05 December, 2012
Smt. A R Sundaram is 89, but her zest for life, particularly for music, has still not waned. It is only physical constraints which stop her moving out on her own to concerts; but Mrs. A.R. Sundaram, known as Sunda, still teaches to those interested. She herself had started learning at the age of 9-10 and even now after 80 years she remembers every song! Belonging to one of Mylapore’s traditional Brahmin families, her father A.K.Ramachandra Iyer knew many of the leading musicians since the early half of the 20th century. He had two of his daughters learn music from Chinnakutty Amma, aunt of Smt T. Brinda; Chinnakutty Amma was one of the four sisters, namely Periyakutty Amma, Kamakshi and Jayamma; the last named was the mother of the famous dancer T.Balasaraswathi. Recently Sunda performed with the support of her young student at the centenary celebrations of Smt T.Brinda at the Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, which she dedicated to her Guru Brinda and her father A.K. Ramachandra Iyer.
Since Sunda had asthma trouble, she found it difficult to sing at the high Surthi (pitch) of Chinnakutty Amma; it was at this point that Sunda’s father brought Smt T.Brinda, daughter of Kamakshi, to teach Sunda. Brinda was a strict disciplinarian; she would teach for only one hour a day; nothing was written down and, of course, recording was not possible those days. The student should be able to sing perfectly whatever was taught in the previous class. Since the style of singing demanded taking long deep breaths, it also had a side effect; Sunda got rid of her asthma!
Sunda did not go to school till she was12 when she joined Church Park – which was quite common those days; children would be taught at home by teachers – she completed her Senior Cambridge at 17 and she got married in 1941. Recently she was felicitated at the alumni meeting of her school as the oldest surviving student.
After marriage whenever possible she used to learn with Brinda. She also learnt under GNB’s disciple T.R. Balasubramaniam for some time. She still preserves the notebook in which he had written the notations; “it is like print!” she says with admiration. She had mainly learnt many Krithis from Maruthuvakudi Rajagopala Iyer; she also underwent training under Vidwan T.K. Govinda Rao. Sunda’s mother Lakshmi could sing and also play the violin; “it was my mother who used to advise me on etiquettes”. “In 1938 on October 2nd I performed on AIR without accompaniments from 8 – 9 a.m. G.T. Sastry, Venkatramam Sastry and N.V. Raghavan came home and invited me to present that recital”. Through the years she had been on AIR periodically, but she was not allowed by her father to perform on stage.
Sunda has happy memories of accompanying M.S. Subblakshmi and Brinda. In fact she was quite close to M.S. She also proudly recalls providing vocal support to Balasaraswathi’s dance programme.
How was the music scene in earlier days? “There were not too many concerts; they were mainly concerts during weddings; a wedding then was a four day affair, when there would be at least two concerts by leading musicians; well known Nadaswaram Vidwans would also perform during the procession – first for the “Maapillai Azhaippu”, that is, the procession of the bridegroom on the evening before the wedding and the “Oorvalam”(procession) on the last day of the newly wedded couple in decorated vehicle”. “At the wedding of my sister there was a dance recital by Balasaraswathi; it was the first time that my grandfather T.R. Venkatarama Sastri witnessed a dance programme; he did not like dance; but he was so impressed by Bala’s Abhinayam that he gave up his dislike for dance”.
Remembering her younger days Sunda says, “we used to look forward to the Music Academy in December. We would plan what sarees and jewelry to wear days ahead for important evenings. Some years it was held at a pandal opposite Midland Theatre in General Patters Road, a few times in the Victoria Public Hall near Central Station, later at R.R. Sabha; after that for a few years at a pandal at the same place where Academy’s auditorium now stands and while it was being built at a pandal at the P.S. High School grounds”. Before so many Sabhas sprouted a concert by M.S. or a dance recital by Kamala Lakshminarayanan or Vyjayanthimala were important social events, when one could see women in gorgeous silk sarees and matching diamond, ruby or emerald jewelry.
According to Sunda it was her father who started Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore specifically to promote Nadaswaram; there was a Sabha in nearby Nadu Street but they could not hold Nadaswaram performances there as it was a closed hall. Also he was the one who brought out Papanasam Sivan; he heard him singing in the temple along with a group and impressed by his music, he brought Sivan home and patronized him.
Says Sunda, “I was the last one to sing for Bangalore Nagarathinamma – she built the Thyagaraja Samdhi at Thiruvaiyaru – I sang ‘Upacharamu’ in Bhairavi Raga and she did Abhinayam for it. It was a great honour”.
She used to form groups of women to sing different types of compositions. Their ‘Gananjali’ was the very first group who started performing the early morning programme at the Music Academy December season with ‘Thiruppugazh’. Later of course many other groups came up and it has become fixed feature at the Academy. Then she formed the ‘Sangeethanjali’ for rendering Bhajans learnt under Srinivasa Rao. ‘Sankaramanohari’ was a group who learnt under Vidwan D.K. Jayaraman. She had sung Sundaramoorthy Nayanar’s Devaram verses accompanied by Sri Dandapani on the Veena on AIR; also on AIR she had the privilege to sing along with Balasaraswathi and her mother Jayamma in the ‘Kuravanji’ programme.
The TV was on in her room showing the India-Australia Cricket match. “Oh! I have watch cricket. I am mad after it”, declares she. As I was leaving after an interesting conversation with the veteran she let out a nugget of information. “I used to play the piano; I had to give up when I was doing the 4th grade of the Trinity College as I got married”. But whatever she has done in the field of music had the whole hearted support of her husband Dr. Ramachandran, she said.