The Dhanammal School of Music

Only a few old-timers still among us can describe Veena Dhanammal’s (1867-1938) live recitals in her home. And few old records are left to give us a taste of her magic. The redoubtable lady played the veena in the slow tempo (without the plectrum as it was too harsh for one so aurally sensitive as she was) to bring out the subtle glints and nuances of the rakti ragas. She also sang the compositions along in a manner that left listeners spellbound.

Though we associate the padam tradition with her school, Dhanammal was equally adept at rendering the awesome kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar, and reflecting the melting moods of Syama Sastri. Such was her impact on the cognoscenti that even today her bani or style is considered to be the acme of all that is refined and chaste in traditional Carnatic music.

Dhanammal belonged to a lineage of musicians and dancers at the Tanjavur court, traceable to Papammal four generations removed. Her own art drew admirers from the ranks of musicians and critics. Many composers like Tiruvotriyur Tyagayyar, Muthialpet Ponnuswami and Dharmapuri Subbarayar, wrote songs in praise of her musical genius, such as the gem-like javali “Sarasundaranguni” in Pharaz.

Dhanammal has been the fountainhead of three generations of artists in her family—her four daughters (Rajalakshmi, Lakshmiratnam, Jayammal, Kamakshi) were exemplary vocalists. Her grandchildren included Brinda, Mukta (vocal), Abhiramasundari (violin), Sankaran (musicology), Ranganathan (mridangam), Viswanathan (flute), and Bharatanatyam legend Balasaraswati. Great grand daughters Lakshmi and Vegavahini continued to bear the torch.

Anyone who has seen Balasaraswati perform will know that to her, dance was nothing but sangita, it was visual music. No wonder she noted that every adavu in her guru’s dance compositions was perfectly aligned to the swaras. She never forgot mother Jayammal’s teaching, “Your head, your whole body, must move with the sangati, the gamaka, not just with the tala.”

Sadly, despite the zealous guarding of their musical wealth by family members, the Dhanammal School has few proponents today. The widespread feeling that it is too pure and profound to satisfy current preferences for speed and fireworks has led to its near-obsolescence. The style extracts tremendous discipline, sensitivity and breath control as it at once demands weighty rendition, powerful oscillations, and delicate loops and links.

However, if such a resplendent style disappears without a trace, mainstream Carnatic tradition will be the poorer for it; it will certainly lose depth and sophistication. Bharatanatyam will equally be the loser, as it is the music, which evokes, colours, enhances and modulates the dancer’s rhythms of expression.

(Based on a presentation at the Natya Kala Conference (2000) at the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha)