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Veena Dhanam - An Analysis

R.R. Ayyangar, The Hindu, Madras, 26th September, 1935

An old woman of 69, with languid, emaciated body, with eyes that still sparkle, though sightless, for 15 years past, clad in cheap, tawdry stuff. This is what one sees today of old Veena Dhanam, the solitary survivor of an age of Titans in Carnatic Music long since gone by.

The hoarse shouting and the deafening noise of heavy traffic, the stink and the squalor of Chengam Bazaar, the heart of ever busy George Town, past all this and more, on a Friday evening. I have done it for a decade and more, one picks one's way and wistfully eyeing a small entrance in one of the by-lanes, sulks in as it were, and quietly takes his seat beside the old woman, in dimly lit, stuff room. In a brief space of time, a few more glide in.

The solemn silence is broken as the old muse takes up the Veena. For a few minutes, her fingers seem to toy with the strings. I am told that the late Thirukodikaval Krishna Aiyar used to marvel at her unique method. Here, as in everything else about her, one is struck with her peculiar, individual style of Sruti adjustment. Her puissant genius reveals itself even at this preliminary setting up of the strings. A magic spell is cast over the small attentive group. Not a whisper is heard, why even a cough is ruthlessly suppressed.

The purpose of this article is to invite the attention of all interested in music to a few aspects of Dhanammal's personality as a musician that have not hitherto had a detailed notice in the press, despite a latter-day tendency, one that has assumed dangerous proportions of late, on the part of uninformed, superficial music fans to masquerade as critics and reformers and profess to set up standards.

Invariably a soloist, Dhanammal plays and sings alone with not even a Mridangam for accompaniment. Only a sort of a drone is kept on by the marvellous dexterity of her frail little finger that rubs the Pakkasaranis. A feature that stands in regular contrast to the loud, regular, intruding ding-dong of all other Vainikas that resembles the chiming of 'Big-Ben' in London. Again, the thin gauge of the side-stings and the very light touch of the plectrum on the little finger add in no small measure to the melody of her music. Barring this, she uses no aids for her 'meetu' fingers. This accounts for the meagre volume of her Veena which is already a very small one. The outer fringes of a music hall audience often grow restive on this account. But she more than makes up for this by her wonderful singing, of which more anon.

Volume apart, the clear, flawless lines that the 'meetu' weaves on the finger board are singularly free from the bizarre metallic clang so common with others. What is more, her quick-time phrases, rendered in terms of the 'meetu' cover an unusually large number of notes this way and that, and she executes them all with an amount of rapidity, ease and grace that is hard to find elsewhere. And this in her age and with her handicap, viz., the loss of sight, is wonderful indeed. Her raga elaboration is very systematic, following as it does, an exalted tradition. The brief survey of familiar ragas like Todi and Kalyani are models of perfection, and may easily take rank with Lakshana Geetas. The profound conception that Ragam and Tanam go together, based upon the vital principle of rhythm, has no greater exponent than Veena Dhanammal. The elegant poise and the majestic cadence of her tuneful notes as she conjures them from between the frets appear to vibrate in perfect unison with the solo, majestic, rocking movement of the Veena often noticed when she plays.

With meticulous care, she has scanned the Raga system, and has a clear grasp of the essentials. How she comprehends the genius of particular Ragas as they come out on the Veena, and to what level she has developed her impressionism may be illustrated by a few examples.

1. Varieties of Gandhara in Todi, Sahana, Sourashtra and Saveri; of Dhaivatam in Saveri, Todi and Mukhari; of Nishadam in Saveri, Todi and Atana. Note when she works them out on the Veena.

2. Sadharna Gandhara side-by-side with Antara Gandhara in Kamas.

3. Panchama as an auxiliary note to Dhaivatam in Sriranjani and Ravichandrika Ragas that are avowedly 'Panchama Rahita'

4. Tangible difference in treating ragas with apparently similar Purvanga and Uttaranga like Sankarabharanam, Harikamboji, Karaharapriya and Kalyani.

Her Raga Alapana, though always very brief, exhausts the salient features. Yet, those who have heard her for years on end, far from feeling bored or satiated, marvel at the ineffable charm, variety and freshness of her style. This secret of the supreme art of omission, this ability to blend brevity, freshness, beauty and comprehensiveness is a most noteworthy feature about her.

Dhanammal plays more than a thousand songs. The choice and variety of the pieces may be seen from the fact that composers who figure in her repertoire number over seventy. This must have determined her whole perspective, and helped to shape and refine the plan of her ragas, and made them grand, concrete, living pictures that they are. If her rendering of Tyagaraja's songs is crisp, sweet and scintillating, her interpretation of the other of the famous Trinity is gorgeous, superb and ornate. And she is justly famous for Kshetragna's padams on this ground she stands without a peer. It is a sight for the gods how she winds unerringly through the elusive labyrinths of a 'Nadanamakriya' or 'Punnagavarali' padam, fashioning ever new patterns on the old, familiar fabrics, the time strings all the while manipulating the four major beats of 'Tisrajati Triputa' with uncanny precision.

A word about her grip over laya may be relevant just here. As I mentioned above, even her Raga is set to a subtle system of Tala. And her songs, of course, are very carefully and correctly timed. True, she does not make a fetish of what is at best only a means to an end. It would be an interesting exercise for those acquainted with the instrument to try the following. I have always been struck by the supreme ease and placidity with which she executes several such feats. Her 'laya gnanam' is more wonderful in view of the slow time measure that she adopts as a rule. Syama Sastri's Swarajati in Bhairavi she plays in 'Misra Chapu', 'Birana Brova' in Kalyani in 'Tisra Eka', and 'Ninuvina' in Poorvakalyani in 'Misra Eka', while Tyagaraja's Madyamavati piece 'Alagelella' she plays with two even strokes in lieu of an avartham of 'Rupaka' . Difficult as these are, not once does she falter, or fumble; of such mettle is she made.

