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With many firsts to her credit

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

Anasuya remains unrivalled in propagating Andhra’s folk music and lalita sangitam.

. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Indomitable spirit: Vinjamuri Anasuya Devi

“Sing a song composed by an unknown girl from Andhra? NO!” thundered P.U.Chinnappa to director K. Subrahmanyam. But when he came to her concert arranged by the director, he exclaimed, “Wonderful!” and began to hum the song which was to become a hit (“Anbe Ellam Taruven,” Vikatakavi).

Vinjamuri Anasuya Devi sings the same song in a voice that remains resonant and riveting at 88. “This harmonium is older than I am,” she smiles. “These are called Mohana reeds. What madhuryam!” This inseparable partner accompanies her life story, told with chuckles, tears and songs.

“I belong to a family of poets and artistes. My ancestors were diwans and pandits at Pithapuram court,” she announces with pride. Father Venkatalakshmi Narasimha Rao, a Telugu-Sanskrit pandit, was a scholarly author and amateur stage actor. Mother launched and edited Anasuya, the first women’s magazine in Telugu, featuring women writers and Ajanta style illustrations. “The Maharani of Pithapuram sent recipes from the royal cuisine!” The daughter was named after the magazine.

Influenced by the Brahmo Samaj movement and the freedom struggle, family elders supported widow remarriage and inter-caste marriage — “Though not within the family,” Anasuya Devi laughs. The women learnt Sanskrit, and studied literary texts from home tutors. They breathed Telugu poetry. Wasn’t uncle Devulapalli Krishna Sastri the trendsetting poet of Andhra?

Little Anasuya’s initiation in classical music began with Sonti Lachiah, the descendant of Tyagaraja’s guru, and continued with Munuganti Venkatrama Pantulu, guru of Andhra titans Pinakapani and Voleti Venkateshwarlu. “He taught me to sing ragam tanam pallavi as well, not just kritis.”

Great Carnatic musicians sang at the local Sarasvatigana Sabha. But Burra Katha, Thol Bommalata, Tappatagullu, Chakka bhajana and Golla Kalapam were living traditions in the culture rich Andhrabhumi.

On trips to nearby Pithapuram the child watched villagers singing in the fields bordering the bullock cart lane, songs of seeding, watering, replanting and reaping harvests. She repeated them with glee. Little did the child know then that she was going to pioneer the collection of such songs, and give them stage status along with Carnatic kritis.

Her precocity brought praise and trouble. When the harmonium man ditched “Anarkali,” a play masterminded by the father, little Anasuya, raised to harmonium level on cushions, managed to win thunderous ovations. But at her first music competition, instead of the scheduled kriti, she burst into a full-throated “Mogudochi Pilachedu” that she had heard that morning on the gramophone, sung by Bidaram Rasappa. The judge asked gently, “Any Tyagaraja kriti?” Whereupon the girl sang “Nidhichala Sukhama.”

Special rustic touch

Hearing this, Valuri Jagannatha Rao immediately offered to take the child to Madras to record folk songs (then called “comic songs”!) He believed that her vocal timbre was perfect for the genre, and trained her to intone with its special rustic touch.

At age eight, her “Ayyo Koyyoda” became a hit. Other recordings followed including one in Calcutta where Anasuya met K.L.Saigal, who warned her never to sing more than for one side of the “plate” per day.

Light music became her forte from the time she composed the music for her uncle’s verses for the royal wedding at Pithapuram. “The delighted Maharani gave me a grand royal tanu (skirt) and a silver plate heaped with 101 gold sovereigns. I remember how I stopped to cry between the verses, when I sang about the bride leaving home!” says Anasuya and sings those Mukhari “wails” with feeling. Soon uncle and niece became regulars at literary meetings, as she illustrated his talk with bhava geetam or “Renaissance music.” She sang at Congress meetings, before the Mahatma, Subhashchandra Bose and Nehru. Her patriotic song was proposed for the national anthem.

Anasuya found that her prodigious talent and commercial success did not ensure the realisation of her own dreams. As the family’s main wage earner she had to give up her job with AIR Madras, and ambitions of research in folk music. She trained sister Sita to accompany her vocally and to fulfil the academic dreams.

Actor-singer A.S.Giri’s ten years’ pursuit of Anasuya Devi was rewarded with marriage, and five children, including Houston-based dance guru Ratna Kumar. Regrets last-born Sita Ratnakar, Assistant Station Director, DD, Chennai, “She continued to perform and tour but domesticity made Amma put her career on hold.”

First woman music composer/musicologist in Andhra Pradesh, first woman music director in South India, first woman music composer in AIR, first to sing classical, folk and light music on radio and concert, first to publish Andhra’s light and folk music in Carnatic notation — multi-awards/honours Anasuya Devi’s achievements make a long list. She remains unrivalled in propagating Andhra’s folk music and lalita sangitam.

The indomitable woman has a final thought to share. “With less home cares I could have written 50 books. I wrote only two, including my autobiography. I also regret that I’ve no one to sing in my style after me. May be I was ahead of my time. Let me see what more I can do...”

(A fortnightly spotlight on music gurus, musicologists and representatives of different schools who have enriched Carnatic music.)

Book release

Twenty five years ago, Vinjamuri Anasuya Devi published seven books of traditional, light and folk songs in Telugu, sung during worship, at home, at work, and at play, with musical notation by her. They included women’s songs, and verses by Devulapalli Krishna Sastri. Some had traditional tunes, others were set to her own music. These works of a lifetime are now out of print.

Two of them — “Bhavageetalu” and “Janapada Geyalu”— are to released at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (April 12), to mark Anasuya Devi’s 80th year as a singer. S.P.Balasubramaniam, S.P. Shailaja and Malgudi Shubha will render some of the songs at the function.

Work on these new imprints began at the author’s expense. However, contributions poured in unasked from friends and admirers until they had to be stopped because they exceeded the requirement. The other five books, incidentally, are slated for release later this year.

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