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Legacy of Veena Dhanammal: In Conversation with Ritha Rajan

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The interview with musicologist Ritha Rajan was conducted by Praveena in Chennai in 2017

Praveena: Namaskaram, Prof. Ritha Rajan. It is very nice of you to have agreed to share your thoughts on Veena Dhanammal. Veena Dhanammal is a very revered name in Carnatic music. Can you tell us little about Veena Dhanammal?



Ritha Rajan: Namaskaram, Praveena. I have also heard a lot about Veena Dhanammal, what I would say is first-hand information from her descendants—her granddaughters and the grandsons and also from my family members at Kanchipuram. Here, I must say a few words about my family. My family was closely associated with Dhanammal's family and also, another musician, Kanchipuram Dhanakoti Ammal. According to Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, our former President of India, the names of Dhanammal and Dhanakoti Ammal are household names in South India. Dhanammal was such an influence in the Carnatic music world. What I am saying is that Kanchipuram Dhanakoti Ammal was the aunt of great vidwan Kanchipuram Naina Pillai from whom Dhanammal’s granddaughters Brindamma and Muktha learned. And through Kanchipuram Dhanakoti Ammal and Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, who was a very close friend of my grandfather, we knew Dhanammal’s family also very well. And we were also associated with her grandson T. Sankaran and especially her granddaughters Brindamma and Mukhtamma. So, I have heard a lot about Dhanammal and she was, as I said, such a respected name and she commanded so much respect and reverence from all the musicians and connoisseurs during her time.




P.: Can you please tell us a bit more about her ancestry?


R.R.: Dhanammal actually hails from Thanjavur. In certain books I see it mentioned that she was born in George Town, Chennai but according to Dhanammal’s grandson T. Sankaran, she was born in Thanjavur, in the year 1868 and she passed away in 1938. And her family, they were from Thanjavur and the earliest ancestor they are able to tell us about was Pappammal. She belonged to the 17th or 18th century. Pappammal’s daughter was Rukmini, and Rukmini’s daughter was the famous Thanjavur Kamakshi. She was the grandmother of Veena Dhanammal. And Thanjavur Kamakshi learned from Subaraya Shastri, the son of great composer Syama Shastri. So Thanjavur Kamakshi learned from Subbaraya Shastri and also from the Anna-Ayya brothers. Kamakshi, the grandmother of Veena Dhanammal had learned from these illustrious composers. Thanjavur Kamakshi’s daughter was Sundarambal who learned from Annaswamy Sastri, Subaraya Sastri’s adopted son. 



P: You spoke about her ancestry, can you talk a little bit about her tutelage and her gurus?


R.R.: Yes. Now, Dhanammal inherited vast repertoires from her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother was a real source of inspiration for Dhanammal. Dhanammal’s guru—the main guru—was Satanur Panchanatha Iyer. He was also called Satanur Panju Iyer. He was a very famous guru and musician. He was the disciple of Suddhamadhalam Tampiappa Pillai who was the direct disciple of Muthuswami Dikshitar. So you can see, Dhanammal belongs to the lineage of Syama Sastri first, and then Muthuswami Dikshitar also. Dhanammal’s contemporaries were Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, who was a very famous violinist, and also Thiruppamburam Swaminathan Pillai, not the flute player but his grandfather. Thiruppamburam Swaminathan Pillai and his son Thiruppamburam Natarajan Sundaran Pillai who edited 50 kirtanas of Mutthuswami Dikshitar. So these people were Dhanammal’s contemporaries. Veena Dhanammal, Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, Thiruppamburam Swaminathan Pillai and his son Thiruppamburam Natarajan Sundaran Pillai learned from Satanur Panchanatha Iyer. And then, Dhanammal also learned the veena. Later, she shifted to George Town in Chennai. Due to her grandmother Thanjavur Kamakshi’s great efforts, she could learn from one Azhagiya Singarayya who lived in George Town.  T. Sankaran used to say a lot about this Azhagiya Singarayya. He was the one who taught Dhanammal the veena initially. And then later Dhanammal learned many Kshetrayya padams from Padam Baladas. Of course Kshetrayya padams were known in her family even prior to Dhanammal, because they belonged to the Thanjavur court and had inherited Kshetrayya padams. But later Dhanammal enriched her repertoire by learning many Kshetrayya padams from Padam Baladas, and the family gives credit to Padam Baladas for her accumulation of Kshetrayya padams.




