First known photo of DK Pattammal, taken in 1931 for winning first prize.

Sometime in the early 2000’s, I had the fortune to meet DK Pattammal in person, thanks to her granddaughter Nityashree and interview her about her Gurus. She was frail and chair-bound but love and affection radiated from her in waves. An ancient cook came forward with tea and I fumbled with it, not knowing if the household was orthodox and so demanded the drinking of it without the tumbler touching my lips. Pattammal was quick enough to realise my predicament. “Tea is to be sipped and not poured into your throat,” she said with a gentle smile. “See how I drink it.” And then she proceeded to sip it and encouraged me to do so as well.

Pattammal’s was a personality that forever remembered all its benefactors with gratitude. She would weep unabashedly when talking about them and my interview with her was no different. Her warmest memories were of TL Venkatarama Iyer and Papanasam Sivan. Speaking of the latter she said she considered it a blessing that she could learn songs directly from the composer himself. The association began in the 1933 when her father Krishnaswami Dikshitar, having moved with family to Madras, approached Sivan to teach her. Her brother Jayaraman joined the tutelage four years later and the learning continued till the composer’s passing in 1972. She, along with S Rajam, appears to have had the longest association with him as a disciple.

Autographed sketch of Papanasam Sivan by HV Ram Gopal dated 1969

Sivan extended a parent’s love and affection to Pattammal and Jayaraman and acknowledged that both of them were so talented that they could immediately grasp whatever he taught. It was Sivan who got Pattammal to sing for films, the first such opportunity being K Subrahmanyam’s Thyaga Bhoomi in 1939. Sivan wrote the songs and also acted in the film. The songs that Pattammal sang for the movie, in particular Desa Sevai Seyya Vareer became very popular and launched her into a brief but memorable trajectory in films. Even today, watching the scene on a grainy print can still raise goosebumps. In an interview for Sruti magazine done for a Papanasam Sivan special (Vol 69/70, Jun/Jul1990), Pattammal has gone on record to say that on occasion she also influenced Sivan’s choice of tunes for his film songs. She has cited two of them, for Lavanya, a film made in 1951. These were Thanga Oru Nizhal Illaye sung by her as a duet with Sivan’s disciple SS Mani Bhagavatar and another, a solo – Bharatha Nannadu, which she rated as being comparable to any song of Subramania Bharathi. No recordings of these songs appear to have survived.

According to VS Sundararajan who based on his interviews with Pattammal and Jayaraman compiled the article in Sruti already referred to, writes that post marriage, Pattammal could not go as often as she wished to Sivan’s house. But such was his desire that she and her brother learn his latest songs that he would send a note to her urging her to come at the earliest. Pattammal later reminisced in her interview to me as to how she looked forward to these visits. She also recalled the generosity of Sivan’s wife Lakshmi, who would always insist that Pattammal had some refreshments before classes began. These were busy years for Pattammal as a recording artiste and there were days when Sivan composed a song in the morning, taught her in the afternoon and had her record it by evening! Samikku Sari Evvare (Kedaragaula) is cited as one such piece.

Over the years, Pattammal made popular several songs of Sivan’s. These include Sivakama Sundari (Mukhari), Naan Oru Vilayaattu Bommaya (Navarasa Kannada), Paraamukham Enayya and Srinivasa Tava Charanam (both Kharaharapriya), Sri Valli Devasenapathe (Natabhairavi) and Ninnarul Iyambalaaguma (Pantuvarali). While it is true that several others too sang his compositions, the way Pattammal and Jayaraman sang them bore the stamp of authenticity. Sivan turned 60 in 1950 and on that occasion organised a concert by Pattammal and Jayaraman, the bill of fare being entirely his compositions.

There was much of Sivan in Pattammal herself. Both were known for their Tamil songs – he by way of his compositions and she for her repertoire. Both were staunch nationalists – he composed a number of songs with patriotic themes and she sang many of them and also of others and both adored Subramania Bharathi. Both were simplicity personified with hardly any awareness of their own greatness. The Tamil Isai Movement of the 1940s benefitted immensely from both of them, and conversely, both of them stood to gain from it. His emotion-laden songs proved the perfect launch pad for a language long believed to be unmusical and she made them popular through her renditions and recordings. Both had a tryst with cinema and yet remained aloof from it.

It truly was a remarkable association.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 16, 2018

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