I wrote this article for the special souvenir that Sangita Kalanidhi Sudha Raghunathan put together for her Guru MLV’s 90th birthday. It was released on July 3, 2018.
Mine was a family steeped in Carnatic Music. Intense discussions would take place about performances past and present. A long line of music tutors was a fixture in our joint-family home in Mylapore, teaching various children, aunts and uncles, at different stages of development in the art. It was of course natural that each of us had his or her idol and arguments would often break out. But to everyone ML Vasanthakumari was special. There was no doubt about her position as primus inter pares in our family.
It was a matter of pride for us that she had sung at my parents’ wedding in 1963. Years later, my maternal grandmother on meeting MLV in person would tell her this and also attribute my being a die-hard MLV fan to this fact. I was, and continue to remain one. To me, she will always remain the finest Carnatic artiste.
It is not as though any of my family knew MLV personally and our adoration of her music stemmed from that. We were therefore fans from afar. Our admiration came largely from the several radio concerts we heard, some live performances, and a vast collection of MLV tapes that my uncle possessed. The first full-length recording of hers that I heard was of the 1975 Dikshitar bi-centenary celebration concert at the Shanmukhananda Sabha, Bombay. I can still reel off all the songs from that performance in correct order. The piece-de-resistance was of course the Chaturdasa Ragamalika, Sri Viswanatham Bhajeham. Much later in life, I got to know that MLV had taken some liberties with the song and that there were purists who sang it differently. That version was very good too. But from a concert point of view, it did not match the impact MLV’s version had.
And then there were her raga alapanas. To MLV, as it was to Rajarathnam Pillai, her mentor Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and her guru GNB, the song, important by itself, was secondary to the raga. She invested all her creativity, of which there was enough in her for several other artistes, in her alapanas. An uncle, on hearing her sing a small ragamalika stretch in a minor raga at the tail end of an RTP, asked me to mark it and keep an eye open for what she does with it in subsequent concerts. Sure enough, we watched the raga develop in front of our eyes – within a couple of months we heard her sing a shloka in it and in another concert there was a brief alapana before a song. A couple of concerts later, it was fit enough for a delectable RTP! Yes, MLV alapanas were special and who can forget that concert where she begins one in Abhogi and then suddenly announces that she had intended to sing a song in it but now she had decided that it has to be an RTP?
Who could sing tanam like her? At a time when very few artistes focused on this aspect of the RTP suite, she dwelt on it. Her tanams were invariably in three speeds, more or less following the GNB pattern but invested with considerably creativity of her own. And no two tanams in the same raga were alike. As for her swara singing, the highlight was always the patterns that she featured. As I write this I am reminded of a brilliant suite she sang for Tyagaraja’s Eduta Nilachite in Shankarabharanam in the line nuduti vrata gani. I am also reminded of the goose bumps we experienced each time she sang Sharanam Bhava Karunamayi of Narayana Teertha set in Hamsavinodini by TM Thiyagarajan. A relatively minor song, it was elevated to a different plane by the way MLV sang swaras for the line Madhusudhana madhusudhana. The ending, with the phrases dovetailing into ri ga ma (lower octave), dha ni sa and then ri ga ma (higher octave) was such a climax.
It has always been my sincere regret that I heard very few live concerts of MLV in the 1970s, when she was in her prime. My parents had moved to Calcutta, and I with them. Carnatic concerts there were few. I got the opportunity to hear MLV in person when I moved to Delhi in the 1980s for my college education. She was a regular performer there under the auspices of various Sabhas at prestigious venues such as the FICCI, Kamani and Siri Fort Auditoriums, invariably drawing full houses. There were a couple of Carnatic music fans in the college hostel and we never missed her concerts. This was easier said than done. We had to travel by bus, and our hostel, in Old Delhi, was miles away from these venues. It meant bunking classes to go and buy tickets or get passes, set out of an evening for the concert knowing full well that there were tests and assignments the next day, and then returning late at night, sometimes after bus services had ceased, to a hostel where the mess had long closed, and that meant eating at a dhaba. But it was still worth it. Such wonderful concerts they were.
In 1984, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated. Delhi was engulfed in riots with our college and hostel being right in the centre of it all. Peace returned a week later and then, the Government decided to organise a daylong programme of music at Pragati Maidan as a peace offering. MLV was one of the artistes featured. The atmosphere was still tense and we were risking it by setting out and yet three of us did. We attended the performance and the last song, Shri Ram Ram Ram, somehow brought the peace that all of us had lost in the previous seven days.
Over a period, MLV recognised us youngsters as groupies and in a couple of later concerts smiled and acknowledged our presence. We were in seventh heaven. Our Punjabi friends were quite astonished that we were following an elderly musician who, in their view, sang bhajans. And so I took a couple of them to a concert of MLV’s. They sat through it and then one of them, in a very earthy dialect summed it all – “By God, how she sings! Too much yaar!”
It is a matter of everlasting regret to me that I never met MLV. She called on my parents in Calcutta but I was away then. I had dreams of coming down to Madras during the December Season for several years but that never materialised. In the late 1980s, I was back working in Calcutta and learning music at the Guruguha Gana Vidyalaya run by the saintly and ever-affectionate Anantharama Iyer aka Ambi Sir. One evening I went from office for my lessons and Ambi Sir was sitting quietly in a corner of his puja room. The atmosphere was sombre. He looked up and asked if I knew that MLV had passed away. I did not. Those days we did not have social media of any kind or for that matter Internet. It was October 31, 1990. We sat it silence. “What an artiste,” remarked Ambi Sir. And that summed it all up.
I still think of MLV everyday. And I miss her. I keep listening to her concert recordings. And now there is another joy – Youtube has countless film songs, which she has sung as a playback artiste. And these can be summed up in one phrase – Ellam Inba Mayam!