Ethereal Minstrel

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Kutcheri, Raga, Tala, Sahitya
Artistes, Composers, Lyrics
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Dance, Harikatha, Folk Music

nAda 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 musical divinity.

It 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 Lakshmi.

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.

I sit 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:
ETHEREAL Minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?

-- Ramanathan N. Iyer
   November 16th, 2004.


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