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
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
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
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.
THE CREATIYE TOUCH
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!