Among the temporal deities with a place in the sanctum of Carnatic music, Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal will always remain an admired icon. Her mastery of the classical idiom was outstanding, the range of her repertoire unequalled and the characteristically husky voice enunciating the lyrics with astonishing clarity almost monarchical. Yet she was more than music. She was one of half a dozen women of her generation who freed Carnatic arts from the caste and gender prejudices that held them captive. She was not a rebel like the young M.S. Subbulakshmi, nor a fighter like Veenai Dhanam or Balasaraswathi, nor even a campaigner like M.L. Vasanthakumari and Bangalore Nagarathnamma. But she identified with the cause that propelled them all and, in her own quietly determined way, helped bring about a revolution in the Carnatic universe in the ’40s and ’50s.
She was the only Brahmin in the revolutionary brigade; all the others rose from the “entertainment caste”. To realise what that meant, we must remember that Pattammal was born in Kancheepuram, the sacred “city of a thousand temples”, in 1919, the year of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In those times, in those places, Brahmins wore orthodoxy like a badge of honour. Fortunately for Alamalu, as she was known in the family (Patta to friends), Brahmin conservatism coexisted with a dedication to the classical arts. Men were expected to be proficient in them. So were women, except that they were not to exhibit their competency. Pattammal’s mother Rajammal was a gifted singer, but she was not allowed to perform even before her relatives. She had to sit in her room and sing in whispers. Pucca Brahmins wouldn’t have it any other way.
Her mother’s genes must have worked hard in Pattammal. She was a prodigy, taking to music without any formal training. All she needed was to hear her father’s prayer chants or a temple concert, and she would hum them with ease and accuracy. Her parents were impressed by the girl’s extraordinary talents, especially her felicity with Sanskrit, a language she picked up largely by listening to her father Krishnaswamy Dikshitar. Their encouragement speeded up her musical development. At age 10, Pattammal was allowed to sing for the radio. Three years later, the incredible happened: she sang at a public concert. Then there was no stopping DKP.
So much for the caste barrier, but what about the gender barrier? Family was not a serious problem because R. Ishwar, the husband who came into her life when she was 20, was generally encouraging. But he did lay down a rule or two. She was never to go to a cinema hall, for example. When Meera was running in Madras, Pattammal yearned to see MS’s performance in that musical, especially her rendering of the songs she made immortal. But she couldn’t see the movie. She had to wait till it was shown on TV in due course.
Pattammal also faced the professional problems all women singers did. No self-respecting violinist or mridangist, for example, would accompany a woman vocalist. Mridangam wizard Palghat Mani agreed to accompany her only after his daughter was married to her son. The ultimate tribute to the women who wrought the revolution was that their artistic greatness left the male/caste chauvinists no alternative but to accept them. Pattammal drove the point home by going into the intricate depths of Carnatic music which were considered unreachable by women. She conquered the famed RTP, ragam-thanam-pallavi, a musical segment considered so complicated that only masters (read, men) with the skill to combine dexterity with infallibility could bring out its magic. DKP’s virtuosity with RTP was so spectacular that she came to be known as Pallavi Pattammal.
For all that, she never attained the mass following of MS. There is no mystery in this. Subbulakshmi was married to the most unstoppable impresario of the time, T. Sadasivam. He controlled her music by confining it to the bhakti genre, but made her a universal phenomenon. Pattammal achieved the heights she did without promotional assistance. Interestingly, there is ground to believe that Subbulakshmi herself considered Pattammal a superior artiste. She once told trusted friends that she did not get the exposure to serious classical music that would have put her on par with Pattammal—a clear admission of her admiration for the range of Pattammal’s inclusive repertoire. It takes greatness to acknowledge greatness.
(T.J.S. George is the author of MS—A Life in Music.)