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An Authority on Purandara Dasa

Sriram Venkatkrishnan, The Hindu, Chennai, 25th October, 2006

Reproduced with permission.

Through hard work and sacrifice Lalithangi managed to get the saint composer's songs printed. On October 11, 1941, the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha (JBS) met at Veda Vilas, the Egmore residence of the eminent lawyer T.Rangachariar, to observe the third death anniversary of Veena Dhanammal. The Hindu, reporting on the event on October 13 stated that 'a portrait of Sri Purandara Dasa, the great composer and saint, was unveiled on the occasion by N.V.Raghavan and a book entitled 'Sri Purandara Mani Malai' containing a number of the great composer's kirtanas (with notation and meaning in Tamil) written by Srimati Lalithangi and dedicated to Srimati Dhanammal, was released by Dewan Bahadur K.S.Ramaswami Sastri.

Behind that report lay a story of great sacrifice by a woman, Madras Lalithangi, the encouragement given to her by a school teacher with a burning passion for music, namely R. Rangaramanuja Iyengar, who was closely involved with the JBS and the munificence of Kasturi Srinivasan of The Hindu.

Madras Lalithangi (born circa 1910), the adopted daughter of Perumalkoil Narayanathamma, a woman dedicated to the arts, had established a name for herself as a singer of repute. She had trained under Coimbatore Thayi, Flute Subba Rao, Veena Dhanammal and the composer Pattabhiramiah. She had also released several records and among them, the song, 'Sudandira Deepam' is considered to be the first record of a nationalistic song sung by a Carnatic musician. Later, she also recorded an elegy on the death of the patriot C.R.Das.

In the early 1920s, she began training under a well-known music teacher and scholar, Koothanur Ayyaswami Iyer and soon became his partner in life. They set up home at 108, Anna Pillai Street, George Town, Madras, and their only daughter was born there on July 3, 1928. Lailthangi's career was blighted by asthma. However, the couple managed by giving music lessons, an early student being the renowned painter and musician, S.Rajam. The Second World War added to the couple's financial woes, with several students leaving the city, thereby reducing their income further. It was at this time that Lalithangi came to meet a yogi belonging to the Dasa sect at Sudarshan Buildings, the residence of Dr. U.Rama Rao, the first president of the Music Academy, Madras. Becoming greatly interested in the songs of Purandara Dasa sung by the Dasa and encouraged by Ayyaswami Iyer, she learnt the songs within a year. Not being content with that, she wished to publish what she had learnt so that others would benefit.

Lalithangi's interest came to the knowledge of Rangaramanuja Iyengar, a man of no financial means, but with plenty of enthusiasm. The work of notating the songs began in right earnest at Iyengar's Egmore residence. Ayyaswami Iyer, Lalithangi and their daughter would walk the distance every day from Town to Egmore, not having the money to afford any conveyance. On some days of relative affluence, a rickshaw would be commandeered. Soon, the manuscript was ready. Ayyaswami Iyer sold his ancestral land in Koothanur to meet the printing expenses but the paper cost proved prohibitive. Iyengar approached Kasturi Srinivasan who gave the paper from The Hindu, free of cost. It was one of the earliest books on Carnatic music to be brought out by a woman. A lot of help in the notation had been rendered by Lalithangi's daughter then all of 13 years of age.

The book release
The book release was presided over by T.V.Subba Rao, eminent musicologist. In his speech he stated that Purandara Dasa's 'voice was that of eternity. The sheer volume of the output of Purandara Dasa's musical compositions was staggering and every piece was characterised by a sustained level of excellence in ideas, language and music.' Other speakers included C. Saraswathi Bai, Dr. T. Srinivasa Raghavan and Prof. P. Sambamoorthy. Madras Lalithangi, in her speech, thanked all those who had been involved in the release of the book. As was characteristic of him, Rangaramanuja Iyengar preferred to remain in the background. He was to later earn undying fame for his volumes titled 'Kritimanimalai' which compiled the works of the Carnatic Trinity and other composers. The evening's programme concluded with a concert by Lalithangi and her daughter. The book was republished in later years. Lalithangi herself acquired the reputation of being an authority on Purandara Dasa and as was jocularly once said by S.Rajam, many thought she was a Kannadiga herself! But it was Lalithangi's brilliant daughter, M.L.Vasanthakumari who became an earnest propagator of Purandara Dasa's songs. She received a doctorate from the Mysore University in 1976 for her work in this area. Lalithangi passed away in the 1950s, secure in the knowledge of having passed on a great composer's works to posterity.

(The author can be contacted at

The original article may be seen here:
An authority on Purandara Dasa, Article by V. Sriram, The Hindu, October 20, 2006