This article appeared in The Hindu in January 2008.

Sangeeta Vani Vasanthakumari


The Arts Academy, Purasawalkam, met on January 4th 1954 at the Sir M Ct Muthiah Chettiar High School. The special programme was to confer the award of Sangeeta Vani on ‘young’ ML Vasanthakumari. She was all of 26 then. And present on the occasion was a formidable line-up of stalwarts.


The Hindu, reported on the event in its edition of 5th January. The award comprised a scroll which bore the citation. Kumbhakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai, the eminent violinist was to give it to her. Presiding over the programme was Dr U Krishna Rao, Minister for Industries, Government of Madras. He was a man with a musical connection, for his brother Dr U Rama Rao had been the first President of the Music Academy, Madras. It was at his house, that MLV’s mother Madras Lalithangi had first met a Yogi from Karnataka and who taught her the songs of Purandara Dasa. These songs were to become an integral part of Vasanthakumari’s repertoire. In 1942, she helped her mother prepare a compilation of Purandara Dasa’s songs with lyrics and notation in Tamil, titled the Purandara Mani Mala.


According to The Hindu, “Dr Krishna Rao expressed appreciation of Srimathi Vasantakumari’s music and wished her a long and bright career”. In his speech, Rajamanikkam Pillai, as befitting his warm heart, became emotional and recollected that he had known MLV from childhood. This was no surprise for MLV’s parents Lalithangi and Ayyaswami Iyer kept open house for musicians. In fact Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer had sung for MLV’s cradle ceremony. The child had not surprisingly evinced an aptitude for music. Rajamanikkam Pillai remarked that “seeing her keen interest in music even as a child he had forecast a bright future for her as a musician and he was glad that she had come up to his expectations”. Indeed, it had been a rapid rise to stardom from the debut in 1941 at Bangalore where, standing in for her mother, she had been billed as Madras Lalithangi Vasanthakumari.


Among the attendees was C Rajagopalachari, then Chief Minister of Madras. He did not speak, but his presence prompted Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer to state that “he was glad that an appropriate sadas consisting of great vidwans and the Chief Minister of the State had graced the occasion and that it might well be called a Rajasadas”. Yet another star attendee was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was blazing a trail across South India that year and who, within the short while he had known her, had become a fan of MLV’s music. In fact, he was staying as her house guest, having simply invited himself in stating that a musician like himself could not think of staying with anyone else! Others attending the programme were Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, TL Venkatarama Iyer and of course the proud parents of MLV. It was rather tragically to be the last award that Lalithangi was to witness her daughter receiving and photographs taken on the occasion, which featured prominently in the Tamil magazine Gundusi, show her beaming with joy.


Two of the grand ladies of the world of music, C Saraswathi Bai and KB Sundarambal were present and both “paid tributes to Srimati Vasantakumari’s musical talents”. The citation was read out by Dr R Krishnaswami of the Arts Academy. This scientist who worked at Glaxo Labs was something of a legend in the field of Carnatic Music. A pillar of the Sadguru Sangeetha Samajam, Purasawalkam, he organised akhandams (24 hour non-stop singing) of Tyagaraja kritis under auspices of that body, ably supported by musicians such as Musiri Subramania Iyer, Dr S Ramanathan, S Rajam, Prof P Sambamoorthy and others. In later years, following an accident, he was to become visually challenged, but his lec dems on Tyagaraja kritis became famed the world over. It was he who encouraged TS Parthasarathy to bring out a Tamil translation of Tyagaraja kritis.


To come back to the awards function, the vote of thanks was proposed by MM Dandapani Desikar. A surprising absentee was MLV’s Guru, GN Balasubramaniam. Perhaps he was busy at one of his own performances or perhaps given the tradition of the times, it was not appropriate that a Guru be present when the disciple was being felicitated. Of course there can be no doubt that MLV had his blessings, for the encouragement he gave all his disciples is legendary.


The programme ended with a concert by ML Vasanthakumari. In later years, the Arts Academy and the award may have faded from public memory, but what stands out is the warmth displayed towards a talented youngster by all the seniors. Their faith in her was well justified for MLV was to become a stellar performer, becoming one of the greatest artistes in Carnatic music history.


Sriram Venkatkrishnan

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