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Obituary: D.K Pattamal

Shalu Ramachandran

Hailed as one of the Carnatic female trinity (the others being M.S.Subbalakshmi and M.L.Vasanthakumari) her music was known as much for its technical brilliance, as for its emotional appeal. One of the celebrated icons of Indian classical music, Padmavibhushan D.K. Pattammal, passed away at her residence in Chennai on Thursday July 16th  following a brief illness. She was 90. She broke the barriers of Orthodoxy at a very young age and delighted audiences with her music. 

Shalu Ramachandran , a resident of Burlington , MA knew her well and shares some special tales of association.

When I got a call in the midde of the night, I knew it had to be from home – India. Such calls typically throw you off the bed when you live far away (in Boston). What I was going to hear was quite hard to stomach, albeit quite expected.   My sister called to tell me that patti (as we would endearingly address her) had passed away. Although we knew she was ailing and her end was near, the reality of it hit us hard and left us speechless.  The thought that I’d never be able to see D.K.Pattammal again was quite distressing.

Iswaran thatha, D.K.P’s husband, and my thatha (Subbaraman) go a long way back.  They were close friends and neighbors in Chennai.  The friendship that started then was carried through the generations with grandchildren still being connected.  At some point when I was about 9-10 years old, both my sister and I were extremely lucky to be accepted by patti as her students (disciples seems rather too strong a word and quite frankly , I am not sure if we are worthy of it).  She approved of our singing , taught by another local teacher, but little did she know what she was getting into by taking us under her umbrella  – or perhaps she did ???...….I’d never know that.  We were typical young kids, quite ignorant of the magnitude of patti’s position in music, goofing around while at the same time grasping as best as we could the few lines she rendered to us in a song.  Over the next few months, the process of transition between the music teachers stabilized for my sister and me, and expectations on both sides were beginning to be set right. I think that marked the beginning of a magnificent relationship that blossomed between all of us. We delivered simple songs with accuracy that pleased patti. We decided to continue the trend until we came to the crossroads which would then force us to reassess our positions.

Those early years with patti and thatha were quite remarkable I must admit. We loved listening to her childhood stories and early days of her marriage during our classes.  For all her orthodox upbringing, she was quite revolutionary in her thinking when it came to music. She was the first Brahmin woman to perform on stage. She shattered the then illusion that women  were incapabable of performing complicated renditions to intricate beats. She proved that women could not only perform, but also do so magificiently and with style. Her passion for the art form came across so vividly that I can only imagine now, as an adult, what an inspiration she would have been then to those who would give up anything to spend a hour with her.

One of her favorite overseas story was that of Boston. Coming from a conservative Brahmin family herself, she took immense pride in mentioning the fact that the first families in Boston (who founded Boston,MA) were referred  to as Boston Brahmins. She perfomed a concert in Boston. It was hard to miss the excitement on her face when she believed that she made the connection through her music to a far away land at some level that she felt she related to J Little did I know then that I’d be living in Boston some few years later ,but I digress!

 As kids for us, it was a just a pleasure to be around her. We probably transported her to a different world with our quirkiness that we were ,sort of,  capable of extending to thatha- the “all to strict” man of the family!!  We were, in effect, her de facto kungumam offering secretaries when high dignitaries would pay her a visit while we had our classes. She often reminded us of how most people referred to her as “amma\pattamma” (even the family) and it was conceivable that my sister and I were possibly the lucky few who actually called her patti. We knew that we enjoyed being around each other.


Over the years, I remember driving with my dad, for whom both patti and thatha had a soft corner, stop by her place on his way from the club to drop off some ice cream.  She always feared it would affect her throat but she would treat herself to some of it occasionally.  I don’t know if the extended family relationship enabled us to enjoy this kind of a bond with her.


Whether it was music, love or both that brought us together, is something I’d probably leave unanswered.


My mother would never miss an opportunity to point out to us that we must have done something right (“puniyam”) in our previous birth to have patti as our guru. Of course, she would then empathize with patti that perhaps she “owed” us one in her last birth to be stuck with the brats.  Patti would laugh it off and in fact, chastise my mother for speaking that way of us.  She was a very considerate person and very affectionate. I can still remember the feel of her hands and her kiss whenever I did something special for her. Sometimes she would find it hard to kiss my cheek from her chair and would resort to taking my hand and kissing it.

We still sing the songs taught by patti.  Her teaching skills were quite methodical.  It helped comprehend the foundations. Some of her favorites were Mamava PattabiRama and Shanthi Nilava Vendum, both of which we enjoyed learning. I remember her telling me that if the song had the “GuruGuha” mudra, it was a Dikshithar kriti . She was an expert in all his kritis. She believed in quality. Her style of singing was very crisp, to some perhaps it was not quite as melodious as they’d like. She sometimes had a solemnly voice , maybe not appealing right away, but captivates one over time. Her rendition of Jana Gana Mana for AR rahman  at a ripe old age wtih a wrinkled face and a low, tender voice cannot help but bring a tear to the eye.  She clearly catered to the highly esteemed, educated carnatic music lovers who understood the science behind the art and could truly appreciate what a genius she was. She focused on her students to deliver the song accurately even if it means it sounded like they were singing the notes rather than the words J There was absolutely no compromise on quality.  Thanks to her, I am now able to enjoy the art with my daughter.  She not only taught me to sing but, more importantly, educated us enough to appreciate the art.

The whole Carnatic world today grieves the loss of the last of the Female Trinity (D.K.Pattammal, M.S. Subhalakshmi,M.L.Vasanthakumari). As for us, my sister and I, we together mourn the loss of a loving, caring and compassionate patti. Nonetheless, she passed away after living a full life, sharing her passion with the music world and leaving behind a myriad of effective disciples, including her own granddaughter, who will carry forward her teachings for generations to come.



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