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Veena Dhanam - A Portrait

R.R. Ayyangar, The Triveni, Madras, November, 1937

It was the year 1900. A house in Thambu Chetty Street, packed with veterans and connoisseurs in music, had just heard Ramanathapuram Poochi Iyengar. The brief interval that came in now was exploited with assiduity by not a few in the gathering to seize all vantage points in the hall. For the item to follow seemed to demand close and attentive attention. In the trail of ebbing hum in the hall there issued a succession of sharp, shrill notes, executed on a very small Veena by a sprightly middle-aged lady - Srimati Veena Dhanammal. Scarcely had the music commenced, when there was an interruption. Sarabha Sastrigal, the Nestor of his day, had been taking his ease in an ante-room facing the platform. He had remained there through the previous performance. But the unique style of Sruti adjustment, the clear ringing notes, and the immaculate charm of the Veena music thrilled him to ecstasy. He therefore called out to Krishna Bhagvatar - another of the supermen of those glorious days - to conduct him to the platform.

This incident recounted by Dhanammal herself may serve to indicate the regard and esteem Veena Dhanam enjoyed amongst leading musicians of the last generation. What made her the cynosure of all eyes in an age remarkable for a splendid crop of musical talent on every hand? To do justice to her versatile genius in an article in a journal were to attempt the impossible. The present writer, however, has a different motive, viz., to review a career so remarkable in several respects, and urge a diligent effort on the part of those whom this may reach to profit by her presence in their midst, before, indeed, it may be too late.

Born in 1867, in Madras, to a family long devoted to music and Bharata Natya, Dhanam had immense advantages to develop her talents. Her grandmother, Kamakshi, had learnt music from Anayya and dancing from Ganapati Sastri, two illustrious names in Carnatic Music. Her mother, Sundaramma, had been taught by no less a person than Subbaraya Sastri, the worthy son of a worthy father, Syama Sastri. It was Kamakshi that realised early enough that the elegant fineness of her grand-daughter's voice would blend with the Veena par excellence. Alagasingarachari, a Sathada Sri Vaishnavite and a clerk in the Mercantile Bank, undertook to pilot the young hopeful through the preliminaries of Veena play. With the advantage of an enchanting voice, young Dhanam started on a career as a musician even when she was eleven. She, however, was in doubt if the Veena was an adequate vehicle for the unfolding of her inner self. All the Veena music she heard round about only deepened her scepticism. But the supreme moment of enlightenment and inspiration came before long, when the one genuine Vainika of the times, Kalyanakrishna Ayyar of Palghat, gave two performances in the city. This event was to be an 'open sesame' that unlocked treasures of the vast deep. She saw, as in a trance, the endless possibilities of an instrument which had its birth in the Vedas themselves, and which Hindu mythology had placed in the hands of its gods and goddesses several thousands of years ago. Emerging from the clouds of doubt and despair that had enmeshed her for a time, she now took to the instrument with faith and zest. She compared the vocal apparatus with the Veena, and evolved on the latter phrases and idioms to match the product of the one with that of the other. A marvellously vast repertoire of more than a thousand songs, running in to six languages and covering as many as seventy composers, determined her entire perspective and made her the marvel that she is today.

Dharmapuri Subbarayar, the Robert Burns of Carnatic Music, hailed her as a genius, quite of a piece with his late lamented namesake of Bhikshandarkoil, for whom he had sacrificed a fortune. The precious gems that lie unexplored in the shape of numerous Javalis that this composer has left provide excellent material for the study, from various intriguing angles, of Ragas like Kamaz and Janjuti. Subbarayar harnessed his wide influence on her behalf and introduced her to musicians and patrons of note everywhere. It was to him that Veena Dhanam owed her acquaintance with Balajipet Baldas Naidu, who brought to her a splendid collection of the sublime passion-modes of Kshetragna that he inherited from a far-famed 'bulbul' and pioneer padam player, the late Veena Gowri of Mylapore.

