Parassala Ponnammal: Carnatic virtuoso whose music defied barriers of age, tradition

Active in the sabha circuit even in her late nineties, Ponnammal broke tradition by being the first female Carnatic musician to sing at the coveted Navaratri Mandapam of Thiruvananthapuram, which for the past 177 years had been a male bastion

Parassala Ponnammal breathed her last at the ripe age of 97 at her residence in Thiruvananthapuram on June 22.

Parassala Ponnammal, a legendary virtuoso from the pantheon of Carnatic musicians breathed her last yesterday at the ripe age of 97.

Age had not deterred the nonagenarian vidushi from performing on stage as she was active in the concert circuit till last year. The strict discipline in her life and purity in her music kept her in good stead till the end. The end came peacefully in her house in Valliachalai Street of Thiruvananthapuram.

Ponnammal was born to Mahadeva Iyer and Bhagavati Ammal on November 29, 1924 in Parassala near Thiruvananthapuram. It was a turning point of sorts, when the young Ponnammal won a gold medal in a music competition and went to Thiruvananthapuram along with her father to receive the prize from Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar. Bhagavatar persuaded her to join the Swati Tirunal Academy (presently known Swati Tiruna College of Music) and equip herself for a career in music.

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Ponnammal was directly admitted to the second year of the three year Gayika (for vocalists) course at the academy Thiruvananthapuram. The course enabled her to hone her skills and she passed with distinction in 1942. At the academy, she learned music under the tutelage of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, KR Kumaraswami Iyer, MA Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar, CS Krishna Iyer, KS Narayanaswamy, NV Narayana Bhagavatar, Vadakanchery Mani Bhagavatar and Kallidaikurichi Harihara Bhagavatar. She was the first female student of the academy to get the Ganabhooshanam degree, that too with a gold medal and distinction.

At an age when the appearance of young women in public was not an approved norm in orthodox families, Ponnammal broke moulds and became an iconic figure of modesty and integrity. In 1942, while studying for the Ganabhooshanam course, she joined the Cotton Hills Girls High School, Thiruvananthapuram, as a music teacher. In 1952, Ponnammal joined the Swati Tirunal Music Academy as the first woman faculty at the institute. It was in 1970 that Ponnammal  took over as principal of the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, which she handled with dignity till her retirement in 1980. During her stint there, she took earnest steps to open the Ganapraveena course for violinists and mridangam players.

Ponnammal, right from the age of 16, had started singing for All India Radio, Trichy. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar heard her in a marriage concert in Coimbatore and arranged one featuring her at his native place where the young vidushi got adequate publicity. Following this, she got an invitation to go to Sri Lanka on a concert tour which also received wide press coverage. In 1953, she performed for the Bharatiya Music and Fine Arts Society, Mumbai and in 1976, she performed in the coveted 3 pm slot of the Music Academy of the erstwhile Madras. She has also rendered her voice to AIR Chennai and Doordarshan. Her concerts found a place in the many sabhas and temples of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

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In 1948, Ponnammal tied the knot with Deivanayagam Iyer, an agriculturist. Mother of four children, she is survived by her two sons Mahadevan, a retired BSNL employee and Subramani, a former Reserve Bank of India employee. Mahadevan’s daughters Lalitha and Lakshmi have taken it upon themselves to carry Ponnammal’s legacy forward.

A second coming

The second turning point in Ponnammal’s life came in 2006 when she had crossed 82 summers. It was when Prince Aswati Tirunal Rama Varma, a classical musician and member of the erstwhile Travancore Royal Family decided to break tradition by inviting the musician to be the first vidushi to perform at the Navaratri Mandapam of Thiruvananthapuram, which for the past 177 years had been a male bastion. YouTube videos of the concert drew attention of many musicians and organisers like KN Shashikiran who soon organised a thematic concert for Carnatica titled “Composers of Travancore” in 2007. The event apart from Ponnammal, also featured her disciples Seethalakshmi Ammal and Bhama Krishnan. Her music came as a fresh breeze that warmed the hearts of many a connoisseur.

What was so special about Ponnammal’s music that drew thousands of musicians and music lovers to her concerts even at an advanced age? The answer is easy: Her music was simple, uncomplicated, pleasing, with its unfailing sruti sudham, gamaka sudham and sahithya sudham, and maintains a proportion among all of its elements. For a nonagenarian, her voice was in fine shape, sruti aligned, no wavering and no audible breathing. She was able to execute the charming karvais, gamakams and measured brighas with consummate ease. Her style, she said once in an interview is an offshoot of her guru Semmangudi.

“I still remember how sincerely he taught me the kritiChethasri Balakrishnam’ (Dwijavanti) and his words of comfort, asking me to approach him any time and thus learnt quite a few kritis from him,” Ponnammal said.

There was no looking back for Ponnammal after the 2006 stint. Her concerts were organised by many sabhas in Chennai and other cities where thousands of rasikas thronged to hear her – a very rare achievement for any musician at that age.

In 2009, she embarked on her first US trip extending to 35 days to participate in the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana festival where she received the Acharya Ratnakara Award from Bhairavi Fine Arts Society Company, Cleveland. She also presented concerts in San Diego, Philadelphia and Chicago. The same year she received the Central Sangeet Nataka Academy Award from then President Pratibha Patil. Music Academy honoured her with the TTK Award of Excellence in 2010.  She received the Padma Shri from then President Pranab Mukherjee in 2017.

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Ponnammal trained thousands of students in her long academic career, many of them being active in the concert circuit. Notable among them are (late) Neyyattinkara Vasudevan, (late) MG Radhakrishnan, G Seethalakshmi Ammal, Dr Omanakutty, Amrutha Venkatesh, N J Nandini, S Mahadevan, Poovarani KVP Namboodiri, and her granddaughters Lalitha and Lakshmi among many others. She has got thousands of admirers worldwide who are hopeful that her disciples will carry forward her unadulterated, pristine music.

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