The All India music conference held in 1927 in Madras turned out to be iconic on several counts. One of the key aspects of the conference was the participation of the 17-year-old Thirukokarnam Ranganayaki Ammal. She was the only woman among the 23 mridangam artistes who performed at the event. When analysing music history from the beginning of the 20th century one can refer to Ranganayaki Ammal as the first woman to have made it big in the male-dominated field of Carnatic percussion.

Born on May 28, 1910 (this year was her 112th birth anniversary), she was the second of seven siblings. Her father Thirukokarnam Sivaraman was a renowned natuvanar, who was also known for his avadhana pallavis — an art of playing different talas by using both hands, legs and the head. Perhaps inspired by his laya prowess, Ranganayaki took to the mridangam and went under the tutelage of the legendary Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai even as she continued her training in Bharatanatyam.

She blazed a trail by playing complex mathematical combinations with ease. Her intelligence was openly acknowledged by her guru. Fragment of a letter written by Dakshinamurthi Pillai, probably in the early 1930s, has thankfully survived and is an endorsement of Ranganayaki’s talent. In the letter, Dakshinamurthi Pillai refers to her as ‘bhudhdhisali’ and recommends that she is provided with suitable opportunities.

Display of skill

The 1930s saw her rise in stature in the music circuit. Several reviews of her performances along with the then well-known vocalist D.K. Pattammal have appeared in the  Sangita Abhimani (1936). “It is tough to believe Ranganayaki Ammal has managed to add so much lustre to her tonal quality (nadham) in the last two years.” says a review. While predicting a bright future for her, another review declares her playing as the highlight of the concert, and makes a special mention of her approach to accompanying kritis apart from her dazzling display during the tani avartanam.

In the 1940s, she performed with several leading artistes such as Brinda and Muktha and Flute Mali. The Music Academy concert listings reveal that she had performed in the prime slot in 1948, accompanying vocalist Chandra Ramamoorthy.

From 1950 onwards not much information is available about Ranganayaki Ammal’s performances. According to mridangam and konnakkol exponent and nonagenarian Trichy Thayumanavan, who knew her well, Ranganayaki Ammal actively performed till the end of 1960s. “She was a regular performer at AIR, Tiruchi and travelled to Tiruchi, Pudukottai, Madurai and Thanjavur for concerts. Perhaps her staying away from the Chennai music scene created the impression that she was not performing regularly.”

Thayumanavan adds, “She was calm and gentle, but her playing was powerful and majestic. She would make the audience sit up with her energy. My guru Dakshinamurthi Achari was one of the prime disciples of Dakshinamurthi Pillai. Since I belong to the same lineage, we shared a special bond. I imbibed a lot from her, especially her guru’s korvais and her own improvisations. I present them regularly at lec-dems.”

Ranganayaki Ammal’s brother, Ulaganathan Pillai, was a violinist, and her sister Siva Brinda Devi, headed the Pudukottai Thilagavathiyar Adheenam, the first woman to do so. Facebook page of the Adheenam has several photographs of the family members. One of the photographs is of Ranganayaki’s trip to Singapore in the 1960s.

Usha Vijayakumar at her arangetram with guru Ranganayaki Ammal

Usha Vijayakumar at her arangetram with guru Ranganayaki Ammal
| Photo Credit: Courtesy: Usha Vijayakumar

Commanding presence

In 1966, she joined the Padmavati College in Tirupati as faculty, and later worked at the Sadguru Sangita Samajam in Madurai. Gottuvadyam exponent Usha Vijayakumar, who was then a student of Bharatanatyam at the Padmavati College, recalls how despite her short stature Ranganayaki Ammal had a commanding presence. She would recite complex laya calculations effortlessly. She was more interested in teaching than performing. Apart from mridangam, she also taught Bharatanatyam. She conducted arangetram for many of her students including Caroline, a student from abroad.”

Except for the Kalaimamani award, honours that Ranganayaki Ammal deserved evaded her. She happily shared her skill and knowledge till her last days. She passed away on August 15, 1998.

It is unfortunate that no recording of her playing is available. One hopes if any private recordings exist, they could be shared with music lovers.

The author is a classical music writer and researcher.



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