To those who knew A.R Sundaram or Sunda as she was referred to among her close circle, her spirit never ceased to amaze. Except for the last six months of her long life of ninety-one years, she was sprightly, full of life and above all immersed in Carnatic music. Only a cricket match could draw her attention away from music.
I first got to meet ‘Sunda Mami’ as I referred to her, thanks to my friends Ravi and Sridhar of Tiruvannamalai. The two of them were disciples of T.Mukta and therefore knew Sunda very well. They were surprised that I had never heard of her and once took me along to meet her at her residence in Kotturpuram. There, she sang Sakhi Prana in the true Brinda-Mukta style and we became firm friends.
Sunda was in many ways a true representative of old Mylapore. Her father was A.K.Ramachandra Iyer, the redoubtable grandson of the first Indian judge of the High Court of Madras – Sir T.Muthuswami Iyer.
AKR was the man who set up Madras Auto Service, now with the TVS Group. He also began Midland Theatre and introduced Coca Cola to Madras. For several years he organised the music concerts and ‘bhajanais’ at the Kapaliswarar Temple festival and it was in that capacity that he brought Papanasam Sivan to Madras in 1921.
Sunda’s mother Lakshmi was the daughter of the legal luminary T.R. Venkatarama Sastry. It was always with some pride that she would relate how her wedding procession lasted almost a whole night, going around the Mylapore tank with the best of the Nagaswaram greats – Rajarathnam Pillai, Veerusami Pillai, the Sembanar Brothers and the Tiruvizhimizhalai Brothers performing for it in relays.
Her musical training began with T.Brinda, from whom she learnt for almost 10 years. Then for some reason, her father abruptly switched her to T.R. Balu, GNB’s student.
Singing for Bala
But Sunda’s original love was the Veena Dhanammal style and so she later began learning music from Jayammal, Brinda’s aunt and the mother of T.Balasaraswati. She had the honour of singing for Bala’s dance performances as well. Brinda, who never quite forgave AKR for the change in tutelage, did acknowledge several years later that Sunda sang exactly the way she had taught her.
Sunda performed solo for All India Radio and also sang at the Music Academy’s morning sessions in tandem with aunt Rukmini Rajagopalan. She was a regular at the Academy’s annual music festival from the 1930s till almost a couple of years ago. But marriage and family meant that music was a passion and nothing more.
When Dr. Malathi Rangaswami and I wrote the history of the Music Academy, Sunda was of immense help with anecdotes and accounts of past music seasons. It was with considerable amusement that we discovered in the Academy archives a minute that recorded her becoming a member. “This is the name of a lady and not a man,” was the terse note of a secretary. When told of it, Sunda chuckled heartily but could never explain why her father had named her Sundaram.
The annual festival at the Kapaleeswarar Temple was a must do on her calendar.
Till a couple of years back she would think nothing of braving the crowds to witness the Arupathu Moovar procession, something that would daunt those far younger than her. I asked her how she managed and her reply was characteristic – she made friends with a vegetable vendor who allowed her to sit on his cart and watch the procession go by!
Every once in a while, till their passing, Sunda would call on M.S.Subbulakshmi, D.K.Pattammal and T.Mukta. She was particularly close to Mukta and the two would often launch into impromptu song sessions.
One of the last was in the presence of the author Indira Menon, when holding hands with a bedridden Mukta, Sunda sang along.
On one occasion, I took S.Rajam, on his request, to meet Sunda. It was a delight to watch the two reminisce about life in old Mylapore.
As she aged, Sunda’s life remained filled with music. Her memory was an asset and she remembered every word of every song she had learnt. She was quite happy to impart what she knew to whoever cared to learn. It was enough for her that what she learnt was being passed on.
As life took away friends, health and the ability to go up to the Mylapore temple, Sunda accepted the changes gracefully.
But her will to live was enormous, as was her love for music. These are what kept her going till the very end.
Her passing marks the end of a time when music was a way of life.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Friday Review section on September 12, 2014