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Veena Dhanammal: the grand matron of Carnatic music

LiveMint logoLiveMint 18-08-2017 Veejay Sai

The world of Carnatic music has launched a series of events to celebrate the 150th birth-anniversary year of Veena Dhanammal.

But who was Dhanammal?

Carnatic music grew out of temple economies before it came to be patronized by royal courts and feudal communities. Till 1947, princely kingdoms south of the Vindhyas could proudly proclaim generous patronage to some of the finest musicians, dancers, painters, craftsmen and other artists.

Thanjavur, the cultural heartland of Tamil Nadu, was a centre for the performing arts. And it was there that the famous trinity of Carnatic music composers—Tyagaraja, Muttusvami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri—was born. It was there that scores of ancient temples patronized artists with substantial grants of land and wealth. The ancient Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur has inscriptions detailing the names of over 400 artists who were dedicated to it. Veena Dhanammal was born into one such traditional family of artists in 1867.

Dhanammal’s ancestors were traditional performers who hailed from the community that later came to be known as “Devadasis”. The family migrated to Madras (now Chennai). There are conflicting records about her exact date of birth but, according to her descendants, Dhanammal was born in August 1867 in George Town, Madras. She learnt veena from Azhagasingarayya. Her vocal teacher, Shatanur Panchanada Iyer, gave her the entire corpus of Tyagaraja’s compositions; he was also a student of Suddamangalam Tambiyappa Pillai, a direct disciple of Muttusvami Dikshitar. A branch of her family had learnt from the descendants of Carnatic composer Shyama Sastri, which meant that all his compositions were part of her repertoire. And this is how the music of the Carnatic trinity became her family heirloom. She also learnt from Baladas Naidu, who was an expert of the padams composed by Kshetrayya of Andhra. But what she excelled at was the veena.

Dhanammal believed that the veena was a chamber instrument and did not require any accompanying instruments. She was known to play it for small gatherings of not more than a dozen people. Over time, the name of the instrument got prefixed to her name, and she came to be known as “Veena Dhanammal”.

Dhanammal would sometimes perform with her sister Rupavati. She had four daughters, who would perform as the “Dhanam Sisters”, in pairs. So the concept of popularizing duos singing in Carnatic can be credited to the Dhanammal family. The late Telugu writer Arudra has suggested that the famous Telugu poet Gurajada Appa Rao introduced the character of Maduravani in the second edition of his seminal play Kanyasulkam after he heard Dhanammal’s music.

Dhanammal’s Friday evening soirées were the talk of Madras. Admirers would throng her house at 6 in the evening. Dhanammal maintained impossibly high standards of music. When she performed, there had to be pin-drop silence. Even the smallest noise from the street below was enough to prompt her to cut short her performances. Musicians were known to block off the street to prevent this. Neighbours would stop cooking during the performance, to ensure the sound of kitchen vessels did not disturb her. Nobody at her soirées was allowed to give the regular rhythmic beat (taalam) that accompanies music. Nobody was allowed to get up and leave.

Only when there was silence would Dhanammal sing and play her veena. The last tram from her area would leave around 8pm. But many were ready to forego that, sleep the night in and around the place, and leave the next morning. Many others didn’t mind walking back to their houses in the night, discussing the music all the while.

Another legend in Kumbakonam town describes how she was invited to perform at the Kumbheshwara temple. As she played the veena, everyone forgot the temple timings and the evening rituals, something that was unheard of. The local seer proclaimed her performance to be equal to the prayers of the hundreds of devotees who thronged that evening.

The legendary Hindustani vocalist Abdul Karim Khan of the Kairana gharana, who lived in Madras for some time, counted himself among one of her many admirers and friends. Gauhar Jaan of Kolkata visited Madras and was hosted by Dhanammal.

Dhanammal’s eyesight reduced with age, and she became completely blind in her last years. But her concerts remained undimmed. Like many of her contemporaries, Dhanammal was averse to recording her music. But thanks to fans, a few recordings do survive in public and private collections.

Dhanammal died on 15 October 1938. But the tradition continued: Her daughters and grandchildren all entered the arts field. Among those who gained fame are the sister duo of T. Brinda and T. Mukta. T. Balasaraswati, her granddaughter, ruled the dance stage. Her grandchild T. Ranganathan played the mridangam and another, T. Viswanathan, sang and played the flute with equal mastery.

No other family in the history of Carnatic music has had as many artists as Dhanammal’s. Today, she lives on in legend. Her wit, her biting sarcasm, her love for betel leaves, and the many stories about her famous soirées, have passed into lore. In 2010, the department of posts and stamps released a commemorative stamp in her honour. More should have been done.

However, her legacy lives on, with her style, popular as the “Dhanammal Baani”, continuing to enthrall music lovers.

Note Worthy is a spotlight on the world of Indian performing arts.

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