yOga - that pinnacle of musical bliss in which
nothing else matters; a state in which the mind and body live, eat, breathe
and drink only music! It is something we have heard of and read in tributes to
legendary musicians, but seldom get to experience first-hand.
This past week was one of those rare
opportunities: a chance to be in the presence of a living legend - an
immortal, ethereal minstrel who has had the privilege of transcending
materialist and human barriers to reach that sublime state in which music is
the only permanent, prevalent factor. Muktamma - millions of words have been
written about her, about the peerless Brinda-Mukta pair, about the distinct
characteristics of the Dhanammal bANi... but words are inadequate to describe
the singularly exhilarating experience of being in the presence of such
was a private function at Muktamma's residence, organized by a Coimbatore-based
music organization to honour the veteran. Since Muktamma's physical condition
doesn't permit her to move out of the house, the organization had invited a
few of her disciples, some leading musicians, scholars and patrons to grace
the private function.
It was a different Muktamma from the frail,
bedridden figure I had encountered a few months back when some of us visited
her upon hearing about her ill-health. At that time she was hardly coherent
and scarcely recognized anybody, let alone being able to sing! But things made
a dramatic change for the better, about a month ago according to her daughter
It is a body that has weathered ninety
summers... she can hardly move around, her attention span does not stretch
beyond a few seconds on worldly matters and she has to be repeatedly reminded
of names and faces. Yet what strikes the onlooker is the music that sustains
her at this advanced age. It is not just flowing in her veins, it seems
hard-wired into her very consciousness and it is the raison d' etre for
her existence, contributing a vitality that is masked by that innocent,
cherubic smile! She's entirely lost in that special musical realm, accessible
only to a chosen few. The memory that fails her in regard to names and faces
is able to effortlessly recall every line, sangati and nuance of
musical compositions. She looks constantly at the sruti box for reassurance,
but the voice is perfectly aligned at 4.5 kaTTai throughout. Occasionally the
musical reverie is interrupted, as some image or incident from the past lights
up a corner of her brain and she takes us on a stroll down memory lane studded
with legendary characters such as Dhanammal, Naina Pillai and Brindamma. Then
the thoughts trail off and we are back to some priceless sangatis from
a bEgaDa padam.
An audience comprising such musicians as
Sangita Kalanidhi Vedavalli & Sowmya (Muktamma's direct disciples),
Chitravina Ravikiran and K. N. Shashikiran (see picture above) sit at her feet
spellbound as sprinklings from a chiseled kalyANi AlApana precede "kAntimatIm".
As the kriti winds down, she's off to the next one, unmindful of our concern
for her physical frailty. The benevolent teacher in her still loves to share
nuggets from her vast musical warehouse and is a strict caretaker of the
nuances of her pAthAntara with emphasis on lakSya for which the
Dhanammal school is renowned. She sings a particular line and then asks Shashi,
"Is this how Brinda taught you this sangati?", reflecting the dominant
position that the late Brindamma - elder sister and respected mentor - has in
her life and thoughts even today.
slack-jawed and overawed through an hour of some of the most pristine and
sublime kEdAragauLas, bEgaDas, sahAnAs and bhairavis that I have heard my
whole life. The word "treat" is grossly inadequate to describe the lilting
sencuruTTi jAvaLi that effortlessly rolls from the nonagenarian angel... as we
prepare to reluctantly leave the divine presence, Muktamma is still singing to
herself. We step deliberately to one side, outside her line of sight and stand
listening to her from the hallway and get to savour the most delicious treat
of the day - Muktamma who has never been heard singing kalpanaswarams
on the concert platform, reeling out two-speed swarams in varALi, ten
beats from samam at "O bhAmanE..." in the padam "valapu dAsa"!
I am reminded of Wordsworth:
Minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky!
|Dost thou despise the earth
where cares abound?
-- Ramanathan N. Iyer
November 16th, 2004.