Vocalist KIRANAVALI VIDYASANKAR interviewed 83-year old veteran vidushi from Kerala, Ponnammal at her disciple’s place in Chennai. Here are some excerpts—in Ponnammal’s own words.
When I was a girl of 14 living at Parassala with my parents, I took part in a music competition during Maharaja Chitra Tirunal’s birthday celebrations. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and other eminent musicians were among the judges. I didn’t know who they were so I sang fearlessly!I remember singing Kamalambam bhajare in Kalyani with ragam, niraval and swaram-s. Later, I was sent for with the news that I had won the gold medal in the competition! Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar presented the medal to me.
Early turning point
After he gave me the medal, the generous hearted Muthiah Bhagavatar enquired about my father’s work and urged him to move to Trivandrum so that I could enrol in the Swati Tirunal Music Academy, where he was the Principal. My father hesitated. But soon Muthiah Bhagavatar arranged for my father’s transfer and we all moved to Trivandrum. I was directly admitted into the second year for the three year course called Gayika. I belonged to the first batch that graduated out of this course. This was a major turning point in my life.
I had my initial training under Paramu Pillai Bhagavatar and thereafter under Vaidyanatha Iyer. At the Swati Tirunal Academy and subsequently, I had the opportunity to learn from several great masters including C.S. Krishna Iyer, K.R. Kumaraswamy Iyer, K.S. Narayanaswamy, Kallidaikurichi Harihara Bhagavatar, M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar, and of course, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
I didn’t have any formal training under him, but had the opportunity to watch him teach, perform and interact with people. I was always amazed at his generosity and genuine goodwill for others. He helped me at every juncture in the early years of my life and career. He introduced me to all the visiting vidwans saying: “Ponnammal is a very good singer”. He got me various teaching positions. He wrote to the Tiruchi station of All India Radio, and on that strength, I got to sing there and at many other AIR stations when I was barely out of my teens. He was very encouraging, recommending me to various organisations, and thus I got to sing at many public concerts. I always think of him with immense gratitude.
Soon after graduating out of the Swati Tirunal Music Academy, I got a job as a music teacher in Cotton Hill Girls High School,Trivandrum. I was then only 18. A few years after that, Muthiah Bhagavatar got me a position at the Swati Tirunal Music Academy itself. I was an Assistant Lecturer when Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was the Principal there. In 1970, I became the Principal of the RLV College of Music and worked there till my retirement. I have also taught a number of students privately. God has given me a huge wealth of sishya-s.
I have had the good fortune to sing at all the major sabha-s and temples in Kerala, and all the major venues in Tamil Nadu several times. The Bharatiya Music Sabha of Bombay invited me in 1953. I have sung in Chennai perhaps in 1976-77.I was given the 3 pm slot at the Music Academy. I also recorded for AIR and Doordarshan. After that, I have come to the city only now!
Having heard that it is good to wake up early in the morning and sing, I made an effort to do so. After some time, I noticed that it did not suit my voice. So I changed my practice time to later in the day.It is very important to practise the varisai-s and alankaram-s with care.Even after many years of perfoming,I sing them before a concert to warm up my voice. Equally important are the varnam-s, which help you get a good feel of the raga. A singer should pay meticulous attention to ‘sthana suddham’ (placement of swara-s) and ‘gamaka suddham’.Repeated singing of phrases will help acquire perfection over these important aspects.
I haven’t kept track of the number of compositions I know. (At this point, her disciple Bhama Krishnan interjects that it is easily over athousand). Perhaps so! I learnt a number of compositions from every guru of mine, particularly,Kumaraswamy Iyer. I tapped every possible source to learn new kriti-s,including books, listening to other musicians and notating the song right away. I still continue to learn.
When I was about ten or eleven years old, a 20-year old M.S. Subbulakshmi came to Tenkasi. She sang Kambhoji and Todi. Her music was captivating, but something else also enraptured me — her diamond studs. I was very innocent and hardly knew what they were called! I went home and told my mother that ifshe got me those shiny earrings and sent me off with MS to learn music, I would sing like her My mother was very surprised, as I had never been away from her even for a day!
First woman to sing at the Navaratri Mandapam
I was extremely apprehensive to take up this offer as it is such a hallowed place where all my guru-s and other great vidwans have sung. But the organisers just brushed aside my protests. All I needed to do was just go and sing! Once the concert was over, I was surprised at how the news had spread!