Elegance, not flamboyance, was her forte

D.K. PATTAMMAL: Traditionalist to the core.

D.K. PATTAMMAL: Traditionalist to the core.   | Photo Credit: — FILE PHOTO

Gowri Ramnarayan

D.K. Pattammal made history with her mastery of laya, hitherto regarded as belonging exclusively to male territory.

Carnatic vocalist Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal (1919-2009) retained two paradoxical attributes. A traditionalist to the core, she emerged as a trailblazer.

A 1936 reviewer announced: “She renders the grand kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar with the weight and precision of a frontline musician. Her vidwat is infused with mellifluousness.” This same voice also sang a popular film song extolling the socialist ideology (“Pazham bharata nannadu”) with the same vocal clarity and mental conviction brought to the classical kritis. For Sangita Kalanidhi D.K. Pattammal never sang anything until she grasped its external form and laya, and internalised its intent and bhava.

Born in an orthodox Dikshitar family in Kanchipuram, little Patta grew up listening to her father’s raga-steeped sloka recitations, and concerts by titans at the Tyagaraja Festival organised by the redoubtable Naina Pillai. Naina Pillai was often criticised for his showmanship, but to Patta he was a lion towering over his “full bench” of accompanists. She wanted to imbibe that fearless majesty. She did, but without the razzmatazz.

Today, the hurdles this musician had to cross seem astonishing. As a Brahmin woman, she could not undergo gurukula training — the norm in those times. Nor did she belong to a family of musicians inheriting the art as a birthright. Patta desperately notated songs in concerts, and took down key phrases of ragas rare or intricate. Her brothers — later her accompanists — helped her in this task.

Without a regular teacher in the early stages, she never got to learn the initial swara exercises. Once, when an exam demanded varnam singing, she had to procure the notation somehow and transform the text into music by recalling the raga as sung in the concerts she had heard. She gave her first public concert without ever having sung with violin and mridangam. How did she manage? “God’s grace and intuition!” was the answer.

Her early gurus remain unknown by name; DKP was grateful that they sought her out and taught her what they knew. Her headmistress played a crucial role by giving schoolgirl Patta a role in a musical play, later insisting that she should appear for the government technical examination in music, conducted in Madras. Amazed by the nine-year-old’s handling of the masterpiece “Sri Subrahmanya namaste”, examiner Ambi Dikshitar, grandson of the legendary Muthuswamy Dikshitar, insisted on teaching her himself. But how could DKP’s schoolmaster father afford to extend his stay in Madras indefinitely? The lessons came to an end, leaving the girl thirsting for the unattainable. They became a benchmark for excellence. Later, tutelage under T.L.Venkatrama Iyer was to fulfil the longing for classicist fare.

Fortunately for her, marriage to the no-nonsense R. Iswaran did not spell the end of her career. He encouraged her to be even more uncompromising in her stance.

It is well known that DKP made history as the first Brahmin woman to become a leading performer in Carnatic music. This achievement could be merely a sign of the changing socio-political scene and evolving attitudes to women performers.

But she did make history with her mastery of laya, hitherto regarded as belonging exclusively to male territory. And she did it with elegance, not flamboyance. Pattammal turned her pallavi arabesques into flower gardens for dignified evening strolls. The experts were not fooled. Even pallavi specialists found research material in the way she structured laya patterns. Frontline vidwans like G.N. Balasubramanian sometimes teased her about her complex choices in dhruva talam (29 beats) or sankirna nadai (9 counts). Was it to hide their awe? And surely laya wizard Palghat Mani Iyer overcame his reluctance to accompany women when he played for DKP, not because his daughter had married DKP’s son, but because he was convinced that her sangitam had substance.

Pattammal’s music had a singular rectitude about it. She did not want to titillate or intoxicate, but exalt singer and listener. Many found her restrained raga alapana wanting. But, celebrated for her diction and love of the lyric, DKP could melt hearts when she sang a Sanskrit sloka or Tamil viruttam. She made the hall flame with the patriotic fire of a Bharati song. She summoned peace with “Santi nilava vendum”.

DKP could create the same heightened emotion with her signature kriti, the magnificent “Saundara rajam” (Brindavana saranga). No striving for effect. She didn’t have to. Her complete immersion was enough to spell self-forgetful quietude in singer and rasika alike.

Her last years saw DKP displaying the same integrity that marked her active years. She had been a good home maker, wife and mother. As guru, she groomed a leading vocalist in brother D.K. Jayaraman, a fine musician in daughter-in-law Lalitha, and saw grand daughter Nithyashree achieve stardom.

She accepted old age with smiling resignation. The last weeks saw the grand old lady retiring into uncomplaining silence. She leaves behind a heritage of sound — ripe, deep, luminous, impeccable.

Once long ago, when asked how she had evolved an original style of her own, DKP replied, “What is bani [style], Amma? Nothing but the constant attempt to overcome flaws. Then, suddenly, you find the string is in tune. You hear it resounding, rich and true. In music, and in life.”

Corrections and Clarifications

An article "Elegance, not flamboyance, was her forte" (Op-Ed, July 17, 2009)said, in the sixth paragraph, that Ambi Dikshitar is the grandson of thelegendary Muthuswamy Dikshitar. In response to a query, the writerclarifies that he is a descendant of Muthuswamy Dikshitar's brotherBaluswamy Dikshitar.

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