Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pallavi Pattammal

Smt. D.K. Pattammal, considered as one of the female trinity of Carnatic music recently passed away in Chennai, thought of sharing her biography. It will be interesting to know that she was chosen by none other than Ambi Dikshitar the lineage of Muthuswami Dikshitar to pass on the Dikshitar Kritis to the next generation. Patammal also chose only to sing Patriotic/devotional songs in films. Among her big hits was 'Aduvome pallu paduvome' in Naam Iruvar. Pattammal last sang for a film in Kamal Hassan-directed Hey Ram, rendering 'Vaishnava Janato', a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi. She has popularised several patriotic compositions of Subramania Bharathiyar. Please read on to know more.....

Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal (28 March 1919 – 16 July 2009) was a prominent Carnatic musician and a playback singer for film songs in many Indian languages. D. K. Pattammal and her contemporaries M. S. Subbulakshmi and M. L. Vasanthakumari were popularly referred to as the "female trinity of Carnatic Music." Pattammal has been appreciated all over the world by Carnatic music lovers. This trio initiated the entry of women into mainstream Carnatic Music.


Named Alamelu, but fondly called "Patta", Pattammal was born in an orthodox Brahmin family in Kancheepuram of Tamil Nadu, India. Her father, Damal Krishnaswamy Dikshithar, was deeply interested in music, while her mother, Kanthimathi (Rajammal), was a talented singer. However, in line with strict orthodox tradition, Rajammal was not permitted to sing even for friends or relatives. Despite her orthodox background, Pattammal sang and showed considerable music talent at an early age, like her three brothers; D. K. Ranganathan, D.K Nagarajan, and D. K. Jayaraman. Pattammal received no formal training. As a child, she would sit through the concerts and immitate the musicians on returning home. She would also sing simple devotional hymns and songs that her father had taught her. She had also received tuition from a Telugu Vadyar.


Her early gurus remain unknown by name; DKP was grateful that they sought her out and taught her what they knew. Her headmistress played a crucial role by giving schoolgirl Patta a role in a musical play, later insisting that she should appear for the government technical examination in music, conducted in Madras. Amazed by the nine-year-old’s handling of the masterpiece “Sri Subrahmanya namaste”, examiner Ambi Dikshitar, grandson of the legendary Muthuswamy Dikshitar, insisted on teaching her himself. But how could DKP’s schoolmaster father afford to extend his stay in Madras indefinitely? The lessons came to an end, leaving the girl thirsting for the unattainable. They became a benchmark for excellence. Later, tutelage under T.L.Venkatrama Iyer was to fulfil the longing for classicist fare.


In 1929, at the tender age of 10, little Patta gave her first ever radio performance for Madras Corporation Radio (now known as AIR), and 3 years later, she gave her first public concert at Madras Rasika Ranjani Sabha in 1932. One year later, Pattammal moved to Chennai to become a regular performer in concerts and gave her first performance at the Mahila Samajam (the Egmore Ladies Club), and won acclaim. In 1939, Pattammal married R.Iswaran. She quickly rose to stardom, and her musical career spanned more than 65 years. D. K. Pattammal has established a reputation as an authority on the compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar. She has learnt authentic versions of Dikshitar's compositions from Ambi Dikshitar (Dikishitar's great grandson) and from Justice T. L. Venkatrama Iyer. In addition to Dikshithar compositions, Pattammal has also popularised many compositions of prominent composers like Papanasam Sivan.

Pattammal's sweet disposition and humble nature belie the fact that she started a few revolutionary trends in Carnatic music. She is the first Brahmin woman to have performed this genre of music publicly, both on stage and on air. Brahmins ranked as the highest in the caste hierarchy prevalent in India in the early 20th century, and society considered it taboo for a Brahmin woman to perform on stage. Furthermore, Pattammal is also the first woman to have performed Ragam Thanam Pallavi in concerts. Ragam Thanam Pallavi is the most difficult concert item in Carnatic music. Before Pattammal, singing RTP was considered as a male stronghold. Not only did Pattammal boldly venture into Pallavi singing, but she also performed very complex Pallavis in intricate talas (rhythmic cycles) impressively enough to earn the respect of her male peers. For this reason, she became dubbed “Pallavi Pattammal”. She learnt a few pallavis and compositions from Naina Pillai, and several from Vidyala Narasimhalu Naidu - the nephew of Narayanswami Naidu, a prominent composer of javalis. Today, many female Carnatic musicians perform Ragam Thanam Pallavi as the main item in their concerts.

Papanasam Sivan introduced Pattammal to singing for films. Although she received many offers to sing for films, she only accepted those which involved the singing of devotional or patriotic songs, and declined offers involving romantic songs. She first sang in Thyagabhoomi, a film banned by the British for its patriotic content, and then in Naam Irruvar. She has popularised several patriotic compositions of Subramania Bharathiyar. Pattammal had the rare honour of performing at the foundation-laying ceremony of the Bharati Memorial at Ettayapuram.


Pattammal has performed in all major states, sabhas and venues throughout India, as well as numerous destinations around the world, including the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sri Lanka and other countries.

Awards and titles

D. K. Pattammal has received several awards and titles throughout her career. Most notably these include the title “Gana Saraswathi” bestowed on her by the musician Tiger Varadachariar, the Sangeetha Sagara Ratna title, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1961, the Sangeetha Kalanidhi (considered the highest accolade in Carnatic music) in 1970, the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India in 1971, and the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian honor, in 1998. Pattammal was also elected Fellow of Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1992.

Performing style

Pattammal possesses a full-throated voice in the low alto/high tenor range. Her outstanding musical qualities include an overwhelming technical expertise, an uncompromising adherence to pitch and rhythm, and clear enunciation of lyrics. Her performances of shlokas and viruttams (poetry or verse sung improvisationally without rhythmic accompaniment) express great emotion. She also has a reputation as a very disciplined musician. As a child she woke up before dawn and practised for hours. Throughout her performing career she meticulously planned her concert items weeks in advance and practised rigorously. Pattammal’s music had a singular rectitude about it. She did not want to titillate or intoxicate, but exalt singer and listener. Many found her restrained raga alapana wanting. But, celebrated for her diction and love of the lyric, DKP could melt hearts when she sang a Sanskrit sloka or Tamil viruttam. She made the hall flame with the patriotic fire of a Bharati song. She summoned peace with “Santi nilava vendum”. DKP could create the same heightened emotion with her signature kriti, the magnificent “Saundara rajam” (Brindavana saranga). No striving for effect. She didn’t have to. Her complete immersion was enough to spell self-forgetful quietude in singer and rasika alike.


Pattammal's style of singing attracted many students, foremost among them her younger brother D. K. Jayaraman, who sang with her in several concerts, and who himself received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 1990. A few of her other popular students include her daughter-in-law Lalitha Sivakumar, Geetha Rajashekar, her granddaughter Nithyasree Mahadevan, and Bhavadhaarini Anantaraman. Pattammal has taught students from several countries.


Pattammal died of natural causes in Chennai on July 16, 2009 at 1:30 pm. She is survived by her husband, R. Iswaran, her sons I. Sivakumar and I. Lakshmankumar, as well as her grandchildren Rajguru, Gayathri, Nithyasree, and Charan.

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