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The Traditionalist who Caused a Tradition to Break

Guest : Smt. Parassala Ponnammal

Parassala Ponnammal, though well-known to music lovers, had spent most of her life teaching music in Kerala, giving vocal performances primarily in Kerala and over All India Radio, Trivandrum. She burst in on the musical sky like an effulgent star when she was invited to perform at the Navarathri Mantapam of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple during the Navarathri Festival in 2006, the first woman ever to be honored thus in 300 years. Since then, many honors have come her way, the most recent being the title "Acharya Rathnakara" from the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana in April 2009.

Tell us about your background and how you came to learn music.

I was born in the village of Parassala, near Trivandrum. My father was the Head Master of the school there. When I was seven years of age, my father was transferred to Adoor, which at that time was in the middle of a forested area. One cannot imagine having any facilities for learning music at a remote place like Adoor but Providence had other plans. There was one Bhagavathar Paramu Pillai who lived in that area and I had my early training under him. There was not even a regular bus service between where he lived and we lived yet he took the trouble to come regularly to our house to teach me the basic prarambham in music.

I learnt from him for two years. You could say that by now my music lessons with Bhagavathar Paramu Pillai were at the ending stage. It was then that an accountant named Vaidyanatha Iyer, from Sambhavar Vadakarai, came to Adoor. He heard me and my sister practicing music when he went for his walk in our neighborhood. He came to our house and offered to teach us. It was a God-sent opportunity for me to continue my musical training. How else can one explain why I got such fantastic music teachers at a rubber plantation surrounded by forests? Our new teacher taught us many ata tala varnams and several Thyagaraja krithis.

My father was transferred back to Parasalla so we moved there. We heard that music competitions were going to be held in Trivandrum during Maharaja Chithra Thirunal's birthday and my father was asked to enter me in the competition. I was nervous about the competition but reluctantly agreed. I had no idea who the judges were - later on, I came to know vidwans like Semmangudi Mama, Musiri Iyer, etc., were the judges. I didn't even know them by sight at that time. I sang a varnam in Kalyani. The judges asked me to sing raga alapana in Kalyani which I did and followed it up with the krithi "Kamalambam Bhajare". I was asked if I could sing swaram and I sang swaram in the first tempo. I was then asked to sing them in 2nd kalam which also I did.

Not having any expectations that I would win a prize, I left with my father. As we left the palace grounds, a man came up in a bicycle and asked us to return as I had won the First Prize. I received the Gold Medal for the prize from the hands of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar himself.

Prize winners were expected to sing for half an hour with accompaniments. Though I have never performed a formal kutcheri before this, I think I did fairly well. I was 13 years of age at that time.

Another program got fixed for me to sing for Skanda Sashti in 'puthan teruvu' . My father demurred, saying I was not ready to do concerts. At the insistence of Prof. Srinivasan, I sang at this concert too.

That was the turning point in my life. From that day, whenever there was any function such as Sri Rama Navami, Navarathri etc., Professor Srinivasan would invite me to sing.

How about higher studies in music?

I signed up for the 'lower examination' in music in Trivandrum - where Sri Muthiah Bhagavathar was the chairman. I remember Shri TK Murthy's elder brother Gopalakrishnan was with the Music College at that time. After the examination, Muthiah Bhagavatar sent word to my father and commented on how well I would come up in future, and requested him to admit me to the Music College. My father said he was working in Parasalla and it would be difficult to send me daily from Parasalla to Trivandrum. This was the time when girls were not sent anywhere alone.

We returned to Parasalla. We were troubled by the thought that we were not acceding to the request of a great vidwan like Sri Muthiah Bhagavathar. At that time, an astrologer who had been my father's student came to our home, and on consulting, said that mine was a very good horoscope and predicted a very successful future for me with name and fame to come. And that no matter what, I would study music and nothing could stop me and I would get a government job too - it was the commencement of Surya dasa. It was all so hard to believe given the circumstances we were in.

It soon transpired that Muthiah Bhagavathar located my Mama who lived in Trivandrum and asked him to convince my father to send me to the college. The day before the re-opening of the college Mama came to our house and asked me to go stay with him and attend the college.

It was like as though God had sent my mama to take me to Trivandrum; how else can one explain what happened when everyone was wondering how it was going to be possible for me to go to Trivandrum to attend the Music College?

My mother and I set out with my mama to Trivandrum to join the Music College the next day. Within two weeks, Muthiah Bhagavathar had arranged for a transfer for my father from Parassala to Trivandrum so our family was re-united again. This was something he did without anyone asking him to do so. It shows how considerate he was toward the welfare of his students. Since I had good proficiency in music, I was taken into the 2nd year of the three-year program straight away. Muthiah Bhagavathar never hesitated to introduce me as a good singer at anytime to anyone, pointing out 'the thin girl over there, sings very well'. I came first in my 2nd year examination too. By the time I passed my 3rd year and got the "Gayaka" diploma, Muthiah Bhagavathar left and Semmangudi Mama became Principal of the Music College

As soon as the results were announced, I received an appointment to teach music. It was a permanent post with the government, just as the astrologer had predicted. I was 17 going on 18 at that time, and the times were such that girls were not encouraged to go out on their own, let alone work at a job.

