Chennai and Tamil Nadu
Life time bond with music
Groomed by stalwarts, Lalitha Sivakumar is content with passing on her knowledge to earnest students.
spanning generations: Lalitha Sivakumar, Sivakumar, Lavanya and Nithyashree.
“If you want people to buy brinjals, take them to the market, don’t hide them in the house,” D.K.Jayaraman chided nephew Sivakumar. “Your wife sings so well. What are you doing about it?”
Many who heard Lalitha Sivakumar accompanying her mother-in-law D.K.Pattammal wondered why, with her heritage, high-level training, knowledge and alertness, she did not perform alone. Lalitha’s explanation is simple. “We made lots of music at home, I’d sing and my husband played the mridangam.”
As the daughter of mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer, Lalitha grew up breathing music. K.V.Narayanaswami was a frequent houseguest. He learnt much from Iyer — from pallavis to odukkal technique.
Vidwans from Ariyakudi to Alathur Brothers were regular visitors. Iyer had them sing, so that his students could learn accompaniment for kriti, niraval, swaram and pallavi.
Lalitha remembers her father singing all the time —Kalyani, Bhairavi, Thodi — and exclaiming ruefully, “Why didn’t I become a singer?” Iyer had no thoughts of making his children take up music as a career, though son Rajamani became a mridangist. KVN taught her a few varnams, but Lalitha learnt mostly by osmosis. Attending her father’s concerts was to be awed by the great singers as well — how did they achieve such magnificence?
Marriage at 18 put an end to her hopes of stepping beyond the pre-university course. “I sang ‘Jesinadella’ when the groom’s family came to see me.” The result? Music lesson on the very day after the wedding from mother-in-law DKP! The first song was Annasami Sastri’s ‘Srilalite’ (Bhairavi). The girl found herself on the stage with Pattammal, beginning with Kalki’s ‘Poonkuyil Koovum’ at the silver jubilee celebrations of the Kalki magazine.
“DKP taught a lot, we practised a lot.” The disciple was woken up at 4 a.m. for dawn lessons. “No paper, pen, jotting or notating. Just oral transmission, pure and simple.”
When Lalitha’s travel was curtailed during pregnancy and early motherhood, “Amma would return from a concert tour, drink coffee, and forthwith take up where she had had left, saying, “Come, let’s do the charanam now. What a privilege to have so caring a guru!”
DKP did not just teach the song, she made it come alive with memories of great artistes who sang it, sharing anecdotes, explaining its import, highlighting unique prayogas. It was a heady shower of gems. DKP did not teach alapana, niraval or swaram. She advised Lailtha to hear many kritis in each raga and grasp its rupam and jivan, instil vibrancy by constant abhyasa and reflection.
It was inspiring to hear about DKP’s own learning process. As a girl Pattammal’s learning of ‘Brovavamma’ (Manji) from Naina Pillai’s mother was interrupted by illness in the guru’s house. The charanam had to be found elsewhere. DKP and her brothers scribbled down kritis during the concerts they attended, came home, compared notes and arrived at a format by consensus!
Meanwhile, Lalitha found herself bonding more with her father. Whenever DKP taught her a complex pallavi — as in a cycle of mishra nadai in tishra rupakam — she would sing it to her father for comments. “My father talked about nothing but music and musicians. Dakshinamurti Pillai was a constant presence, so was his reverence for guru Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer.”
With such a background, teaching came naturally to Lalitha. In the past 12 years she has trained some 40 singers, with 4-5 already on the stage. They speak of her firm gentleness and patience. She groomed her daughters, who were also enriched by grandmother Pattammal’s coaching. Gayathri opted to teach.
Nithyasri took wing and soared into prominence. Sivakumar retired from business to accompany her on tours. “He is a relentless critic,” laughs Lalitha. “Once, when Nithya won an award, he refused to attend the ceremony because he thought she fell short of excellence.” Neither mother DKP nor uncle DKJ could convince him to relax his stance.
Lalitha remarks wryly, “Mani Iyer and DKP were both great artistes, and often performed together. But there was a difference. A woman is hampered by household cares, family duties. She can’t have the freedom enjoyed by male musicians.” Lalitha was lucky. Her husband and his family encouraged her musical pursuits. “I was always writing/checking notation, practising, listening to records, trying out new things in manodharma sangitam.”
Despite good reviews, her brief stint as a solo performer fizzled out due to lack of persistence in applying to sabhas. “I was satisfied to sing with DKP. The only problem was the low sruti, but eventually I learnt to handle it.”
With a diffident smile she adds, “M.S. Amma called me after my radio concerts to express appreciation. Vidwans have liked my singing. What more do I need to fill my heart?” However, there is more. For Gayathri’s daughter Lavanya has made her concert debut. Her gurus? Mother, aunt, grandmother and great grandmother! Nithyasri chuckles, “That’s women power in my family!”
(A fortnightly spotlight on music gurus, musicologists and representatives of different schools who have enriched Carnatic music.)
I am sad that my mother did not turn soloist. She’s not only a fine singer, but a wonderful teacher. She chooses her students on the basis of their involvement. That is why I’ve found them reaching a level that at first I thought was beyond them. I was wholly shaped by her. She taught me the value of hard work.
My mother has a brilliant mind. Once, when I gave up on a pallavi rendered with two different talas, maintained by both hands, she worked on it and managed to show me a flawless anulomam and pratilomam too! She can’t resist a challenge. All I have to do is plant a seed. “Is there a ragamalika tillana? Can I find a tillana for my theme concert on Bhairavi? And in no time she would have composed pieces just right for the need. Amma’s gurubhakti moves me. She will not allow the smallest change in her guru’s patantara.
“Saraswati sings through my mother-in-law. You can’t question that, can you?” she would ask. No wonder Pattammal saw Amma as her torch-bearer.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu