Kanchipuram Dhanakoti Ammal

Nairn Pillai's aunt Dhanakoti Ammal and mother Kamakshi Ammal, known together as (the Dhanakoti Sisters, were musicians as well. The following article is a free translation of a sketch on Dhanakoti Ammal included in Tsai Methaigal' by T. SANKARAN. In 1949, Dr Sarvapalle Radhakrishnan gave a lecture at Baroda University. In the audience, he noticed a Madrasi. ("ailing him aside after the lecture he asked: "Doyou have a job here? Do you know Marat hi or Gujarati?" He also inquired about the man's family background, saying that he might perhaps be acquainted with the Madrasi's relatives. The man began: "Veena Dhanammal...," but before he could complete the sentence. Dr Radhakrishnan exclaimed: "Which South Indian can say that he does not know Dhanakoti? It is a household name...." Dr Radhakrishnan had, of course, confused between Veena Dhanammal and Kanchipuram Dhanakoti Ammal who were both famous musicians belonging to the same generation. He was not alone in doing so. for among the majority of people, including connoisseurs of music, the similarity of their names did cause confusion. Dhanakoti Ammal was the maternal aunt of Naina Pillai: her sister Kamakshi Ammal was Naina's mother..

The two families had close ties. So close that Dhanammal and Dhanakoti Ammal considered themselves sisters. Both families belonged to the sishya parampara of Syama Sastri, but to different branches. Dhanammal would play Himadri sute in Kalyani on the veena; Dhanakoti Ammal would sing its Telugu equivalent. RiranavaraItchi brovumu. Dhanakoti Ammal had a powerful and resonant voice. Wherever she performed she met with success. We have not heard of even a single failure. She was popular particularly in Andhra Pradesh: in Kakinada. Eluru. Rajamahendrapuram and so on. Her Tamil songs were well received by the people of Tamil Nadu. Hers was an astonishingly extensive repertoire. Song after song of Arunachala Kavirayar*s {Ramayana kriti-s) would seem to simply pour out of her in plenitude. During one of her concerts, a young man addressed her familiarly by name and ordered: '"Sing a Ramayana kriti!" Everyone was angered by his discourtesy. Dhanakoti Ammal turned towards him swiftly — she had a slight squint — and in a loud voice belted out the song "Yarada kurange?" (Who are you Oh monkey?).

The audience fell into a breathless silence, awed by her timely musical retort. Many of the songs that Dhanakoti Ammal used to sing are no longer available, not even in palm-leaf manuscripts. Among the Palani Andavar kriti-s that she knew, Chandra jatadhara jagadisvara in Nadanamakriya used to both please and move hearts. The Kapi raga kriti Appane. palani appane, sung sometimes nowadays, reminds one of Dhanakoti Ammal. Among Doraiswamy Iyer's compositions only Indaparamukhameno in Begada is preserved in a gramaphone record. All the others of this composer seem to have been lost. Among the Muthuthandavar pada-s, Tcruvil vaaraano made its appearance briefly in Bharatanatyam recitals and seems to have disappeared after Dhanakoti Ammal. On rare occasions, one gets to hear this Khamas padam as recorded by Balasaraswati's mother Jayammal. Dhanakoti Ammal knew countless pada-s of Subbarama Iyer. One of them, Naanange varuveno in Bhairavi has been transformed into a film song. Th e record is old no doubt, and yet, when we play Yennadi met ha talukku kaatturai — naanarwen podi we can discern the thick and thin shades of Todi raga.

The song is well set in the old traditional pattern of music. Dhanakoti Animal's was a unique style. She would give as much importance to the lyrics as to the music. Sometimes she would go to the extent of singing some of the charana-s ten to fifteen times, savouring their meaning. She was accompanied in singing by her younger sister Kamakshi Ammal — they were known as the Dhanakoti Sisters — and her niece Kuppammal as well. Dhanakoti Ammal would be anxious to see that these two also sang the charana-s as many times as she chose to co. Beginning with Syama Sastri's Sarojadalanetri, Dhanakoti Ammal would exhaust all the possibilities offered by korivachina varikellanu.

While singing it she would imagine herself to be playing on the veena, even making the necessary gestures, and would be lost to the world. She would actually turn around and look at all sections of the audience while singing the words — ennai tirumbi paarano — Won't he turn and look at me? — in the song Teruvil vaaraano. What strength and enthusiasm she displayed in handling rare kriti-s! Dhanakoti Ammal brought many gems to light for the first time. Among them are Kamakshi lokasakshi, Milayadakshi (both in Paras) Mayamma (Ahiri), Devibrova

(Chintamani) and Karunajoodu (Sri). With Dhanakoti Ammal's demise, the sun has set on one of them, Mahishasura mardineem namami, a composition of Dikshitar in Narayani. A song of Srirangam Rangaswami Pillai (known as Corner-house Rangaswami Pillai), Yaarunnai aadarippavar, has become part of film music. Listening to Dhanakoti Animal's rendering of Palintsu papashamani in Kambhoji was an indescribable experience. I remember Chittoor Subramania Pillai singing this piece. Sarva vadya puja used to be performed in the presence of Lord Kachabhesvara in Kanchipuram.

