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The last bastion of an inimitable tradition

T. Muktha: The last bastion of an inimitable tradition

Only Pattammal and I are left now. Why should I live anymore?” This was the constant refrain of the veteran vocalist and doyenne of the Veena Dhanammal family, after her close friend M.S. Subbulakshmi passed away.

T. Muktha, of the renowned vocal duo Brinda-Muktha, passed away on the morning of Sunday, March 11th 2007. She was 92. Muktha is survived by her daughter Lakshmi and granddaughters Vardhini Prem and Uma Vasudevan.

Tanjavur Muktha was born in September 1914 to Veena Dhanammal’s fourth daughter Kamakshi. She was one among six children of Kamakshi and 13 grandchildren of Dhanammal. When Muktha was seven and elder sister Brinda nine, they were sent to Kanchipuram Naina Pillai for their musical education. In the four years that they stayed at Kanchipuram, Brinda and Muktha learnt as many as 400 compositions of Tyagaraja, a few compositions of Syama Sastry and Subbaraya Sastry and innumerable Tevaram and Tiruppugazh songs. Naina Pillai was satisfied with their progress and asked Kamakshi to take them back and polish their music in “your mother’s incomparable bani”.

Back home, Brinda-Muktha’s aunt Lakshmiratnam became their guru. She taught them innumerable compositions of Dikshitar, Syama Sastry, Subbaraya Sastry, Gopalakrishna Bharati and their family treasure of padam-s and javali-s and moulded their music along the lines of their inimitable grandmother. A grateful Muktha would later in life give Lakshmiratnam’s name to her only daughter. Dhanammal herself taught Brinda and Muktha about 30 to 40 compositions.

Though Brinda and Muktha started giving concerts at a very early age, the turning point came in 1934 when they performed at the Rama Navami celebrations organised by their guru Naina Pillai in Kanchipuram. An ailing Naina was especially pleased with the singing of Muktha and he blessed both the sisters. He died soon after. Brinda-Muktha’s career never looked back after that and for almost four decades they performed together. With their younger sister Abhiramasundari accompanying them on the violin, the sisters’ tradition-bound music, soaked in melodic purity and full of deep feeling, was found most moving by listeners. Brinda-Muktha’s music was not for the ordinary brand of rasika-s, it was for the well initiated and the knowledgeable. They did not draw large crowds, unlike their contemporaries, though many veteran musicians were avid rasika-s of the duo. Some like Semmangudi and MS even learnt from Brinda.

When the duo parted, Muktha began giving concerts alone, accompanied by one or the other of her disciples. Her music acquired a unique sheen. For the next 34 years, Muktha sang tirelessly and taught a number of disciples, prominent among whom are R. Vedavalli, Nirmala Parthasarathi, Nirmala Sundararajan, Ritha Rajan, Meera Seshadri and S. Sowmya. She also taught a few of her nephews and nieces. She was very kind to her disciples and gave of her all. Noble and generous to a fault, Muktha had a good word for everyone. She was known as the softest face of the Dhanammal family. She possessed a great sense of humour too.

Muktha’s last public concert was at the Musiri Subramania Iyer home in Chennai in January 2004. Senior musicians, disciples and rasika-s turned up in large numbers to savour, for the last time, the vintage music of the Dhanammal bani. Muktha was the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1972), All India Radio’s National Artist award and the Music Academy’s Sangeeta Kala Acharya award.

One by one, her relatives left this world. All her brothers, her sister Abhiramasundari and her cousins Balasaraswati and Ranga died before the last decade of the 20th century began. Thereafter, starting with Brinda who died in 1996, cousin T. Sankaran (son of Lakshmiratnam) followed in 2000, and finally cousin T. Viswanathan who was younger to Muktha by 12 years died in 2002. The death of Viswa, who was very close to her, greatly saddened Muktha as did MS’s passing away two years later.

Muktha suffered a fall in 2004 and thereafter was confined to her bed. Even as, one by one, her other faculties faded away, music remained with her. She could sing any song without forgetting even a word or a sangati. The end came peacefully. On her last journey Muktha, clad in a red saree, was radiance itself. Her face shone like the sun. She had become one with Nadabrahmam.

Mukthamma - as I knew her : Vedavalli

As her very first student, it is with joy and pride that I write about Mukthamma. At the same time, I am deeply saddened that I have undertaken this task after she is no more in our midst. Way back in 1971-72, I had the great fortune of receiving from the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, a fellowship to specialise in, and study, padam-s and javali-s under her and hence, as one who interacted with her closely, I am happy to share some of my experiences and precious moments with Mukthamma.

