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

When you think of DK Pattammal, there are very many associations that immediately come to mind. Chief among them is her distinctive stamp of singing songs of national freedom. 

She was certainly not the first woman in Carnatic music to sing them. That credit goes to ML Vasanthakumari’s mother Madras Lalithangi, who in 1925 recorded an elegy on CR Das. Thereafter, KB Sundarambal recorded several songs of freedom. The Harikatha exponents C Saraswati Bai and Padmasini Bai, and the publisher, author and singer Vai Mu Kothainayaki Ammal made sure to incorporate patriotic songs when they performed, and Vai Mu Ko recorded discs of these as well. There was one aspect that was common to all of them – they were all admirers of the patriot S Satyamurti, the man who first thought of bringing in stage and other performing artistes to the freedom movement so that crowds would come for meetings. This later would become an integral feature of the political strategy of Dravidian parties, with a long-term impact on Tamil Nadu politics. 

It was Vai Mu Ko who made many journeys to Kanchipuram to convince Damal Krishnaswami Dikshitar that his daughter Pattammal had it in her to become a concert artiste. Beginning with 1932, she began performing in the city and by 1935 had become an artiste of note.  That year, the Golden Jubilee of the Congress was celebrated. Satyamurti was at the forefront, organising the events that included several concerts and Pattammal’s was one. It would appear that her journey in rendering songs with a patriotic theme began from here. She must have had a natural calling for it. After all, a close family friend and well-wisher was Dr PS Srinivasan, Chairman for many years of the Kanchipuram municipality. He was a freedom fighter who had suffered imprisonment. He gave her a book of Bharati’s songs when she was just ten. That was in 1929, a year after the Government in Burma had proscribed the singing of Bharati’s songs, a law that applied to Madras as well. This saw a huge surge in popularity in the poet’s works and Pattammal was clearly influenced by all that was happening. 

What was also probably her first rendition of a Bharati song in public happened the same year. Mahatma Gandhi was visiting Kanchipuram and Dr Srinivasan wanted Pattammal to sing at the prayer meet. She set Bharati’s Veera Sudanthiram Vendi Nindrar to tune and sang it. The poet’s songs became an integral part of her repertoire thereafter and it is therefore no wonder that in 1935, Satyamurti made her sing at the Congress Golden Jubilee. Gramophone discs featuring her rendition of patriotic songs began coming out thereafter. At a concert in Tirunelveli she sang Bharati’s songs and later came to know that the poet’s wife Chellammal was in the audience, moved to tears. In June  1945, Pattammal was the natural choice to sing at the Bharati memorial in Ettayapuram, just prior to its inauguration. 

It was however the world of cinema that probably cemented the link between Pattammal and patriotic songs for good. K Subrahmanyam’s Thyaga Bhoomi was made in 1939. The novel by Kalki Krishnamoorthy was themed around freedom and untouchability and when filmed had Papanasam Sivan playing a major role in it. He also composed the songs and Pattammal sang them in playback. Some of the scenes are available for viewing on YouTube and even now, despite the scratchy audio and jumpy video, the voice singing Desa Sevai Seiya Vareer causes a lump in the throat. In 1948 came AVM’s Nam Iruvar with the songs of Subramania Bharati being an important feature. Picturised on Kumari Kamala with Pattammal’s voice singing playback, they became great hits. Forgotten between these high-profile releases is AK Chettiar’s film on Gandhi, made in 1940. It featured Pattammal singing in playback Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai’s Adu Ratte. In his account of the making of the film, Chettiar writes of how he was short of money when he approached Pattammal’s father in 1938 to get her to sing for the film. On coming to know that the film was on Gandhi, Dikshitar readily agreed. When the song was played at the studio during production, Chettiar writes of how all the employees stopped working and crowded around to just listen. 

It is however Shanti Nilava Vendum that we probably most associate with Pattammal. Written by Sethu Madhava Rao, she would always be requested to sing it in her performances. Pattammal gladly did so. As she said when I interviewed her in 2003, she felt it was her duty to sing sings extolling freedom. “After all, did we not struggle to achieve it?” she asked and went on, “On August 15, 1947, I was invited by the AIR to sing Bharati’s songs. I did and refused remuneration. The matter went up to the minister, but I held firm. Imagine accepting money for celebrating our nation’s freedom!”

This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 13, 2021.