Dhanakoti Ammal suffered from dropsy and yet she would disregard physical discomfort and stand throughout the night, watching and singing during the puja. The gurukkal (priest) would start her on 'Sarali varisai... avataaraya', and she would go on to sing, to the accompaniment of various and diverse instruments. a great variety ol songs in many languages, among them 'Dravida' and 'Oradi' pada-s. Dhanakoti Ammal's patience, interest and involvement during the puja was unequalled. Dhanakoti Ammal (affectionately called Periyamme) did not have children. Her youngest sister Palani Ammal too was childless. It was her second sister Kamakshi Ammal (Chinnamme) who bore Naina Pillai. He r brother Velu Mudaliar's daughters Kuppammal (the first wife of Naina Pillai) and Ramu Ammal used to sing and were known as 'Dhanakoti's daughters'.

Her motherly love was showered upon her students as well. Among them Seithur Sundaresa Bhattar was like an adopted son. She would often call out to him loudly and lovingly and he would answer at once — Periyamme — and run to serve her and do her bidding. Many great vidwans visited her home when she was alive. Puducheri Rangaswami Iyer, Ettayapuram Ramachandra Iyer and Marungapuri Gopalakrishna Iyer were among musicians who performed before her in her home. 32 It is said that the Dhanakoti Sisters were trained in music by Ettayapuram Ramachandra Bhagavatar who came to Kanchipuram often to teach them. Dhanakoti Ammal herself was not able to teach students for long stretches or even regularly because of her illness. And therefore when Bangalore Nagaratnam Ammal approached her and sought instruction in music, she had to turn the young girl away regretfully.

Ramaniah Chettiar was a source of help and support to Dhanakoti's family. Upon his recommendation, a concert was arranged for Dhanakoti Ammal in a Komutti Chettiar's home at Madras. A payment was made but Dhanakoti Ammal lost it. "Periyamme, today's concert was marvellous due to the grace of Sri Rama," said Ramaniah Chettiar. "Since I arranged your concert, I have to pay for it." With these words, he gave her the entire amount she had lost. For Dhanakoti's familv the kriti-s of Syama Sastri, Subbaraya Sastri and Annaswamy Sastri were like wealth inherited from 'grandfather' because the family belonged to the sishya parampara of Syama Sastri. Due to Dhanakoti Ammal's propagation, the Sahana kriti Inkevaruyinaru brova has escaped oblivion. A part of Srimati D.K. Pattammal's repertoire, it can still be heard. Syama Sastri's Tamil composition Santhatham ennai rakshippai in Paras and Subbaraya Sastri's composition in the same language, Sri Kamakshi in Vasanta, are assets she has lelt to posterity. Dhanakoti Ammal used to go to many different towns and villages to perform despite the problems and pains caused by dropsy.

She continued thus until quite old before ending her travels at Naina Pillai's request. Dhanakoti Ammal's ancestral home on Putteri Road near the Kachabhesvara temple at Kanchipuram was built on a raised platform — it had a high foundation — and so her grand-mother came to be known as'Mettu' Kamakshi. It was a musical shrine inherited by generations of men and women skilled in music. Mother Visalakshi Ammal had received musical instruction directly from Kachi Sastri, who was a kinsman of Syama Sastri. Dhanakoti Ammal took pride in being known as the grand-daughter of'Mettu' Ka'makshi. She served people by teaching music, giving free food to the poor, and ministering to the sick. So that, when she died in 1920, her bereaved mother Visalakshi consoled herself by recalling her daughter's generosity and compassion.  

T Sankaran


Sarva vadya puja: A musical offering made in the evening during aradhana, with all the instruments in the temple's ensemble — like the conch and the chenda — as well as the devadasis participating.

Oradi padam: A song in which all the verses are set to music in the same tune and cadence.

Dravida padam: A Tamil song.

****************************************************************************************************************To quote Mudikondan Venkatarama Iyer ...

The Yenadi Sisters and Veena Dhanammal's daughters, Jayalakshmi and Lakshmiratnam, more or less were contemporaries of the Dhanakoti Sisters. In their kutcheri-s, they excluded the main item of the Carnatic music concert, namely the pallavi. But the Dhanakoti Sisters not only included this item, but they were also adept at alternate singing in pallavi elaboration. It is said that Puducheri Rangaswami Iyer instructed them in the intricacies of laya.

To listen to an old recording of Dhanakoti Ammal Click here