My Recent article on MLV for the esteemed music magazine Lalitha Kala Tarangini (of Sri Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira)
MLV – the master musician
- K. Vrinda Acharya
I feel blessed to write about none other than Dr. M.L. Vasanthakumari (1928-1990), one of the outstanding musicians the Carnatic music world has ever seen. More so because, we are celebrating my guru Vid. Neela Ramgopal mami’s 80th birthday and MLV is mami’s ‘manasika guru’.
MLV was born in a musically and culturally rich family. Her parents Kuthanur Ayya Swamy Iyer and Lalithangi were noted musicians. MLV was naturally inclined to singing, and learnt many Dasa keertanas from her mother. She became the first disciple of the legendary vidwan G.N. Balasubramaniam. She would absorb her gurus’s guidance like a blotter, soaking up every nuance.
Though she mostly followed GNB’s bani, she was known for her distinct inimitable ‘MLV style’ which kept her rasikas mesmerized and spellbound. According to GNB himself as quoted in Sruti magazine, “Vasanthi typifies real discipleship. She applies her mind to all she absorbs and presents a glorious edifice of her own creation.” Nevertheless, her music was as bold and courageous as her guru’s. She was a true spontaneous musician, who, they say, would never practice before the concert. She indeed had no fear of the stage or of experimentation and improvisation on the spot. Her music had high energy and enormous imagination. It was more intellectual and rich with brilliant manodharma, than emotional. Lightening birgas, leisurely methodical development of ragas, elaborating unusual ragas like Andolika, Kapinarayani, Pushpalathika, Salagabhairavi, Devamanohari, Sarangatharangini, Gamanashrama and the like with a free-flowing ease, fluent voice that could traverse three octaves, highly imaginative and adventurous sangathis, scintillating shruti bhedam essays, scholarly RTPs are some of the hallmarks of MLV’s music.
MLV’s style of raga exposition was special. Following GNB’s patented style, she would first give a quick flashy sketch of the raga before settling down for a detailed step-by-step elaboration (particularly for RTPs). Given her perfect and comprehensive voice technique, she could produce any gamaka, birga or voice modulation with absolute control and melody. For instance, in Shanmukhapriya, she would sing unbelievably fast birgas from mandrasthayi panchamam to tarasthayi rishabham; in Hindolam from mandra madhyamam to tara madhyamam and in Shubhapantuvarali from mandra panchamam to tara panchamam, so perfect and tuneful. Her sa-pa varjya prayogams in Kalyani or Todi, and phrases like DNRN,DP, in Keeravani for instance were soul-stirring. Her occasional use of the straight gandharam in Todi would always give special feel. She would normally decorate the descent of her ragalapana with three meaningful parallel phrases like MG,RSN-SN,DPM-MG,RSN or RGRSND-DNDPMG-RGRSND or S,SR,SD,P-P,PD,PG,R- S,SR,SD,P.
Shruti bhedam is like tight rope walking. It requires concentration and expertise of a high order with respect to shrutis and swaras. A slip can easily land the musician in an abyss of apaswaram. Like her guru, MLV had a penchant for Shruti bhedam. A detailed Shankarabharanam would see her foraying into Kalyani in a flash. Similarly, she would beautifully bring Todi in Kharaharapriya. Not just changing the ragam, but coming back to the original ragam was equally a thrilling experience for the audience.
MLV’s concerts were known for their brilliant and efforless Ragam-Tanam-Pallavis. One cannot but be amazed at the unimaginable mastery she exhibited in all aspects of pallavi singing. As for her control on laya, it was perfection personified. She has presented pallavis in complicated talas such as mishramukhi. ‘Kanaka Sabesha Jagadeesha Natana Prakasha’ in Shuddhadhanyasi, khanda triputa talam 3 kalai (tishra nadai), ‘Kamalasani sundari chandravadani karunarasa vilochani’ in Shanmukhapriya Adi talam 4 kalai ateeta eduppu are some pallavis of hers that the music fraternity will always treasure.
MLV was also outstanding in niraval, tanam and swaraprastara. She was inspiringly creative and original, striking surprising swara combinations with incredible fluidity. Her prayogams were inadvertent products of a fertile imagination, making it difficult for accompanists to follow. She was sure to steal the show with her ragamalika swaras, be it ragas like Kanada, Kedaram, Yadukulakambhoji and Sahana, or rarer ones like Tilang, Revati, Kalavati and Chandrakauns.
Her laya prowess was so exceptional that Mridangam Maestro Vidwan Palghat Mani Iyer accompanied her in some concerts. She was daring enough to sing Todi in front of no less than ‘the champion of Todi ’, Vidwan T.N Rajaratnam Pillai and won his praise. Her music won the appreciation of stalwarts like Vidwan Lagudi Jayaraman, Vidushi M.S. Subbulakshmi and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan.
MLV’s repertoire was so vast that every concert of hers had newer and newer ragas and compositions to offer to the rasikas. In addition to the compositions of the Trinity, she often presented modern composers like Papanasam Sivan, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, GNB, N.S.Ramachandran, Ambujam Krishna and Periasami Thooran. Her exquisite rendering of Purandaradasa songs was a major attraction in her concerts. She was instrumental in popularizing many compositions of the Haridasas by tuning them and bringing them to mainstream concert platform. ‘Innu daya barade’, ‘Baro Krishnayya’, ‘Sharanu Benakane’, ‘Gajavadana paliso’, ‘Yamanelli kanenendu’, ‘Venkatachala nilayam’, ‘Yadava Raya’ in her silken voice were sublime expressions of melody. ‘Chandrachooda Shiva shankara’ tuned by her in Ragamalaika, with the last charana in khanda nadai and each line of it in the reverse order of the ragas previously used, speaks volumes of her exquisite musicianship. She would also sing Ugabhogas and shlokas, aesthetically blending the technicalities of the raga with the sahitya bhava. Tillanas, particularly Lalgudi’s, were another draw in her concerts. ‘Kalyana Gopalam’ in Sindhubhairavi, ‘Unnai enri’ in Bhavani, ‘Muruga Nin’ in Behag, ‘Mariyadagadayya’ in Bhairavam, ‘Marugelara’ in Jayanthasri were some of her other masterpieces.
MLV’s venture into film music was equally remarkable. ‘Ellam Inba Mayam' and ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye' (Manamagal-1951), Imaya malai chaaralile (Manithanum Mirugamum–1953), Taaye yashoda undan (Kuladaivam-1956), Anthi mayanguthadi and Vadiveru Tirisoolam (Parthiban Kanavu-1960), Paal Kadal Alaimele (Raja Desingu-1960) Aadatha Manamum Undo (Mannadhi Mannan–1960) were some of the classical super hits of MLV which gave her golden voice more reach and popularity. She would also sing for her daughter Srividya’s dance recitals.
MLV’s charm, grace and humility could never go unnoticed. Her open mindedness and infinite craving for knowledge made her fairly appreciate other artists and other forms of music.
MLV was beyond doubt a complete musician. A successful artist who became popular during her guru’s lifetime and who reached the bracket of the female trinity with MS and DKP who very may years senior to her, she was the youngest female recipient of the coveted Sangeetha Kalanidhi. She is a delight to any listener and a guiding spirit to any student of Carnatic Music. One may use all the expressions in the vocabulary, and write pages and pages to describe her music. Yet, explanations can never replace experience. Blessed are those who have experienced the divine melody of this phenomenal musician!