Heir to tradition of an imposing array of stalwarts like these, Dhanammal pursued the ideal of Nadopasana with single-minded devotion. Ere long she found herself famous. Full was her table with the world's good things. Mysore, Vizianagaram, Travancore and even distant Baroda, heaped presents and perquisites on her. Her house was the resort of the elite among the votaries of music, professional or otherwise. But even in the height of her prosperity she never missed her ideal. To her the ebb and flow of fortunes in a single span of physical existence was of no moment, compared to the long panorama of life through countless births. An ideal, conceived on such an exalted plane and pursued for more than half a century by her vigorous dynamic personality, made its impress on every feature of her music.

When she plays on the Veena, even at the start her modus operandi bears the hall-mark of a singularly original mind. She takes the strings by twos, the sarani with the teepu, the mandra panchama with the over-note on the madhyama panchama fret, or with the pakkasarani and so on. Time strings perform in her hands functions which no other Vainika that we know of ever allots to them. Besides keeping time for pieces, they are told off on other duty when she plays Ragam or Madhyamakala. The faint somnolent drone that they keep up beggars the sruti of the best Tambura. This stands in marked contrast to the loud, regular, intruding ding-dong of others that resembles the chiming of the Big Ben in London. Again, the clear, flawless lines that her 'meetu' weaves among the frets are free from the bizarre, metallic clang so common with others.

Her Raga alapana, always brief and yet very suggestive, is pitched to a sublime key. Free from dross of any kind, her Ragas shine with a glorious lustre, as she turns facet after facet, ordering each in its due place and proportion. Her extensive repertoire enables her to turn inside out sphinx-like Ragas like Athana, Surati, Begada, Darbar and Kamaz. Their elusive idiosyncrasies are more tickling when she alternates the wire with the voice, and vice versa.

By far the most noteworthy feature of her music is Tanam. Technically known as Madhyamakala in Ragam, it is almost a lost art today. What passes for Tanam in performances nowadays is almost of a bastard variety. Sattanur Panchananda Ayyar, who initiated Dhanam into the mysteries of this branch of music, was perhaps the last of the hierarchy that specialised in it.

A Veena player with pretensions to good vocal music is a rarity. Dhannam is equally good at both. At this age, her voice retains unimpaired all the traits that go to make an ideal singer. It is sweet, clear, powerful and uniform in the three octaves. It blends with the Veena so well that to mistake the one for the other is a common experience of her hearers. Into the esoteric subtleties of this divine art, she weaves an endless variety of verses in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil, fashioning the whole into a delectable wreath of soulful ecstasies, throbbing with a world of emotions. Thus it is that her wide and deep culture, born of close association with renowned scholars and epicures like the late Sathavadhanam Srinivasachariar and Tirumalaya Naidu, fulfils itself by directing her vision heavenward - the end of true culture as Tyagaraja lays down in his song 'Swararagasudha'.

Lastly, the atmosphere that is characteristic of her performances may be studied with profit. As if by a magic spell, she instils a solemn, awe-inspiring silence and a reverent attitude among those who sit around her, as she sits calm and steady, toying with the strings. Not once does she wince or betray the least strain or affectation, even when she scales a mighty 'Giripai Nelakonna' or a baffling 'Koluvaiyunnade'. No uncouth gesticulations or convulsive fits are there to mar the performance.

As this thesis draws to its close, the writer has his mind heavy with a few poignant reflections. Rare phenomenon as she is, Dhanam is nevertheless a mortal, and one in the evening twilight of her life. For all the loud trumpeting of neo-reformers and oracles, an honest attempt worth the name has yet to be made to preserve the treasure this veritable 'Queen of Sheba'. Of the dozen records taken of her music years ago, only a few have suffered to remain in the market. Of the legion of pandits, reformers and experts who swamp conferences and discussions, not a handful have had vision enough to evince a genuine enthusiasm for this last, lingering star in the once glorious firmament of Music. May the Supreme Preserver of all things that merit His grace keep her in health and strength for many, many a year!