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A revolutionary who broke the sound barrier for women

delhi Updated: Jul 17, 2009 00:37 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
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Padmavibhushan Damal Krishnaswamy Pattamal passed away on Thursday on July 16, at her home in Chennai. The frail 90-year-old Carnatic singer had been afflicted by severe arthritis for over a decade.

That did not deter her, however, in July 1999 from singing in an 18-hour Carnatic music concert in Chennai for the Kargil soldiers’ benefit fund.

Pattammal is celebrated in Indian music history as the first woman musician from an orthodox family to sing Carnatic music in public, at a time when ancient taboos sternly constricted the lives of ‘upper caste’ women.

Besides being the first woman to break this social taboo, she also broke the gender barrier musically as the first woman to sing a full-length, uncompromisingly classical concert with detailed exposition of ragas in the suites called Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi, that until then had been an exclusive male stronghold.

Backed by her schoolteacher father, Pattammal created a sensation in Carnatic society. Well into her prime, she was awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy (1970), Padma Bhushan (1971), Kalidas Samman (1998-99) and Padma Vibushan (1999).

Her passing was deeply mourned by the leading lights of Carnatic music.

“To people like Pattammal, singing honest classical music was the only way to sing. She was a pathbreaking woman musician who was one of the first feminists without making a big deal about it,” said singer T.M. Krishna from Salzburg.

Said violinist Lalgudi Krishnan, “DKP stood for musical and human values. She had a huge repertoire and was patriotism and bhakti rolled in one.”

“She sang the toughest of compositions and remains our reference. The great mridangam vidwan Palghat Mani Iyer, who never accompanied women, played for her... She remained understated and affectionate,” said singer Bombay Jayashree.