Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Indian music has lost two great singers within a short time. Names that are iconic.

D K Pattammal and Gangubai Hangal.

They had so many things in common. They were both musicians of the highest calibre. Their concerts were always good or more never a lacklustre performance. Both had to break tradition. DKP because she was Brahmin and Hangal, because she was not from the upper castes. Both had voices that could be called masculine or at least low pitched for women singers. Both were highly classical and traditional in approach but at the same time innovative and forged their distinctive styles. Both were utterly amazing persons.

What loss.

Here are some memories I have of these greats.

DKP gave a lecture demonstration in the College of Fine Arts of the Mysore University. She was accompanied on the Mridangam by her son Shivakumar. She sang one of her popular songs, "naanoru vilaiyaattu bommaya?" (Am I a toy?). While she sang a particularly moving passage of the song, in which the poet challenges the Goddess Jagannaayaki - "Do you enjoy hearing me cry - amma... amma...?". Her son's presence and the moving passage moved her so much that she cried.

Gangubai was once honoured in Mysore. She was asked to speak and she hesitantly did. She said, "I am a singer. Music is my language. But, still, you have hounoured me and to refuse to talk would be churlish." She went on to recount that the previous day, she had sung in the temple at Nanjangud and after some time the audience requested her to sing something light. She said, "I only sing Khyal. I know nothing else. The only light I know is" she pointed to the electric lights hanging above, "are these!". That actually defines her music. Serious and deep and weighty - not as a burden but as opposed to light or light hearted.

When she was hounoured, various local organisations wanted to honour her too and she was garlanded in the name of many of those. One of them was the local association of her community. She chastised them gently. I am a musician. I have no caste or community. But these people keep reminding me of my caste. It was not bitterness, it was not annoyance. It was just a wish that it were not so.

After her little speech, she sang for a few hours. She was such a small fragile lady. But when she sat down and sang she grew to something huge. That was the impression she created with the power of her singing.

Great women, great singers. Gone for ever. I can only feel lucky that I had the opportunity to listen to them.

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