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Music pristine and divine


VETERAN It is her humility, born out of wisdom, that endears one to Parassala Ponnammal.

Photo: S. Gopakumar

RICH AND MELLOW: Parassala Ponnammal.

God’s own country has to necessarily possess God’s own music too. Parassala Ponnammal, octogenarian-musician, Gayika and Gnanabhooshanam, who hails from Kerala, has that unswerving fidelity to music. And as she speaks exudes a childlike simplicity. And listening to her sing it is impossible not to surrender to her music. It was a rare opportunity for Chennai rasikas. Talking to the octogenarian took one to a world, where music is pristine and hence divine. A few glimpses of this musical personality:

Your performance at the Navaratri Mandapam…

It was a rare gesture from Prince Aswathithirunaal Rama Verma as I was invited to perform at the Navaratri Mandapam in 2006. It was even historical. You know it was happening after nearly 150 years (177 to be exact) — a lady performing there. I was asked to sing on the first day — the Ragam Sankarabharanam and the kriti — ‘Devi Jagajanani.’

My feeling was one of sheer anxiety. How will it come through? Also I was a bit reluctant — I wouldn’t be able to sit on the floor and a chair in the temple premises was not appropriate. But the Prince insisted and said a special kind of seating arrangement would be made considering my age.

There were innumerable phone calls after the event from people from various walks of life appreciating my effort. The Prince himself visited me after a few days and praised my performance. He said I should sing every year. I sang for the second time in 2007, the raga being Nattakurinji (eighth day). I was also asked to perform at Kuthiramalika, the Swathi festival.

Chennai has not seen much of you…

I have been a regular artiste of AIR Tiruchi. Reviews and write-ups have appeared in Ananda Vikatan and Kalki. There is really no temple in Kerala where I have not sung. In fact my address is simply Parassala Ponnammal, Trivandrum. I did not travel much outside Kerala as I was with the Swati Tirunal Academy and my job responsibilities prevented me from undertaking any such trips.

You interface with Muthiah Bhagavathar and Semmangudi…

A music competition on Chitra Thirunal’s birthday, in 1939, and I had won the first prize. Actually we left, as we had no hope. Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Sir were the judges. They sent me a message and managed to locate me in my village, Parassala. I was really happy, as I had been recognised for my talent. Bhagavathar is said to have remarked thus: “Here is an exceptional singer and she should join the music academy in Trivandrum,” and even insisted on this happening at once. Even my father’s transfer to Trivandrum was arranged “to bring me into music” and I was admitted to the second year directly based on my credentials. Later I joined the faculty — first lady to do so — and I served in the capacity of Assistant Professor/Professsor during 1970-80.

Semmangudi was the principal of the Academy and was at Thycaud (Trivandrum). When I met him he suggested that I could learn from him using the stipend that was being paid to me and orders were about to be made when the Sangeetha Bhooshanam course was introduced.

I was selected (first rank-first batch). Semmangudi himself was the teacher. I still remember how well he taught me the kriti ‘Chethasri’ (Dwijavanthi) and his words of comfort asking to approach him anytime – even on a daily basis - for lessons and learnt quite a few kritis.

This nostalgic journey will not be complete without the mention of my guru Sri Paramu Pillai Bhagavathar who taught me the beginner’s lessons (praramba padam). He had to walk several miles, which he did, just to teach me. Another guru was Sri Vaidhyanatha Iyer, who on his own came forward to teach me. I learnt many Tyagaraja kritis from him.

About your voice…

My voice is in good shape, thanks to my gurus and the kindness of Providence. Apart from avoiding food that is too spicy, I do not observe strict diet restrictions. But then I don’t go on a binge either.

A word for young aspirants…

Learn the initial lessons without hurry. Sadly, what is preferred these days is a package — a kirtanam and associated niraval and swaram — which is not organic growth. This might take you to a competition, perhaps, and win you a prize too but in the long run would only spell disaster. There can never be a quick-tour. What is needed is dedication. Whatever you learn should be useful, as you progress and you should derive its benefit over the days, over the years. This again is my humble opinion.

Bama Krishnan, disciple and faithful aide, adds, “Teacher is endowed with the kind of patience that makes her willing to teach and repeat as many times as you need and I have been lucky to be with her for the past five years. Saveri, Ananda Bhairavi, Thodi, Nattakurinji – you will never know when she began and would proceed beyond the barriers of time. Again she can come up with their capsule versions that could floor you. Dimensions — varying dimensions — that’s what my guru is all about.”

What they said...

Musicians and rasikas were visibly moved by the performance of Parassala Ponnammal for Carnatica.

A sample: P.S.Narayanaswami (Musician)

I listened to her 40 years ago and was impressed. Now it has ripened and what we get now is possibly the finest and most refined version of Ponnammal. She has moulded a number of students; all of them are full-fledged musicians in their own right. Here is a person who never went behind titles, awards or accolades. Even when she sings a portion, I mean an indicative phrase, it has azhutham and it is always natural sangeetham.

Kiranavali (Musician)

Prince Varma talked about her and I also listened to her through At the Carnatica concert, what struck me was her detachment to everything except music. The applause she generated seemed to be of no consequence to her.

She seems to have achieved the golden mean in terms of what, how and how much to give.

Sashikiran (Musician)

I understood that she is a great teacher and has also structured many compositions of Swati Tirunal. The voice is amazingly steady even now. Her patanthara is faultless and something that can be followed.

Ramanathan (a rasika from Kerala)

Parassala Ponnamal belongs to that rare breed of musicians who live and breathe for their art alone. Here is a person who has toiled for a lifetime in the Carnatic backwaters of Trivandrum.

Nothing motivates her other than pure music. She has been recognised in Chennai only now! Some timely exposure when she was in the prime of her life and robust health would have made a big difference.

A seasoned rasika and a diligent senior student of music has this to say: One could hear the plaintive cry of Syama Sastri as she sang `Marivere Gathi.'

The Ananda Bhairavi alapana was a lesson to the eager student - just divine ecstasy.

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