This was one of the earliest articles I wrote for The New Indian Express. That was 13 years ago. I accidentally discovered it last night – my thanks to Baradwaj Rangan who had posted it on some forum so many years back. It brought back memories. I dedicate this to Sushila Ravindranath, my dear friend and then editor of the Sunday Express, who first recognised my writing skills and gave me space.
In 1565, the Battle of Talikota saw the beginning of the end of the Vijayanagar Empire. Its decline also witnessed the disappearance of many art treasures. Among them were the original tunes of many songs of Purandara Dasa and other composers of the Dasa Koota. If today these songs with a Kannada base are still being sung, and particularly
in Tamil Nadu, it is largely due to the efforts of two women Madras Lalithangi and her daughter M L Vasanthakumari.
MLV, as her fans called her, was a brilliant musician who also sang film numbers, which have become classics in their own right. She is no more. Her disciples and admirers celebrated her 75th birthday on the third of July, this year. MLV had a unique style and was particularly
known for her rendition of Purandara and other Dasa kritis. When she sang ugabogas such as Baliya manage’ and songs like Shrikanta’, there was palpable excitement among the audience.
MLV’s expertise in the Dasa pieces was inherited from her mother, Madras Lalithangi, who had also made a mark for herself in the field of carnatic music in her time and was a pioneer of sorts. Her song, Sudantira Deepam’ in raga Kalyani is probably the first nationalist
song in Tamil to be released as a gramophone plate. When Chittaranjan Das, the freedom fighter, passed away, she recorded an elegy.
Born in 1910, Madras Lalithangi was adopted by Perumalkoil
Narayanamma, a devadasi who resided in the Chengam Bazar area in George Town, Madras. As was customary in a family dedicated to the arts, the child was given music lessons from a variety of gurus such as Coimbatore Thayi, Padam Pattabhiramayya, Fiddle Subba Rao and the redoubtable Veena Dhanammal. By the time she was in her teens she had
become a vocalist of repute.
In the early twenties many women singers lived in the George Town area and one of them was Tiruvarur Rajayi. Kootanur Ayyaswami Iyer, a man who was known for his large repertoire of the works of Tyagaraja, but who could not make a mark as a vocalist came to teach Rajayi. Ayyar and Lalithangi met in the house of Rajayi. He began teaching her too and soon they were drawn to each other and tied the
knot in the mid-1920s.
Vasanthakumari was born in 1928 to this couple. There was an impromptu music performance by the great vocalist Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer during the cradle ceremony of the child. Young Vasanthi was taught music at home, even as she was sent to the Good Shepherd’s Convent for
formal education. This was short-lived. Lalithangi’s frequent asthmatic attacks curtailed her concert opportunities and consequently her income. Her husband took to giving music lessons to children of
One such family was that of Dr U Rama Rao, a physician who lived in Thambu Chetty Street. He was a prominent member of Madras society, who became President of the Legislative Council. He was also the founding President of the Music Academy. In 1935, Narasimha Dasa, a member of the Dasa Kootta or sect to which Purandara Dasa had belonged, visited
him. The Dasa had a repertoire of the songs of Purandara and other saints. Dr Rao invited Lalithangi and Ayyar to listen to the rendition of these pieces. Lalithangi was so taken up with them that she convinced the Dasa to stay on in Madras and teach her whatever he knew. The process took over a year and by the time he left, the Dasa had taught Lalithangi more than 200 songs.
With his departure Lalithangi became the resident expert in Purandara Dasa kritis. Music critics such as Kalki Krishnamurthy were all praise for her. Encouraged, Lalithangi took on the ambitious project of
publishing the songs of Purandara Dasa with notation. But money was scarce. The Second World War saw Madras being evacuated and many of Ayyar’s music students had left the city. Concerts were difficult to come by. Undaunted, the couple enlisted the help of R Rangaramanuja Iyengar, an English teacher and musicologist who lived in Egmore and
who was an ardent champion of musical causes.
On many evenings, Ayyar, Lalithangi and Vasanthakumari, would walk all the way from their 108, Anna Pillai Street residence to Egmore, not having the money to hire a horse carriage or rickshaw. Ayyar sold his family lands to raise money for the book and Rangaramanuja Iyengar got
Kasturi Srinivasan of The Hindu to supply paper free of cost. The book, Purandara Mani Mala, put together by Lalithangi and Vasanthakumari, was finally released on October 10, 1941 and was the first Tamil publication of Purandara Dasa’s works.
Earlier in the same year, both mother and daughter traveled to Bangalore where Lalithangi was scheduled to give a concert. She came down with an asthmatic attack and her daughter was asked to perform in her place. Young Vasanthi had no choice but to agree.
The publicity handbills, which mentioned Madras Lalithangi, were altered to read Madras Lalithangi Vasanthakumari and thus a star was born. As for the mother? Madras Lalithangi enjoyed her daughter’s growing success in films and on the concert platform. She lived to see the family shift from the narrow George Town to spacious Edward Elliott’s Road (Radha Krishnan Salai) and there she passed away in the
Today, the book of Purandara Dasa kritis and a few 78 rpms are all that remain to speak of Ganakalabhooshani Madras Lalithangi, the musician. But if Purandara Dasa songs retain their popularity in Tamil Nadu, it is largely because of her.
PS: There are some recordings of Madras Lalithangi’s on YouTube.