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Music > Face-To-Face
Parassala Ponnammal's Young protege - N J Nandini
29 December, 2012

N J Nandini from Trivandrum, who is the granddaughter of Vechur Harihara Subramanya Iyer, has become a known figure among budding musicians. Now she is under the advanced tutelage of Parassala Ponnammal and Kumara kerala Varma, a disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

Tell me about yourself, your family background and about your initiation into music.

We are from Nagerkoil, and our family settled down in Trivandrum, which is my favorite place too.  I was a class topper in Commerce in plus two.  Now I am doing correspondence course in B. Com. My brother   N J Nandagopal and my parents played an equal role in encouraging me and bringing me to this level in music. I did not start with the usual sarali varisai. But I used to sit with my brother when he learnt, and took part in some competitions and won prizes. Then my parents put me under Dr S Bhagyalakshmy and her brother DR M N Murthy (who is now the HOD of Violin Dept., Swati Tirunal college), from whom I learnt for 10 years. My parents used to take me to all the concerts in Trivandrum and thus Kelvi Gnanam has benefitted me a lot. I was just 3 years old, when I got an autograph from  Semmangudi mama in the year 1994 when I attended his concert!! My brother and I used to run around the Sabha hall and people used to complain. But during raga alapana we would come back to the seats, identify the raga and run off. We would get one rupee for each and every correct identification!  

My grandfather, Vechur Harihara Subramanya Iyer, a direct disciple of Sri Semmangudi, was the principal of Swati TirunalCollege of Music and a colleague of Parassala Ponnammal. My uncle, Vechur Shankar, a student of Kumara Kerala Varma, is getting Musiri Subramanya Iyer award this year.

What is your favorite raga?

My parents are great connoisseurs of music.  We had no other topic for discussion except music, in our house. When my mother was pregnant with me, she had attended Flute K S Gopalakrishnan’s concert wherein he played Thodi for 1 ½ hours.  By a strange coincidence that is my favorite raga.

Have you taken part in competitions and any awards won?

First breakthrough competition was at Purnathrayeesa Sangeetha Sabha at Tirupunithura where I got First prize for 3 years consecutively for different categories; for the first two years for, Thyagaraja , and Dikshitar compositions. The last one I won at the age of 15 for raga alapana for which I received Tambura prize from TKG Sir which I cherish the most. In Amrutha TV reality show (where there is no voting) which lasted for a year, for Great Masters’ round in semi finals, I chose Ksheenamai Tiruga, popularised  by Semmangudi, and in the final RTP round, my choice was my favorite raga Thodi with a pallavi set in Misra Triputa tala. I was adjudged the winner and received the title Raga Ratnam and a cash prize of 2 lakhs .In the Jaya TV show Carnatik Music Idol, I was first runner up in both 2011 and 2012 and also got People’s Choice Award in 2012. In 2009, I won the AIR competition from Kerala and was directly given “B” Grade and now I got upgraded to B High.  I am also an empanelled artiste of ICCR. 

Who is your favourite musician?  How many concerts have you given and which are the memorable ones?  Also tell me about the venues you like.

My most favourite artiste is MLV, and of course I like Semmangudi and KVN. I like Lalgudi Sir’s Tillanas and I try to end my concerts with one.

I have given around 400 concerts since 2006 out of which around 50 to 60 in Chennai.  The first memorable concert was at Trivandrum at the age of 15. I attempted pallavi for the first time and took up Chatur ragamalika - Sankarabharanai Azhaithodi Vadi Kalyani Darbarukku. Then comes Tirupathi Devasthanam concert wherein when you enter, you transform to a different level. The other cherished ones are a concert at Shanmukananda Hall Mumbai, and Spirit of Youth concert at the Madras Music Academy this year, for which,  I got the best female singer award and, that   also  ensures a slot to sing in the Academy next year during season. 

Some places are good for acoustics and elsewhere you sing for the good audience. I like singing in almost all Sabhas in Chennai, which is special for me. In Shanmukhananda it is digitalized and good. In Kerala also acoustics has improved a lot in many auditoriums.

What are your future plans and how are you working towards achieving them?

After completing B. Com I want to do Master’s in Music, and after that M Phil. and a Ph.D. to fulfill my mother’s wish. I am fortunate to have Gurus who teach genuinely without holding back anything and who allow the student to grow alongside. “Each time one gets onto the stage it is like an examination” are Palghat Mani Iyer’s words. So with that in mind, I want to work hard with sincerity and give my best. Of course, it is not possible without Bhagavat anugraham or sankalpam. Paramacarya of Kanchi has said this in his talk on  “Gnanam”: After thousands  of janmam of good deeds you understand what is music.  Again to acquire knowledge, to become an artiste and get recognition, you have to wait for many a janmam. Hence I should not let it go for a waste, and after all, my parents have contributed a lot to bring me to this level.

I practise for 3 to 4 hours at a stretch  whenever I sit . I practise varnam in two speeds and tisram and also akaram. Then whatever I want to improve and perfect, including correction of syllables, I concentrate on it.  My mother corrects all the small mistakes in diction.   Knowing the limitations of my voice, I try to sing accordingly and whatever is my plus, I work on it.  Chennai audience expects me to sing Swati Tirunal padams.  So I am learning them to include in my concerts. 

What about your food, when you stay outside home for many days? 

I am a foodie! But I avoid junk food and beverages always.  When I eat outside home I mostly take steamed food.  I restrict my caffeine intake.

What are your other interests?

I listen to Latha Mangeshkar’s Meera Bhajans. I try cooking the famous Puliseri and Pulicurry of Kerala and North Indian side dishes, and I fry pappadams well!  I like reading books, my favourite genres are adventure and expedition.  I would have read Tom Sawyer atleast a hundred times. Old editions of music magazines, which have lot of  depth, life history of musicians and anything on music, are some of my favourites.

I wanted to learn violin which hasn’t happened yet.  But in any concert, my eyes are always on the mridangam. My brother is a mridangam player, a disciple of R Vaidyanathan, and I have always practiced at home with his accompaniment,  which has benefitted me to a great extent, and hence the layam  just  fascinates me.

Have you accompanied your guru Parassala Ponnammal ?

No. With tears in my eyes I have asked her this.  She said my shruthi is 2 and yours is 5 1/2.  I don’t want you to spoil your voice by singing with me.  That is the care she gives her students. Both my Gurus would not allow me to start class without having something to eat in their house. They have such a good relationship with sishyas. Both of them would not take fees from me. So for Vijaya Dasami, when they cannot decline, I give them my Kanikkai. I am blessed to have such gurus. I want to follow their footsteps.

Who are your friends in this circle?

You will laugh when I say most of my friends are above sixty! Of course, my best friend is Veena Anantapadmanabhan’s son Anand Kaushik, who is also much senior to me, but with whom I talk hours together about music. I have some friends from the younger crop of singers also. 


The advice N J Nandini got from Smt. Parassala Ponnammal, is that one should have immense patience, and even when there is no one in the hall, the presentation should be sincere.  She cited herself as example for she got all her recognition after the age of 85.   It is the blessing of Sangeetha Devata. Of course, it is true for everyone in any walk of life.  Sincerity in work, and humility in success are very important.


Uma Krishnaswamy

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