in 1976, before their marriage, for which Kaleeshabi trained Mahaboob for a month.

A year later, they were married, and since then have never deviated from their duet style of recitals. The duo trained under Sheik John Sahib and underwent vocal and instrumental music lessons from K Chandramouli (principal of Government Sarada Sangeetha Kalasala in Kurnool) and nadaswaram exponent Sheik Chinna Moulana in Srirangam, among other teachers.

They shifted permanently to Srirangam in the 1980s, where Mahaboob and Kaleeshabi learned under the tutelage of Sheik Chinna Moulana for 10 years. The couple knows that it is open to public scrutiny as Muslim exponents of Hindu sacred music. “We are Muslims by birth, but performing mangala isai (sacred music) for Hindu temples has been our family profession for generations. We respect all religions equally,” says Kaleeshabi.

Of the couple’s three children, son Firose Babu is set to take forward the family’s musical legacy.

“Receiving the Padma Shri is a rare honour for instrumentalists like us. Artistes are always happy to be recognised,” says Mahaboob.

The roving reformer

File photo of Krishnammal Jagannathan supervising paddy cultivation by Dalit farmers in Nagapattinam district. Photo: K.Subramanian/THE HINDU

File photo of Krishnammal Jagannathan supervising paddy cultivation by Dalit farmers in Nagapattinam district. Photo: K.Subramanian/THE HINDU  

Where is home for Krishnammal Jagannathan? “I am a wanderer, never in one place for long,” says the 94-year-old social service activist who will be conferred the Padma Bhushan award this year.

Krishnammal is in Chennai when we speak to her, where she has come to rally support for her housing project for those affected by the Gaja cyclone of 2018.

“I am very happy to receive the Padma Bhushan, as it will help me to raise awareness about the people left homeless by Gaja in the coastal districts of Tamil Nadu,” she says over the phone.

Born in Madurai in 1926, and later based out of Thanjavur district, Krishnammal and her husband Sankaralingam Jagannathan (1912-2013), worked relentlessly for social development and land redistribution among the poor in Tamil Nadu using Gandhian ideology.

Having participated in the Indian freedom struggle through the Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements, after independence, the couple redistributed nearly 4 million acres of land to the landless poor people through the Bhoodan movement.

Causes aplenty
  • Krishnammal, either singly or with her husband, has established at least 7 non-governmental institutions for the poor.
  • The Jagannathans also highlighted the dangers of commercial prawn farming along the coast of Tamil Nadu through non-violent rallies.
  • Krishnammal has been a Senate member of the Gandhigram Trust and University and of Madurai University.
  • Awards won: Padma Shri (1989); Opus Prize by University of Seattle (2008); Right Livelihood Award (2008).

The couple started looking at land reform issues after a wage dispute led to the massacre of 44 Dalit women and children in Kilvenmani, Nagapattinam district in 1968.

After her husband’s demise, Krishnammal has continued to work through the non-governmental organisation Land for Tillers’ Freedom (LATFI) that the couple started in 1981.

LATFI enabled Dalit farming families to get land from big landowners through a government-negotiated forum, which helped to empower rural women in the 1980s. The NGO also conducts vocational workshops for agriculturalists to help them generate income during off-season months.

Having interacted with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Vinobha Bhave, and Martin Luther King Jr., the nonagenarian has got a long-range view of the country’s growth since independence. “I feel sad that inter-caste animosity and poverty are killing the spirit of living despite 72 years of freedom,” she says. “The great spiritual atmosphere of India is getting spoiled by religious tensions and narrow-mindedness.”

Even though she has slowed down due to her advanced years, Krishnammal says the memories of her storied life keep her going. Among these is listening to Vinobha Bhave singing spiritual songs in Tamil every morning when she collaborated with him during the Bhoodan movement in 1952. “I walked with him from Kanyakumari to Pathankot during the Bhoodan Padayatra,” she recalls.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 8:05:02 AM |

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