In the modern history of Indian classical music, it is said that Vidushi Annapurna Devi, daughter of the legendary Ustad Allauddin Khan of the Maihar gharana, was an unparalleled genius of the surbahar and sitar. Though she quit performing in public early, the few recordings of her that survive have been studied by musicologists to enable them to declare her a prodigy.
She made a mark at a time when women instrumentalists were uncommon in north India. In Carnatic music, however, the situation was quite the opposite—women have always been at the forefront as instrumentalists. Even today, stories of Veena Dhanammal are recollected with awe. It’s the same with several women maestros of percussion instruments who are part of Carnatic history.
In recent times, Carnatic music has been a proud home to several renowned women instrumentalists. Though it is a predominantly vocal tradition, with great reverence for lyrics and their meaning, instrumentalists have made it their own over the last century. In Hindustani music, it would be called gayaki ang, or “equal to a vocal rendering”.
One of the most popular ghatam players is Sukkanya Ramgopal, a recipient of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award. As a senior student of the ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram, who revolutionized the instrument and gave it a global appeal, Ramgopal is a great performer in her own right.
The ghatam is a special clay pot used as a percussion instrument in a Carnatic concert. Though a late entrant to the traditional concert, the instrument gained immense popularity when Vinayakram took it on a tour with the famous band Shakti in the 1970s. However, the Carnatic world had never seen a woman percussionist playing the ghatam till Ramgopal made her presence felt.
India’s national instrument, the Saraswati veena, has been patronized by many artists over the decades. Even the legendary vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi was a trained veena player. In recent times, the undisputed queen of the veena is Jayanthi Kumaresh, who hails from a family of Carnatic music practitioners. Her mother Lalgudi Rajalakshmi was also a noted veena player. Her maternal uncle was the famous violin maestro, the late Lalgudi Jayaraman. Known for her technical expertise, strict classicism and authenticity, Kumaresh’s music has gained considerable global popularity. Kumaresh is also a composer. Her albums, like Mysterious Duality (2013), and her work with the Indian National Orchestra, a syndicate she formed along with 20 other musicians in 2011, have shown her to be a composer of high musical standards.
The 20th century produced several ace women flautists. Shanthala Subramanyam has stood out particularly as a soloist of great merit. Her brother is the child prodigy-turned-maestro Shashank Subramanyam. Having trained under her father, Shanthala also studied under veteran masters like Vairamangalam Lakshminarayanan and O.S. Thyagarajan. With a strong grip on technique and rhythm, Shanthala’s flute recitals are a delight.
Interestingly, the only woman who plays the khanjira (or the Indian tambourine), and has mastered the art, is Lata Ramachar. An integral part of a Carnatic concert, the khanjira is played with one hand. During performance, the player is expected to have mastery over rhythm, in order to match up to, if not outshine, the mridangam artist. Ramachar was trained by her father H.P. Ramachar, who recognized her passion for percussion at an early age, and ensured it was honed through mentoring by legendary mridangam artist Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.
These are just a few examples, however. There are several women violinists, like A. Kanyakumari, Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, Akkarai Shubhalakshmi and Charumathi Raghuraman, who have left an indelible mark on Carnatic music history. Carnatic as a genre can be proud of more women instrumentalists than any other genre of Indian classical music.