In the second and third decades of the last century, four women were born in Tamilnadu who are today considered as stalwarts of music and dance. D.K. Pattammal and M.S.Subbalakshmi, two of the trinity of music, were born with an age difference of three years. Renowned dancer Balasaraswathi is younger to M.S. Subbalalakshmi and elder to Pattammal. The youngest of the trinity of music M.L.Vasanthakumari was born almost ten years later (their birth years being 1916, 1918, 1919 and 1928). These four women came from diverse social backgrounds, but were contemporaries hailing from a relatively small geographical area. They attained excellencies in Karnataka music and Bharatnatya dance.
A review of their brilliance, life and achievements provides an insight into theinherent harmony in our society among class, castes and gender as well as the societalquality of recognizing and celebrating the talent.
M.S. Subbalakshmi, being from a Devadasi background married Sadashiva Ayyar. Born in a traditional family, D.K.Pattammal remained traditional both in her personal and professional life.
Balasaraswathi continued in the remnants of the Devadasi tradition, and M.L.Vasanthakumari hailed from a traditional family and led an economically conservativelife. While the public revere the lives of these four geniuses, there is a tendency in themedia to analyse artists from the western liberal lens. In recent years, complaints ofCarnatic music being bound by males and upper castes are increasingly being heard with trained musicians, like TM.Krishna, actively contributing towards the choral. In thiscontext, there is a need for a reassessment of the lives of celebrated artists. This yearbeing the centenary year of D.K.Pattammal, few aspects of her life have been compiledhere to enable such an assessment.
Pattammal was approached frequently by many to perform at social gatherings. But her father did not find it appropriate to expose his daughter to the general public at thatyoung age. Also, the father of Pattammal was not for recording music and playing it atgatherings without considered selection of venue and audience. He did not want his daughter's voice to enable such disrespect to divine carnatic music. But, finally, thefamily and well wishers of Pattammal came to a decision to encourage Pattammal to sing
in public. Dr. Srinivasan of Kancheepuram, who was the uncle of Sri Iswaran, played akey role in arriving at this consensus decision.
Pattammal's talent was nurtured by her parents, her extended family and her immediateeco-system, including friends and well wishers of her parents. After marriage, herhusband and in-laws were supportive of her music learning and performance.Pattammal lived a traditional life and faced many unique circumstances created by modern circumstances. But her family and surroundings helped her to make decisionswithout disrupting the traditional life she lived and the extraordinary music career. Pattammal always remembered the love and encouragement she received from herfamily members and teachers.
After her marriage, when Pattammal was away on tour, her mother-in-law used to takecare of home. Before going on tour, Pattammal used to buy all the household itemsrequired in her absence. While at home, Pattammal was personally taking care of theneeds of everyone at home, including those of the cattle. Pattammal was in charge ofhousehold activities and was assisted by a cook.
Pattammal was one of the first female playback singers in films. But here too, shemaintained the devotion and dignity of traditional music. She chooses to sing devotionaland patriotic songs. She consciously refused to sing romantic songs. Patriotism wasinherent in Pattammal and she was supportive of nationalism throughout her life. Even at
the age of 80, immediately after the Kargil War, on July 11, 1999 she sang at the 18-hourCarnatic Music Concert conducted in Chennai for the Kargil Soldiers Benefit Fund.During the freedom struggle, when Paattammal was just 20 years old, she sang a songin the movie Thyagabhoomi (1939) which aroused patriotic feelings among people. TheBritish government promptly banned the song and the film.
Palghat Mani Iyer, a legend in Mridangam, did not play for women until 1967. Pattammalhad not thought of approaching him at any time. Mani was appreciative of singersfollowing the tradition. His deep appreciation towards the humility of Pattammal in
adhering to the tradition, even at the heights of her popularity and recognition, movedhim and Palghat Mani Iyer volunteered to play for Pattammal at the Music Academy in1967. In an interview, Pattammal was clearly told that Palghat Mani Iyer's decision to play for her was not because he was the father-in-law of Pattammal’s son.
(This article was originally written in Kannada by Sri. Viveka Sridhara on the occasion ofthe D.K.Pattammal centenary celebrations at Mythic Society, Bangalore on 17th March 2019. The article is translated with little edits by Sridharan.M.K)