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The voice that touched the skies

VATSALA VEDANTAM

D.K Pattammal made determined strides in the public domain of Carnatic classical music, changing the relationship between women and music forever

PHOTO: From The Hindu Archives

The many faces of music D.K. Pattammal broke those barriers that prevented women from giving music performances

Those were heady days in the early Forties, with freedom in the air. Political rallies. Strident cries of “Quit India!” Then, this sweet voice sang “Aaduvome pallu paaduvome, ananda sudhandhiram adaingha vittom…” It was a clarion call reaching out to young and old. Everyone triumphantly joined her in “Viduthalai, viduthalai, viduthalai!” as the national flag unfurled in our small mining town. I wonder if the 23-year-old girl from Damal, who immortalised Subramania Bharathiyar thus, ever realised this magic of her music on a whole generation of listeners. Which 70-year-old will not melt even today to her rendition of “Chinna chirukiliye kannamma” or “Parakulle nalla naate?” Or, which of her millions of rasikas would still not keep time to “Theerata vilaiyattu pillai” if they hear it for the thousandth time? Such was the magnetism of D.K. Pattammal.

Much has been written about this trinity of Carnatic classical music — MS, MLV and DKP. The three women who dared to defy the orthodox and the conventional by breaking into a strongly-guarded male bastion where only a Chambai or Ariyakudi could sway audiences. It was an exclusive domain, where only devadasis were permitted to sing and dance. It was in such a society that “Patta and Rukmini Devi broke the barriers which kept women from performing in public” intercepted husband Easwaran while I interviewed his celebrated wife. Well, that is another story.

It took me three years and a lot of stubbornness to get that precious interview, with Easwaran adamant about keeping journalists away. Yet, when I finally met them at their residence — she reminiscising in her wheel chair — and he, generously providing anecdotes, it was a marvellous experience to meet this gracious artist whose humility matched her greatness. As one of the best exponents of classical music, Pattammal was willing to share her expertise with young pupils. I found one of them sitting at her feet and practising like any music student with any music teacher in a typical south Indian household. The greatest artist of our times had no pretensions about herself.

Her orthodox parents, Damal Krishnaswamy Dikshitar and Rajammal, were both musically inclined but afraid to launch their talented daughter into a questionable profession. Pattammal grew up in Kancheepuram, home of the well-known Nayana Pillai who inspired and awed her. But her musical talent was carefully hidden until she sang some slokas during the Thyagaraja Utsavam, where she was noticed by a man who changed her life forever. He was a Telugu vadhyar, who offered to teach the six-year-old girl music along with Telugu and Sanskrit. Her father was aghast at first, but gradually relented. Recalling this teacher, Pattammal says: “He straightaway taught me compositions by revered composers even though I had no formal training in music.”

This was the foundation for her future repertoire which introduced her to savants like Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and Arunachala Kavi among others. She never revealed his name, but recalled the inconspicuous man who stood outside the Rasika Ranjani Sabha years later, his eyes brimming with tears as he listened to her concert. It was her old teacher. Pattamal wiped her own tears when she remembered him again.


Much has been written about her outstanding accomplishments. I like to remember the small things that revealed her simple and homey ways.

“May I have a picture of you with your husband?” I asked.

PHOTO: R. Senthil Kumar

She turned to him with her disarming smile and said: “Wear your new shirt.”

He sat on the arm of her wheel chair. That is one photograph that I will always treasure.

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