Earlier, I had learnt some small padam-s from my guru Sangeeta Kalanidhi Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer. But padam-s and javali-s were the forte and treasure of the Veena Dhanammal family and what greater privilege than learning them directly from a scion of this legendary lineage! My guru advised me, “Go learn from Mukthamma, learn padam-s and javali-s, but above all, learn their voice production.”

Initially, I went to the class with a lot of apprehension and trepidation. Will I be able to sing padam-s and javali-s well? Will I be able to sing to her satisfaction? Will I be able to learn quickly? I went to Mukthamma not as a beginner but as an established concert artist. Also Mukthamma did not have any students of her own at that time. I was blessed to be one of her very first students. I still remember how she taught the first padam in Sankarabharanam Maname bhooshanamu. Singing a padam is not the same as singing a kriti. There are subtle inflections and long, winding phrases not common in other compositions. Mukthamma was surprised at how quickly I learnt the new form. After teaching me the pallavi and anupallavi, she said with a smile, “Shall I proceed with the charanam?” She taught me the whole padam the same day and I realised that she was happy to impart her legacy to me.

At first I had to listen very attentively as I was not used to their style of singing, particularly the different karvai-s and the Triputa tala to which many padam-s are set. Later on, I fell into the groove and learnt not only padam-s and javali-s but a vast number of other compositions as well. Mukthamma never liked to sing the padam-s very slowly. She would remark, “Do not drag the piece. Sing it a little faster.”

Those were the days of the oral tradition, as tapes and other audio aids were not very common. I used to notate the padam-s and javalis as soon as I learnt them so as to keep them in the authentic form without change. Mukthamma once remarked, “We learnt the padam-s in the oral tradition and have no written records. You have notated each song beautifully. Will you give me a copy?” Thereafter, I notated each song that I learnt from her and gave her a copy of the script. Later, many students benefited from those notations. They found it easier to learn with the notation.

Learning music was very different in those days. It was not easy to learn songs unless the teacher was willing to share his or her knowledge. Rare compositions were seldom taught and were preserved and jealously guarded. It is not so today. If one wants to learn a particular composition, one can get it from somewhere in the globe. Even if it is sung in one part of the earth it can be learnt and sung somewhere far away. All this is done with ease because of advanced technology and communication. When I learnt from Mukthamma, I was told not to teach the pieces to all and sundry: “Learn all you want from me, but do not give it out easily to one and all.” I promised her that I would treasure all that I learnt from her.

Many years later, an audio recording company approached me to record padam-s and javali-s. I went to seek Mukthamma’s permission. I was a little nervous about approaching her, as it was a time when she was still singing well and could have herself rendered the songs. Her response was, “Go ahead. Sing well. Sing what you have learnt.” She gave me her unstinting support and blessings. That was the first audio production of padam-s and javali-s. It was particularly useful for dancers as the padam is a singularly important item for them. Subsequently, it was made into a CD.

When I first went to learn from Mukthamma, it was like attending any other music class—repeating the earlier lesson and then learning a new one before going home. But over time, a bonding and a friendship developed between the two of us, the unique ‘guru-sishya bhava’ blossomed. It was the sharing of a common interest, moving towards a common goal.

Whenever I visited Mukthamma at home, apart from singing, we had many interesting conversations. I once asked her, “Mukthamma, I do not understand how some children sing well but do not have a grip over tala. Again, in spite of a lack of grip on the laya aspect, they learn to dance and also perform on stage? I wonder how they manage it!” Her response was interesting: “In a dance performance, the entire control is in the hands of the guru who does the nattuvangam. If that is perfect, the student manages to dance well in apparent perfection because of sheer practice. That is not the case with music. Here the individual has to be in complete control over all the aspects including raga and tala.”

As both Mukthamma and I used to go to the Music Academy to take classes, she said she would teach me in the Academy premises. At times she would come home to teach, but would not even take water while teaching. As she had the habit of taking a few cloves before singing, she would ask for some. She had a wonderfully rich voice capable of traversing the upper registers with ease. In fact, in many of the padam-s and kriti-s that she and her sister Brindamma rendered together, Brindamma would render the lower octave while she would sing the same in the upper octave. When Mukthamma started singing alone later, she continued to sing certain lines in the upper octave as that was what she was comfortable with. She told me that, while her sister learnt formally from Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, her own learning had been by listening while her sister learnt.