Again, what is known as 'Neraval' may not be apparent in her music. But 'Neraval' she is performing all the while she plays. For hers is a genius endowed with a prolific creative faculty. She always strikes new paths. Beyond mere frame-work she cares to retain nothing. One will surely miss anything like a beaten track in her songs. They are always clothed anew, and come out in fresh hues. Trite old songs that have ceased to interest one acquire new fascinating powers in her hands. It is said that the late Violin Govindasamy Pillai called on her on the eve of his departure to Trichy from Madras. He asked for her blessings and expressed a wish to hear her play the familiar, old song of Tyagaraja, 'Sujana Jivana'. It may not be known to many that the talented composer of the popular javalis of today, the late Sri Dharmapuri Subbarayar was a close friend and admirer of Dhanammal. I understand that the charming lilt in 'Faraz' opening with 'Smara-sundara' was composed in her honour. These 'Javalis' have a special appeal and force when rendered by her with so much feeling and emotion. By the way, may I throw out a suggestion to those interested in music?

Conferences and discussions to explore the possibilities of the Raga 'Kamaz' as elaborated in various 'Javalis' of this gifted composer will find plenty of grist for all their mills in this one source. Again iconoclasts who exert themselved to purge Tamil Nadu of Telugu songs and compositions may find nothing handier than hundreds of Tamil songs of all kinds that Dhanammal has learnt.

Her repertoire is a rich storehouse of also Canarese, Marathi and Hindi songs. Raja Nawab Ali Khan Chowdhury, a member of the Indian Central Commiittee attached to the Simon Commission and a reputed connoisseur of the art, heard her some years ago when the Commission was in Madras. He spoke in glowing terms of her 'Darbari', 'Sohni', 'Multani' and 'Malkaus'. On another occasion I had the privilege of acting as her escort when the Rajah of Tehri was in Madras. She played before the Rajah and his family and they were all in raptures over her proficiency in North Indian music.

By far the most noteworthy feature of Dhanammal's Veena is 'Tanam'. It is here that her genius is seen in all its sublime grandeur. Human evolution, they say, is a long, unbroken progress through several births. The gods alone may know through what a long cycle Dhanammal has kindled incense at the shrine of the Muse. As in Ragam, so also in 'Tanam', her Pakkasaranis keep time. Syllable glides into syllable, and numberless curves and jerks follow one another in deliberate, well-ordered plan, with perfect resonance and freedom from jarring metallic clang (a common draw-back with most Vainikas known as 'Panjadi' or 'cotton cleaning' in professional slang). Her imagination, her supreme mastery over the instrument, her unerring 'Kalapramanam' or time-sense and her refined taste and admirable sense of proportion shine to the greatest advantage in this most interesting part of Veena music.

Often, this haunts one long after the performance is over. But, such experiences are never expressed adequately through the medium of dull, cold print.

It was a happy idea of Orr's Columbia House to have made her 'Tanam' the first of six of her records that have been released in the course of the last three years. One may venture a prophecy that her records will stand the test of time. And on the strength of this may one hope that the remaining six records might see the light of day in no distant future.

True to the age and tradition in which she was born and brought up, Dhanammal possesses rare traits as a vocalist. Her voice is sweet, clear and powerful. It accomplishes untold varities of gamakas and ravais. It is uniform in the three octaves, a feature absent in most of the well-known vocalists of today. It superbly blends with Sruti. It can well be taken as the model of a voice that is 'Sruthi-Suddha'. So admirably does it merge with the Veena that even an attentive listener often mistakes the instrument for the voice and vice versa. Lastly, her pronunciation - her songs run into six languages - is absolutely flawless. She has carefully studied the purport of her songs. This enables her to render them with so much feeling and also accounts for high level of her general culture. She draws profusely on Sanskrit and Tamil literature for her Rangamalikas. Her manner of blending words with music may well be copied by vocalists. She does not recite a line or two mechanically and then embark on a display of raga singing. To her, music is no vehicle for sordid, sensusous enjoyment, but a medium of communion with soul.

In creating an atmosphere that may elevate the art and emphasise the vital literacy and philosophic import of her pieces, verses etc., she succeeds wonderfully. Her short, arresting 'Madhyamavati' announcing the close of her two hour performance often brings feelings of regret to many who would fain stay on and have more of this celestial music.

To sum up, Dhanammal is a unique figure in the world of Carnatic music. Hers is no music that merely tickles the ear for the nonce. It haunts one like a pleasant dream long after the performance is over. It has an apparent simplicity that on closer scrutiny proves a luring mirage that plays hide and seek with the caravanserai. The 'Begada Varnam' she has recorded on the gramaphone will bear me out. It looks so charmingly simple. But it is enough to tax the most painstaking student and humble his vanity in the dust, once he sets his mind on mastering its subtle intricacies.

Messrs. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Ayyangar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Ayyar, Musiri Subramanya Ayyar, Chittoor Subramanya Pillay and a host of other musicians, professional and amateur, have gone to her for light and learning. However, it is sad to think that she languishes in comparative poverty and oblivion today - a sad reflection on our sense of values. I have often wondered at the paucity of enlightened professionals at her Friday performances in her residence all these years, whereas every item in her music - the rich repertoire, the ease and grace, absence of any uncouth mannerism, the tense atmosphere, etc.- may well be studied for length of time by votaries of the art. As I said at the opening of this article, she is sixty-nine years old now. God grant this Saraswathi of our times many, many a year more of health and vigour!