If, out of all the Music Academy concerts this past December, I had been pressed to hand out an award for Debutant of the Year, I would have unhesitatingly picked Parasala Ponnammal, who made a Friday morning come alive for me. The ragas she chose to sing—Begada, Saveri, Poorvikalyani, Todi—were staunchly classical, and she rendered their subtleties powerfully, flawlessly and yet, simply. Best of all, I could shut my eyes and instantly imagine that I was listening to the concert of a sprightly 45-year-old—which is a truly astonishing thing to say about an 85-year-old singer.
No autumn: Ponnammal performing at the Music Academy in Chennai last month. Photo: The Hindu
But then, the Parasala Ponnammal story is a truly astonishing one, and I learnt of it only recently from Rama Varma, one of the people who helped rediscover this treasure.
At the age of 13, after she sang in a competition in what was then Trivandrum, the mother of the Maharaja of Travancore (Varma’s great grandmother) insisted that she study formally in the city’s music college. At the college, Ponnammal trained under many stalwarts, including Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and when she graduated, she should have had a long, active career ahead of her.
But, somehow, Ponnammal never caught the popular imagination, perhaps because she had been vying for attention with Carnatic music’s formidable female trinity of Chennai-based singers: M.S. Subbulakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari, and D.K. Pattammal. “She would just be asked to sing at the odd temple festival in Kerala,” Varma told me. “But otherwise, she spent all her time teaching.” Between the late 1970s and 2006, Varma estimates, Ponnammal has performed fewer than 20 times; she travelled to Chennai for the music season only once, in the early 1940s.
The belated resurrection of Ponnammal’s career started in 2006 when Varma, who had heard her sing, broke with tradition and invited her to be the first female performer at the annual Navarathri Mandapam series of concerts in Thiruvananthapuram. She couldn’t even sit on the ground, Varma recalled, so the organizers had to saw away half of each leg of a small stool for her to sit on. The effect of that concert seems to have been electric. In the last two years, she has cut five CDs, and she now performs seven to 10 times a month, travelling extensively across the country.
To sit through a Ponnammal concert is to regret, acutely, the loss of so many decades of her music. Her voice has all the burnished richness of advanced age but none of its infirmities. To a listener’s fancy, the music does not seem to be coming from its performer but from its wellspring, every phrase nourished with thought and devotion. At the Academy, I also found myself doing mental double takes at how easy Ponnammal made it seem. She sat on a plastic chair, leaning slightly forward as if she were engaged in casual conversation with her audience, but otherwise perfectly still except for one hand that kept gentle time on her knee.
Chennai is indubitably the centre of the Carnatic music universe, but Ponnammal’s story shows that, too often, we can confuse it for the universe itself. The success of a performer then becomes subject to the prevailing music establishment in Chennai.
“You know how it works,” Varma says. “For every Ponnammal, I can name 15 others who were as good but simply did not make it in Chennai.” It’s a depressing thought, because I don’t think we are ever so surfeited with great music that we can afford to have unsung talents residing in oblivion.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org