Mukthamma was, for a very long time, in the shadow of Brindamma but when she came out of it, she proved that she was a great singer. Her voice had a wonderful reach. Even at the age of eighty, her pitch had not gone down much and she was able to render sangati-s with ease. She had the memory of an elephant, not forgetting a single line or a single sangati of a piece. While padam-s are rendered in a slow tempo, there are subtle and fast sangati-s which require a great deal of maturity and practice to sing. Mukthamma was a perfectionist. When she taught, she made sure that the song was learnt absolutely perfectly. She had the patience to go over it again and again until this was achieved. Apart from padam-s and javali-s, Mukthamma had a rich repertoire of the compositions of the Trinity and other composers.

At times, I was in a dilemma as to how to render certain songs. The Gaulipantu padam Kuvalayaksheero is a majestic piece but is rendered with prati madhyamam in the Brinda- Muktha School, whereas I am used to singing the same raga with the suddha madhyamam. It is a known fact that in their way of rendition there are some changes and differences in pathantaram. I therefore asked her, “Mukthamma, how can I sing the same raga in two different ways?” Her reply was straightforward and simple, “This is the way I have learnt it. Do not tell me about this madhyamam and that gandharam. I have always learnt without going into technicalities. You can feel free to render it differently.” She always spoke with a touch of humour and never hurt anyone. She knew very well that her school had changed some raga-s but she sang them in that manner as that was their family tradition. At the same time, she never insisted that I should sing it the same way.

Destiny works in strange ways.

In December 1983, Mukthamma was to render padam-s at one of the sessions at the morning conference of the Music Academy presided over by Dr. S. Pinakapani. Coincidentally, I presented a lecdem on ‘Venkatamakhi’s Prabandha-s’ in the first session the same morning. As soon as my programme was over, I took my seat in the auditorium to listen to my guru. There seemed to be some delay and everyone was wondering when Mukthamma would arrive and begin her programme. T.S. Parthasarathy was the Secretary at that time. Suddenly I received a note from him, “Your guru Mukthamma has had some unexpected problem and is not able to come. Can you sing instead?” This took me totally by surprise leaving me with no time to think. On the one hand, I was disappointed that I could not hear Mukthamma sing. On the other, it was a god-sent opportunity for me to sing in my guru’s place. I sang padam-s and the programme went on uninterrupted. Dr. Pinakapani had some complimentary things to say at the end of the rendition.

The Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi has archived and preserved interviews with select artists. As their convenor, I was asked to undertake the task of interviewing Mukthamma in 1991 and I am sure this interview will be available in the SNA archives. She mentioned in the interview that ‘sravanam’ (listening) was of great importance. Learning was part of a very strong oral tradition, as there were no books and audio aids but only the voice of the guru. The Veda-s were assimilated and learnt that way and so was music.

Mukthamma was very simple, understanding, generous in imparting knowledge, and was liked by everyone. Every year, I would call on her and seek her blessings on the occasion of Vijaya Dasami. If I was even a little late she would remark, “Come, I was wondering what had happened to you. What more do you want from me? You have learnt everything.” I would reply that I wanted her blessings and nothing more.

When, as an awardee of the Emeritus Fellowship from the Department of Culture, I was asked by the Human Resources Ministry of the Government of India to nominate a worthy person for the award, I could think of none other than Mukthamma. When I mentioned this to her, she was overjoyed and wanted to see a copy of the letter that I had sent. She said to me, “I am not worried whether I receive the fellowship or not. It is enough that you have written so beautifully about me.” For my part, I was really thrilled that the Government of India recognised her worth and awarded her the Emeritus Fellowship that she richly deserved.

As the years went by, Mukthamma became weaker and weaker. She used to joke: “When I was strong and young, nobody invited me. Now they want me to go to America! Do I need all this now? I cannot even leave the house without an escort!” Fortunately, she had a successful US tour where she was honoured and the rasika-s had the rare privilege of listening to the octogenarian with a rich musical heritage and a richer voice

In 2004, I invited Mukthamma to the cradle ceremony of my grandson. She came and said, “How can I no sing for my Vedavalli’s grandson!” and rendered a beautiful taaalattu (lullaby). I can never forget this episode and take it as a great blessing for my entire family.

On another unforgettable occasion, I visited her when she was ill and weak after a fall and suffering a kind of stroke. She had memory lapses and could not recognise many people, but I was overjoyed when she hugged me and said, “How can I forget my Veda?” My eyes filled with tears when I saw her plight but I was touched that she remembered and recognised me. Mukthamma and her music will be with us, etched firmly in our memories. I will always remember my guru. It is a relationship that has no end. It is an everlasting musical journey.

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