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The Uniqueness of Dhanam's Technique

R.R. Ayyangar, Yogavedanta Forest Academy, Rishikesh, 1958

It is often said that the aim of all instrumental music should be to approximate to, if not imitate, that of the human voice. This idea has gained a large measure of acceptance. Nevertheless, there is a fallacy lurking behind it, which has led to a great deal of confusion between function and purpose. Carnatic Music has a long history of sttady growth and evolution strictly on the lines of melody, as distinct from harmony. Consequently, it has acquired vast dimensions offering unlimited scope for individual development and creative expression. The splendid, imposing galaxy of instruments, from the clarion and Yazh to the Nadaswaram and the Veena, is a standing refutation of the dictum mentioned above. For each of them has a distinct personality of its own, totally unrelated to the human voice in the matter of pitch, volume, timbre, appeal and possibilities. To expect all of them to toe the line to vocal music were to misjudge their function and defeat their purpose. The technique of Siddha Vidhyadhari Veena Dhanammal, the greatest musician that I have known, is the most convincing argument that I may press home in this context. For she was great as a singer as well as an exponent of the Veena.

She imbibed the music traditions of Subbaraya Sastri, son of Syama Sastri, Sathanur Panchanadam Iyer, Veena Gowri, Veena Srikantayya and Palghat Kalyanakrishna Ayyar. She diligently compared notes with veteran contemporaries like Thirukodikaval Krishna Ayyar and Sarabha Sastrigal. Through single-minded devotion and unflagging industry, she wrought into her Veena a marvellous synthesis of all the material she had gathered. Thus was born a matchless technique which was all her own - original, unique, subtle, unfathomable, esoteric and transcendental in its mystery.

To Dhanammal, a music concert was nothing less than an offering to God. The idea of entertainment or the carnival spirit was absolutely foreign to her polished, cultured mind. So she steered clear of the familiar, crude, sickening cacology like the 'Thaddarinanna' , 'Yaddarina', and 'ya,ya' in Raga Alpana. Instead she wove a verse in Tamil or Sanskrit into the pattern of a Raga, not once going out of its letters, words or phrases. As if to emphasize the different functions of the voice and the wire, she sang a snatch and enriched it by paraphrasing it on the Veena, with a thousand sparkling embellishments characteristic of her own technique. During the twelve years that I sat at her feet, it was a constant source of wonder to me that the voice and the wire should scrupulously avoid repeating or overlapping each other, though they were in the same hands. It was this unique, extensive, technical set-up that made her Veena music entirely different from that of any Veena player of this century. She once confided to me her own reminiscences of the effect of a rapturous trance produced on no less a person than the late Vijayanagaram Venkataramanadas, a distinguished Vainika, when as the guest of Prince Ananda Gajapati, she used to unravel the mysteries of Tanam that were her sole monopoly and special forte. It is my conviction that the human voice, or for that matter, any other instrument, can never produce even a little of her Tanam.

The present day Tana-Varnam, in Carnatic Music, is little more than a series of notes strung together, with corresponding bits of Matu or Sahityam. Along with the Kriti, it has suffered incalculable damage at hands of the musicians and music tutors in particular. The origin and the present plight of the Tana-Varnam are matters for serious research if this vital branch of Carnatic Music is not to disappear in a welter. In four decades of my career as a student of the Art, I have known only two musicians who did justice to it. They are Siddha Vidyadhari and the late Simizhi Sundaram Ayyar, one of Thomas Gray's 'Full many a gem of purest ray serene'. Thanks to the persuasive endeavour of the late C.R. Srinivasa Ayyangar, Dhanammal recorded the Begada Varnam in 1936, on a gramaphone disc. Suffice it to say that it is a Roman Colosseum for those who can perceive its majestic architecture. Our scale of values being what it is, the record had such a poor sale that the discs were shaped into pan-plates and hawked in the City Bazars for a copper!

Lastly, a word about the Kriti and similar types of composition set to a definite time measures or Talam. How many of us are aware of the bedrock of Carnatic Music, viz., the twenty-two Srutis? If our music has to come to its own and deliver its message to the world, we have to rebuild the crumbling edifice from its very foundation. It is a vexed problem and needs a Hercules to tackle it. Again, it was given only to the solitary figures mentioned above to hold fast to the banner. For those who care, a few records - alas, too few! - of Dhanammal which still linger in the odd corners here and there provide the clue to this secret of Carnatic Music.