If you watch enough concerts of a musician—or if, in the case of older stalwarts, you watch enough of their YouTube videos—you automatically begin to visualize their stage presence every time their music comes up on your iPod. With M.S. Subbulakshmi, I picture her earnest devotion. With T.M. Krishna, I picture his whirling hands, often poised to deliver either an outswinger or an inswinger to an imaginary batsman at the far end of the auditorium. With D.K. Pattammal—and popular consensus would be with me on this—I picture her sudden, sudden smile, breaking like sunlight through the high seriousness of her music.
That smile served as visual confirmation of what so many people said about Pattammal, especially after her death three weeks ago, at the age of 90: that she was a gentle soul, that she derived an almost childlike excitement from her music, and that she could melt the most stoic listener into an emotional puddle. Pattammal’s gentleness was at odds not only with her voice—a robust feminine tenor—but also with her steel-willed vaulting of multiple barriers during a career that started at the age of 10.
Quality above all: D.K. Pattammal. The Hindu
It is difficult to imagine now the challenges that must have stood before Pattammal when she began to learn music, and the determination it must have taken to overcome them. Brahmin women, at the time, did not learn music formally, and they certainly did not perform on stage; Pattammal coped at first by notating her own music and absorbing ragas by osmosis, and then by going on to just be so good that it was impossible to deny her the stage. Women sang only the simpler compositions; Pattammal mastered the most complex Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi format so thoroughly that she was affectionately called “Pallavi Pattammal”. Women, thought to be incapable of grasping the arithmetic of intricate beat cycles, were never accompanied by male percussionists; Pattammal, who once said that she had learnt to simultaneously keep different rhythms with her right and left hands, attracted the best male percussionist of her day, Palghat Mani Iyer.
Whether Pattammal gained this acceptance because of her style of singing or whether she developed her style of singing to gain this acceptance, is impossible to say; in truth, it was probably a little bit of both. Pattammal’s singing studiously avoided the feminine frills and inordinate embellishment that the Carnatic music patriarchs of the day must have feared from women performers. Instead, as a vocalist, Pattammal was simple and archly traditional—exactly like her student and younger brother D.K. Jayaraman, with whom she often performed in tandem. “It is enough if I get a hundred sincere, discerning listeners,” she once told an interviewer. “I will not lower my standards to reach out to the thousand or more.”
For musicians—for all of us, in fact—there is a valuable lesson in Pattammal’s refusal to compromise on quality, the sort of obstinacy that was also seen in the music of another recently deceased singer, Gangubai Hangal. The uncompromising stance is rarely a popular one, but as with the music of Pattammal and Hangal, it can often be the most deeply rewarding stance to take.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org