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Ponnammal broke the glass ceiling in music

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Parassala Ponnammal, the Carnatic music stalwart who passed away recently, was the first woman to perform at the Navaratri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram

On reaching Thiruvananthapuram, 35 km from her small town of Parassala, the girl felt diffident about participating in the music competition. Yet, when her name was called, the 13-year-old sang nothing less than a weighty Navavarana composition by Muthuswami Dikshitar. As the jury gave B. Ponnammal the first prize, they wondered if Parassala had a Carnatic music culture.

Eight decades later, when she was awarded the Padma Shri, Ponnammal recalled that path-breaking 1938 event. “I chose ‘Kamalambam Bhajare’ without knowing its significance,” she said. The teenager’s innocence worked to her benefit. When asked to present “something else” after the Kalyani raga piece, she rendered another heavy raga, Bhairavi.

Sobriety remained the hallmark of Ponnammal’s music till her death last week at the age of 96. She never flaunted her scholarship during conversations and restraint marked her concerts.

After 11 years of singing, M.S. Subbulakshmi made her debut in films in 1938 with Sevasadanam, which became a super hit. But Ponnammal never got such opportunities since Travancore did not encourage concerts by women. “The initial concern was to ensure that my career didn’t earn me a bad name,” she said, reminicising about her early years. If M.S. got fame early, Ponnammal had to wait much longer.

Nonetheless, there was a happy coincidence in their musical careers. Subbulakshmi’s maiden concert (1927) took place in Trichy, and it was AIR Trichy that invited Ponnammal in 1940 to perform, when she was still a student at the Swathi Thirunal Music Academy in Thiruvananthapuram. It proved to be a turning point in her life, and she soon began performing at temples and households along the Cauvery belt.

Ponnammal with disciple Amrutha Venkatesh

It was after Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar noticed her talent when she sang at a wedding in Coimbatore and began to recommend her name that Ponnammal’s busy concert schedule began in Palakkad.

By then, Ponnammal was teaching in a school at Thiruvananthapuram’s Vazhuthacaud area, a job she landed after topping her Gayaki course.

Papanasam Sivan, N.V. Narayana Bhagavathar and M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar were among the half-a-dozen masters who groomed Ponnammal. She also trained under Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer at his home in Thiruvananthapuram.

Semmangudi became the head of the Swathi Thirunal academy in 1945, and seven years later, Ponnammal became her guru’s colleague and the first woman to teach in the institution. She later became the principal of RLV Music College in Tripunithura, and was there for a decade, during which time she was instrumental in expanding the courses, structuring the syllabi on the lines of her alma mater. Two stalwarts who helped her streamline the college curriculum were Semmangudi and Musiri Subramania Iyer, both judges in the 1938 contest.

Ponnammal receiving the Padma Shri

Life came full circle when Ponnammal was invited in 2009, at the age of 85, to perform at The Music Academy. “Had she lived on the other side of the Western Ghats, Ponnammal would have become another D.K. Pattammal,” says P.R. Kumarakerala Varma about her guru, who, like Pattammal, sang at an unhurried pace and low pitch.

The Carnatic world, however, reserved a special occasion for Ponnammal, when she became the first woman to perform at the Navaratri Mandapam of Padmanabhaswamy temple in 1986. It ended three centuries of an all-male tradition at the nine-day festival, courtesy the key organiser and vocalist Rama Varma. “Once we decided to break the tradition, I knew who should do it,” he says.

“Ponnammal needed very little time to tune the tambura ahead of a concert,” points out dancer-musicologist Rajashree Warrier.

According to vocalist B. Arundhathi, “Her repertoire was incredibly vast.” Bengaluru-based Amrutha Venkatesh, who performed at the Navaratri Mandapam in 2008, talks about the inspiration she drew from the “bold” manner in which Ponnammal sang the Thodi padavarnam at the venue. “That made me learn it.”

Scholar V.R. Prabodhachandran Nair describes Ponnammal’s “soulful” music as an “offering to god”.

Rama Varma sums it up: “There is no feature you can reject in Ponnammal’s music.”

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.

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