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Recording rarities

K.N. VIJU

Indira Menon's tomes on Carnatic music are the culmination of a life-long love affair with music and a storehouse of rare information.


`The Madras Quartet'is a thoroughly researched storehouse of rare information tracing the socio-historical background that led to the emergence of four major female Carnatic vocalists.

Photo: P.K. Uttaman.

FORMIDABLE DUO Indira Menon, right, with D.K. Pattamal

At the age of 70, Delhi-based Indira Menon who has authored two memorable books on Carnatic music and musicians that came out during recent years, is rediscovering the sustaining power of music. Her two published works, `The Madras Quartet' and `Great Masters of Carnatic Music' (2004) are a culmination of a life-long love affair with music.

Blessed with the rare opportunity to learn music in her childhood from T. Brinda, the legendary singer and daughter of Veena Dhanammal, her credentials for writing on music can be called impeccable.

Born in a family renowned for its erudition, her paternal grandfather, Sir K. Ramunni Menon introduced her to music. Ex-communicated by the then Maharaja of Cochin for crossing the sea to study at Cambridge University, Sir Ramunni was a great music connoisseur. He was invited to preside over the annual Music Academy's Sadas in 1944 and was also one of the founding fathers of the Tamil Isai Sangam.

It was Sir Ramunni who introduced music as a subject at Madras University while he was its Vice Chancellor. Believing that learning too must begin at home, he hired the services of T. Brinda to teach Carnatic music to Indira and her sister.

A rare reminder

Readers of her `Great Masters of Carnatic Music' have rediscovered many a forgotten composition. The book combines sheer aesthetic delight, detached assessment and scholarly study of the evolution of different banis. Indira, having travelled widely, and being a keen student of painting, architecture, literature and trekking, draws deftly from other art forms and nature to explain the uniqueness of an aesthetic experience.

`The Madras Quartet'is a thoroughly researched storehouse of rare information tracing the socio-historical background that led to the emergence of four major female Carnatic vocalists.

A lesser-known aspect brought out in the book is the contribution of technology that helped the devadasis to come out of chambers and sing before the public.

The radio and gramophone took their voices to all nooks and corners while the microphone helped them to match the high-pitched singing of the male singers who alone till then sang before the public without a microphone.

The female singing was dismissed as `low brow' and incapable of the intricacies of the manodharma and ragam- taanam-pallavi singing.

Indira traces how in the 1940s, these prejudices ended once and for all by the emergence of D.K. Pattammal, M.S. Subbulakshmi, T. Brinda and M.L. Vasanthakumari.

The contribution of legendary Veena Dhanammali's well recorded. It was Dhanammal and devadasis before her who preserved several Thevaram songs from extinction.

When the social movement for banning the devadasi system grew strong, many turned to music for survival since dance suffered from social taboo.

The initial days

When the HMV and Colombia records were marketed, it was a rare opportunity for women to capitalise on this windfall. The more puritan male singers like Madurai Pushpavanam and Naina Pillai refused to record their voices for fear of sacrilege.

The music companies were instrumental in fostering a spirit of competition between D.K. Pattammal and M.S. Subbulakshmi, but Indira says,the competition never degenerated into rivalry.

The `Great Masters... ' series was serialised in a leading Malayalam weekly and won the acclaim of Malayali rasikas. But for Indira, all her writings are only a thanksgiving to an art that has sustained her over a lifetime. And in the process, she has ended up collecting many treasured memories.

She cherishes having met M.S. Subbulakshmi two months before the singer's death. T.V. Sankaranarayanan gifted her copies of his family photographs featuring his uncle Madurai Mani Iyer and great uncle Madurai Pushpavanam.

So did GNB's son, G.B. Bhuvaneshwaran and Musiri's son, S. Thyagarajan who have gifted her rare recordings in their possessions. Over 500 preserved vintage 78 rpm records belonging to her paternal grandfather K. Ramunni Menon's collection were donated by her to the Samudri archives in Chennai. Preserving old records has become part of her life mission.

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