Muthiah Bhagavatar insisted that I take the offer and said this was not for long and I would go a long way. I accepted the offer to teach music in a high school and spent about a year there when they introduced the 4th year course at the Music College.

At that time, it was named Swathi Thirunal Music Academy and only Swathi Thirunal krithis were taught. M. K. Kalyana Krishna Bhagavathar, Veeravanallur Narayana Bhagavathar, (Muthiah Bhagavatar's disciple), Vellore Sri Kumaraswamy, etc., were the professors. We had 4 hours of practical singing. For music theory, they would ask us to look into the books and learn by ourselves. We were taught Sanskrit and one teacher taught us the meaning of the Telugu krithis we were learning.. It was an era of whole music only. I went in with a stipend and did not have to leave my job. It was the year 1947/48. Semmangudi mama told me that he would teach me and advised me to get a scholarship from the government. When he found out I was in the 4th year, he decided that since he comes to the college to teach, that would be sufficient.

For how many years did you learn from Semmangudi mama?

I m not able to say accurately but I learnt for a good number of years from him. After my 4th year at college, I used to go to his house and learn for another 2-3 years.

How was the method of teaching then?

His teaching method was so good, and he used to take care and teach different levels of students differently. Even the mediocre students reached a certain level because of the care he took in teaching.

We should take that as an example and teach that way; that is my opinion. If a student needs to do a line ten times, we should have the patience to sit with them and give them the extra attention. I do that and so the students have a high regard for me.

My teachers would not write notations for me. We usually wrote on our own. Only those capable of writing down swarams from hearing the singing could learn from them. For some krithis, if there are many sangathis, they would give us their notes. If not, I would just write them myself either right during the lesson, or go home and write them at home. Since we all had notations, we always sing the same way. All of Semmangudi Mama's disciples had their notations … there would be no difference in the rendition as all of us have got it from the same guru.

For my students, I used to write for them for the class. And for those who are not capable of writing their own, I used to write and our teaching was such that we have to just reach out to the students one by one and correct them. For those who do not get any sangathi in the first instance, we have to have the patience to be able to make them understand and find a way to make them sing it somehow to some extent.

Can you tell us about your career?

In 1952, I was appointed in the Swathi Thirunal College. All other teachers were male and I used to sit alone in the room.. I was there till 1970 as professor, up step by step from assistant professor, and then got a transfer to Tirupunithura as Principal. I served there till 1980 for ten years.

There was only the Gana Bhushanam course for vocals at the Tirupunithura Music College when I went there but after my appointment, veena and violin were also introduced. Soon, we added the Gana Praveena program, and courses in drawing and painting, fine arts, kathakali, bharatha natyam, etc.

I had served about 38 years with the government when I retired. I did several 'utsava kutcheris' too, in temples all over Kerala, without it being a hindrance to my job.

You sang in the Music Academy some time ago in the early 1950's. After that you did not come till last year. Why is that?

I don't know. I was not invited so I didn't perform there. Even in other cities like Mumbai, I used to go, perform and return at once. I could not stay any where too long.

I was always busy with the college as there was always so much to do, what with new courses and students, etc.

I did come to Chennai for an All India Radio recording. In Trivandrum, there was a recording every one and half months. Now it is not so many.

Any trips abroad?

I have been to Ceylon when I was 21 yrs of age with a group of musicians. I am visiting the US this year with performances in San Diego, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

What do you think of the current style of singing?

Since I have not really gone out and heard many concerts due to circumstances, I am not able to comment on the present day musicians or their music.

All I know is that Carnatic Suddham has to be there and the Patanthara Suddham too. That would make good music, as far as I know.

Can you tell us about your experience as the first woman to sing at the Navarathri Mantapam?

I was contented with getting so many awards, program, etc. One day, the state car came to my house and Prince Rama Varma got out from the car, did namaskaram to me, and requested me to sing at the Navarathri Mantapam, as the proposal has been approved by everyone and he thought only of me as the first woman to sing at the Mantapam.

I gave him some excuses that it is a place where all the great vidwans had sung. And also that I needed a chair to sit on, and that would be disrespectful at the Mantapam.

I asked for a month to decide and finally agreed to the proposal. And the experience was really a great one. I was nervous as I entered the place and after the program, we received many phone calls saying it was a great success.. With Saraswathi Ambal's blessings everything went off well

The moment this program was over, as Rama Varma had commented, offers for other programs started pouring in. And I have been traveling so much and have even reached

Cleveland. Sashi Kiran invited me to Chennai to come and sing, having heard me in the Navarathri Mantapam and then said that I was called to America for the Cleveland festival too. It is all due to the blessing of Saraswathi Devi. I have been singing in the Navarathri mantapam for the last 3 years consecutively now.

What about the future of Carnatic music?

I am of the opinion that if one sings with full Carnatic suddham, and the type of the sadhakam (practice) that vidwans did in those days, our music will retain its purity forever.

As told to V. V. Chellappa / Veena Vidushi Jayalakshmi Sekhar

Naadhabrahmam wishes Srimathi Parassala Ponnammal many more years of service to music so that future generations may be able to get a glimpse of the kind of music that led to the shattering of a 300-year-old tradition.

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