The passing of Veena Dhanam

I wrote this article in 2005. For some reason I never put it up on the blog. It originally appeared in The Hindu as part of the Encore series.

“A visit to Veena Dhanam — the unfortunate woman is dying,” reads the entry dated August 21, 1938, in N. D. Varadachariar’s diary. Dhanammal, despite her condition, had shifted to granddaughter Balasaraswathi’s residence at Aravamudan Gardens in Egmore a few days earlier. On September 18, NDV writes of her rallying around and playing ragas Nattakuranji and Paras on her veena. She strained herself considerably during the Navaratri celebrations that year in connection with daughter Jayammal’s Dhanam School of Music in Egmore which began on Vijayadasami day. Dhanammal was laid up immediately after the event.

The family began a continuous round of singing in order to ease her passing. Regaining consciousness briefly, she asked for her veena and when it was placed next to her, embraced it, stating that it was the only thing she regretted being parted from. Her last words were “Muvva Gopala.” That was the signature of Kshetragna whose padams she had made immortal. It was found that her fingers searched for the veena till she passed away in the early hours of Saturday, October 15, 1938.

“Great Musician Passes” was the headline in The Hindu. Tracing her musical ancestry with forebears having learnt music from Subbaraya Sastry, son of Syama Sastry, the article also traced her own development through “training under Sattanur Panju Iyer” and her enlarging of “the knowledge she so obtained by association with musical celebrities of the rank of Dharmapuri Subbarayar, Ettayapuram Subbarama Dikshitar and Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer.” The article stated that “more than anything else, her own native instinct for the beautiful and the grand in music contributed to the distinctness of her style.”

There were tributes from several artistes and admirers such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Alamelu Jayarama Iyer, T. L. Venkatarama Iyer and K. V. Krishnaswami Iyer, then President of the Music Academy. Though it is not mentioned, The Hindu’s Editor, Kasturi Srinivasan, was on the spot, organising the funeral where he and T. T. Krishnamachari acted as pall-bearers for a short distance.

N. D. Varadachariar wrote in his diary that day that “a greater loss never befell arts in decades and perhaps, she will not have her peer for years and years.” Later, he was to write that he could not appreciate any other school of music.

More tributes came in on October 17 from C. Saraswathi Bai and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. On October 18, The Hindu reported that the Madras University Music Students Association held a meeting led by Prof. P. Sambamoorthi to mourn Dhanammal’s demise. On the same day, the Sri Tyagaraja Sangeetha Nilayam, Perambur, passed a resolution “expressing sorrow at the death of Srimati Veena Dhanam Ammal.”

The Indian Fine Arts Society stopped its music performance midway on October 18 to mourn the passing of Dhanammal. The family of V. Perumal Chetty, which ran the Society, had many admirers of her style.

The Annamalai University Music Students Association under the leadership of `Tiger’ Varadachariar, then the Head of the Department of Music, held a meeting to condole the death on October 23. `Tiger,’ who was a close friend and admirer, spoke at length on her music.

On October 25, The Hindu reported that a condolence meeting was held on the October 24 under the auspices of the Tyaga Brahma Bhakta Jana Sabha at 20, Ekambreswarar Agraharam, Park Town, with Ariyakkudi presiding. Among those who spoke was Bangalore Nagarathnammal, Dhanammal’s illustrious contemporary and friend. She and Dhanammal had fought shoulder to shoulder during the Anti Nautch crisis and in her speech she said that Dhanammal had “left an indelible impression in the minds of music lovers of South India.” It was proposed at this meeting that the anniversary of Dhanammal be celebrated each year and that monthly concerts be held in her memory.

On October 25, the Benares correspondent of The Hindu wired that “the ashes of Veena Dhanam were dissolved in the holy Ganges at Kasi in the presence of her admirers.” The old lady had once expressed a desire to bathe in the Ganges according to her confidante R. Rangaramanuja Iyengar. This was fulfilled in spirit by this act.

Reports of meetings held in her memory continued to come in from various towns till the end of October.

On November 3, the Music Academy organised a meeting in her memory at the Senate House with C. Rajagopalachari, then the Premier of Madras, in the chair. It was resolved that a memorial be constructed for her. The scheme remained on paper. A booklet compiling all the tributes from The Hindu was released on the occasion, which concluded with a concert by all the Dhanam granddaughters.

Today Dhanammal is a mere memory whose greatness is remembered more in anecdote than in fact. The reports following her death show what a legend she was in her own lifetime.





One response to “The passing of Veena Dhanam”

  1. […] Gardens and it was at her residence that her grandmother and the grand dame of Carnatic Music, Veena Dhanam died in 1938. Also in Egmore is Sait Colony, where R Rangaramanuja Iyengar, author of […]

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