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
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
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
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!