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In Conversation With Sulochana Govardhan

Ranjani Saigal

“I was born into a musical family and married into one “says Sulochana Govardhan who had the privilege of growing up in a musical family in Thiruvarur in Tanjavur district in the early part of the twentieth century. Tanjavur was the home to great music and dance. Her grandfather was a Govindsamy Pillai, a famous nattuvanar (dance teacher) of his time. Her mother Soundaravalli Ammal was a dancer and singer who performed in Thiruvarur. Sulochana was married to the late Shri. Govardhan who is the brother of Carnatic greats Smt. Mukta and Smt. Brinda.

When one meets Sulochana, one is immediately struck by her dignified demeanor and her sharp mind. Historically, the women in musical families were one of the few Indian women who were well educated.  What was it like to grow up in a musical family at the turn of the century? “I was always surrounded by music. I went to a regular school and received a normal education. In addition I was also trained in dance and music. I learnt Telugu and Tamil.” says Sulochana.

Was every Devadasi attached to a temple? “No. There were a few who were given the privilege to dance or sing at the temples. Many others had ordinary lives. They owned homes and land. My family owned land and we lived off of it. Many like my mother used to sing at weddings and other functions. In those days, there was no audio system. When gramophone records became popular, it was my mother’s dream to hear herself on a record, which unfortunately could not be realized. ”

What were dance classes like?  “Nattuvanars like my grandfather had only a few students and they worked hard to make sure that the students excelled in their art. There was a close relationship between the dancer and the teacher. People did not switch teachers as they do now. Both teacher and student were extremely dedicated to the art. That kind of dedication is not seen today. Everyone who learnt dance also learnt music. ”

Thirvarur where Sulochana grew up is a town that is close to Thiruvaiyaru, now made famous because of the Thyagaraja Festival. “Thiruvaiyaru was only a small village until the great Banglore Nagarathinammal decided to renovate the Thyagaraja Samadhi. She was a great lady who I admired a lot”

Bangalore Nagarathinammal was a contemporary of illustrious women musicians like Veena Dhanammal, Salem Meenakshi, Enadhi Lakshmi Narayani Sisters, Coimbatore Thayee, Bangalore Thayee, Tiruvarur Rajayee and Kolar Nagarathinam. Nagarathinammal had a very difficult childhood. As an adult, tragedy struck when her only daughter died. She was an artist par excellence and admired Saint Thyagaraja for his spiritual living.

Later in life, with single-minded devotion and dedication, Nagarathiammal sold her properties, pooled her income and enlisted the support of all to commence the construction of the Samadhi of Tyagaraja on the bank of the Cauvery on October 27, 1921 and perform the Kumbabishekam on January 7, 1925. She started the annual celebrations (aradhana) on a firm and grand scale. The samadhi lands were donated by Sri Mannapa Saheb and Sri Rajaram Mannaji Surve. And she spent her last years there giving lessons on Tyagaraja songs at the 'Tyaga Brahma Nilayam', a dedicated construction work in which the eminent cine actor, Chittoor V.Nagayya played the principal role. Quite fittingly, her samadhi is located near the samadhi of the bard. All of us who enjoy the Thyagaraja festival here and in India have this great woman to thank for establishing the aradhana tradition.

Even though Sulochana was from an artistic family, she did not follow in the steps of her mother and stayed away from a career in music.  “Unfortunately at the time I was growing up, the women practitioners of dance and music were not very respected. That used to bother me a lot.    My idol was Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy who came from a musical family and yet took up education and worked hard to bring dignity to the Devadasi community. I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I wanted to get a good education.”

Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was one of India’s most distinguished women of her time. The first woman to be admitted as a medical student at the Madras Medical College, she was also the first woman to be nominated to the Madras Legislative Council, where she was elected Deputy Chairperson. She was the founder-president of the Indian Women’s Association and became the first alderwoman of the Madras Corporation. Keenly aware of her role as a pioneer among women, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, constantly fought for the emancipation and upliftment of women in India. She was the prime mover behind the legislation that abolished the Devadasi system in 1929 and played a keen role in raising the minimum marriage age for women in India.

Sulochana,   received a scholarship to study in Madras. As luck would have it she met and married Shri Govardhan, who was from the most illustrious musical family of Chennai, the family of Veena Dhanammal who has produced such artistic geniuses as Brinda , Mukta,Vishwanathan, Ranganathan,  Balasaraswathi and others. 

“Even though I tried to move away from a musical family, here I was married into one. My husband was an engineer though and hence music was not a career for him. By the time my children were born in the post independence era , Carnatic music and dance careers attained respectability. Being from a musical family became extremely respectable. I of course had the honor of being married into one of greatest artistic families in the world of South Indian Classical music and dance.”

The Veena Dhanammal family has had successful artists for generations. Balasaraswathi is a revered and well known name in dance all over the world. What was the secret of her success?  “I have to say that success lies in sheer hard work and an uncompromising sincerity to the art. Balasaraswathi was very gifted. She had many opportunities to work in films. She did not want to dilute her art and refused to work in films. She was true to her tradition. She and her brothers have worked hard to bring the music and dance to the west. Thanks to them people in the west know about South Indian Classical music and Dance. They have trained many westerners who are now professors of music at various universities. My sisters-in-laws Smt. Brinda and Smt Mukta also became such icons in the world of music because of their hard work and uncompromising commitment to quality. Many of the great musicians of today have received training from them including the legendary M.S.Subbulakshmi”

Career in the arts even today is not easy. What does she think of a career in music now for her grandchildren? “I really regret staying away from music and dance. Though I stayed away from it my love for the arts never went away. While it is not easy to be an artist, I would strongly encourage it.  My grandchildren come from a great tradition and I hope they would do justice to their heritage” says Sulochana.

Sulochana’s daughter, Dr. Chandrika Govardhan and her husband Dr. Sam Pazhanisamy live in Lexington, MA along with their two children Amudha and Kavitha who certainly have inherited the music and dance genes from their ancestors. Lokvani wishes the children great success and hope they can fulfill their grandmother’s ambition.


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