NEWS & NOTES
The Grey Festival in Singapore -ANIRUDDHAN VASUDEVAN Singapore’s immigrant communities and their cultural backgrounds are innumerable. “Singaporeans of Indian origin” and “Indians resident in Singapore” are labels largely for administrative convenience and differentiation. The Indian community in Singapore is not a homogeneous entity. It is made up of a million little India-s, just as we in India confront, on a daily basis, some aspect of India that is surprising, refreshingly new, shockingly true, and more. It was of historic significance when Singapore organised its first ever festival for Indian contemporary dance from 9 to 13 May. It was all the more unique as the five-day festival was put together by three young women: Raka Maitra — trained in Odissi and Chhau, now resident in Singapore, Jayanthi Siva — a Singaporean of Indian origin, trained in Bharatanatyam and engaging with new movement vocabularies, and Zarina Ann Muhammad — a pillar of support to Raka and Jayanthi, an excellent behind-the-scenes worker and someone who issues a pre-emptive disclaimer: “I am not a dancer”! What sets The Grey Festival apart from the many India festivals that happen in many world cities, is that, since Singapore has a considerably large Indian population, with undeniably significant artist representation as well, this festival could become a dialogue between contemporary performers from India and those working from Singapore. Hence there was a very definite context that was devoid, largely, of the naïve and violent rhetoric of exoticism
The singing star who faded away -N.C. Vasanthakokilam During her heyday she was one of the top three lady classical Carnatic musicians, M.S. Subbulakshmi and D.K. Pattammal being the other two. Interestingly, all of them were involved in Tamil Cinema, Pattammal as an off-screen singer lending “play-back”, and the other two as onscreen singing performers. MS had a halo of glamour around her and had hit the headlines even as a teenager. But N.C. Vasanthakokilam did not have that kind of a halo. Though her musical talents and skills were thought to be as good as those of MS, she lacked the glamour, charisma and class of MS. She did not have the movie star looks, nor was she photogenic and she was no actress. But certainly she was a singer of haunting melody and high musical values. She acted in a fistful of films during the 1940’s. Some of them are remembered to this day, like ‘Venuganam’ (1941), ‘Gangavathar’ (1942), ‘Haridas’ (1944), ‘Valmiki’ (1946) and ‘Krishna Vijayam’ (1950). Kamakshi, for that was her given name, was born in 1921 and hailed from an Iyer family of Irinjalakuda, now in Kerala. The family had however settled down in the port town of Negapatam (now Nagapattinam) on the Bay of Bengal. She was blessed with a melodious voice and her father had her trained in Carnatic music in Negapatam in the music school of Jalra Gopala Iyer (so called because he played the jalra in Harikatha-s). She and her father nursed the ambition that she should be a performing musician and win fame and fortune. The Indian film pioneer K. Subrahmanyam had strong links with Negapatam through marriage. He had lived off and on in that town. Later, he came into silent films as a writer and learnt the ropes of filmmaking and soon, in the early 1930’s, he blossomed forth as a noted filmmaker (see Sruti 239). Ever a talent scout, he felt that the girl had promise and could be groomed into a singing Tamil film actress. That was the period when onscreen performers had to sing in their own voice and the now common and routine off-screen-voice-lending “play-back” system was not yet in vogue. Prompted by his encouragement and promises, the father and daughter landed in Madras in 1936 where they hardly knew anyone except K. Subrahmanyam! They had not much money either. Unfortunately, they could not meet the filmmaker for he was away in Calcutta making a film. They were all at sea in the metropolis. Luckily, a family friend, a young bachelor, a native of Negapatam who had learnt music along with Kamakshi under the same guru, was then working in the Egmore station of the then privately owned South Indian Railway (SIR). He came to their rescue and gave them refuge in his bachelor quarters in the outskirts of the city. (This retired railway executive who narrated the story-book like events of the 1930’s to me on a rainy evening in Madras in the early 1980’s wished to remain anonymous! The kind man of much old world charm and manners passed away a few years ago.)
Our Experiences with Mukthamma-RAVI & SRIDHAR Who are these chinna pasangal? They come to all of our concerts and seem to understand our music.” This was the question at Mukthamma’s residence after every concert of hers. During the 1980s we had become avid fans of the Dhanammal family music. So wherever Brinda or Muktha performed we would be there. But though the ‘chinna pasangal’ were in their 20s, they were the youngest among the audience. Brinda too used to ask her disciples as to who ‘these two youngsters were’ as it was generally believed that only rasika-s above the age of 50 could understand and appreciate their music. Many Carnatic music rasika-s felt that their music was ‘pazhaya panchangam’, which tottering grandmas and grandpas alone listened to, for whatever reason. But both Brinda and Muktha were actually happy that at least a few youngsters had begun to listen to their type of music. We never dared to speak to them as their reputation for pungent remarks was well-known. Our introduction to Brinda and Muktha’s music came about in a rather strange way. We were avid fans of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s music and had tremendous respect for him. In 1976, when Brinda was awarded the Sangeeta Kalanidhi, the Pitamaha of Carnatic music offered felicitations at the sadas on New Year’s day 1977. What he said in the middle of his speech actually shocked us. “Naane inda amma kitta pala uruppadigal kathundirukken” (I myself have learnt compositions from this lady), said Semmangudi. “What, Semmangudi himself has learnt from this lady? Then certainly this was no ordinary musician”, surmised we. We resolved to listen to Brinda thenceforth.
T.R. Navaneetham - MANNA SRINIVASAN Visitors to the Tyagaraja aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru would have noticed a frail woman sitting quietly most of the time in the amplification enclosure near the dais. She would talk occasionally to a select few; those close by could hear snatches about the past, on ‘patantharam’, and the like. On the ‘panchami’ day, the same lady would join in the flute rendition of the Bhairavi piece Chetulara that precedes the Pancharatna chorus. This octogenarian, who is today the seniormost among women flute artists, is the Top graded Tiruvidaimarudur Rajamanickam Navaneetham. The most recent title she received was ‘Kala Seva Ratna’ conferred by the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Chennai. She has been honoured earlier by institutions like the Ramani’s Academy of Flute in Chennai, the Tamizh Isai Manram in Tiruvaiyaru, and the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram which conferred on her the title of Kalaimamani. Navaneetham was born in 1923. Hailing from an Isai Velalar family, she was first initiated into dance. Though she progressed up to the varnam stage, she switched over to the flute out of fancy. She would observe Peruncheri Muthu Pillai playing on the instrument at her house and try to imitate the action with any piece of bamboo she could lay her hands on. Pillai was a versatile artist, in nagaswaram, vocal and flute, who sang for her mother Rajamanickam’s dance performances. He would play on the flute in his spare time. Navaneetham’s mock practice attracted the notice of a visiting vidwan, M.R. Krishnamurthy (younger brother of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer), who told her mother that the child was perhaps destined to achieve fame in flute playing. Navaneetham started learning to play on the flute from Pillai, at the age of six. She had her formal ‘arangetram’ after two years, to the accompaniment of Terazhundur Balu Pillai on the violin and Kuttalam Sivavadivelu Pillai on the mridanga. With this, she followed the trail of earlier women pioneers in the field like Keeranoor Jayalakshmi (aka ‘Silk Papa’), Valadi Rukmini and Nanna Bai. Muthu Pillai died a year after her debut. The Navaneetham family house in Tiruvidaimarudur has been named ‘Muthukkuzhal’ in his memory.