P: You mentioned Muthuswamy Dikshitar in relation to Suddhamadhalam Tampiappa Pillai. I have read that Dikshitar has composed certain kritis such as Divakara tanujam to cure the stomach ailments that his disciple had. Can you tell us if Veena Dhanammal had some special association with these kritis?


R.R.: Now all these kirtanas—Divakara tanujam, Surya murte sundara chayadhipate, Chandram bhaja manasa etc.—are the Navagraha kirtanas. Now, in those days, these kirtanas were known as Vara kirtanas. Varam means ‘week’. The kirtanas are to be rendered during the week. And how many days are there in the week? Seven. So, the kirtanas were actually seven in number, in those days. And in Dhanammal family they were called Vara kirtanas. And it is said that Suddhamadhalam Tampiappa Pillai, who was the guru of Satanur Panchanatha Iyer, once had severe stomach ache, and his guru, the great Mutthuswami Dikshitar, who was also a good astrologer, examined Tampiappa Pillai’s horoscope and suggested that he worship Saturn (Shani) as well as Brahaspati (Guru). He said that both the planets, Saturn and Jupiter, were not strong in his horoscope. So he composed the kirtanas—Divakara tanujam and Brhaspate namostutam and asked Tampiappa Pillai to sing them regularly and he got cured of his stomach affliction. Then later, it is said Mutthuswamy Dikshitar added more kirtanas and made a group of seven and called them Vara kirtanas. And Dhanammal was the source of Vara kirtanas and many musicians learned these Vara kirtanas from her directly. Musicians like Parur Sundaram Iyer, the renowned violinist and father of Parur Anantharama Iyer and M.S. Goplakrishna Iyer. Parur Sundaram Iyer had a lot of respect for Dhanammal. He and some of his associates went to Veena Dhanammal and learnt all the Vara kirtanas from her with dedication.



P.: Veena Dhanammal was known for her vast repertoire. Can you tell us a little about this repertoire that she is known for?


R.R.: Before answering this, I have to say more about Dhanammal’s contacts. I told you about Veena Dhanammal’s gurus, Satanur Pancanatha Iyer and Padam Baladas. A number of composers and musicians used to visit Dhanammal. Dharmapuri Subarrayar, the famous javali composer, was a regular visitor to Dhanammal’s house and had great respect for her. And many javalis were composed in Dhanammal’s house. And there is in fact one javali—you must have heard of it—Smara sundaranguni shariyavare in Pharas. That javali is in praise of Veena Dhanammal, and way she plays Veena. It was all described in the jaavali and it was dedicated to Veena Dhanammal by Dharmapuri Subarrayar. Unfortunately, nowadays it is being choreographed as a female dancer describing about her lover. It is given a different interpretation; I don’t think it is correct. It was a jaavali composed in praise of Veena Dhanammal by Dharmapuri Subarrayar at her house. Patanam Subramania Iyer was also a regular visitor to Dhanammal’s house. Dhanammal had a very good repertoire of Patanam Subramania Iyer’s kirtanas. And her daughters Lakshmiratanam Ammal and Chinnakkuty Ammal. She had learned so many kirtanas of Patanam Subramania Iyer directly from the composer. Now what was your question?



P: Regarding her vast repertoire: can you tell us a little about her repertoire?


R.R.:  See, Dhanammal was regarded so much for her extensive repertoire. None of her colleagues or those musicians who liver during her period had that kind of repertoire. She had a heritage that was left to her, a legacy that was left to her by her ancestors. She learnt a lot by herself. And also her descendants, they were made to add further to the repertoire. So this is the greatness of her repertoire. And the specialty of her repertoire is, within the repertoire, you find so many repertoires. See, it is not just one repertoire, it is so many repertoires. Take the varnam. It is a huge repertoire in itself. Take kirtanas, you have the compositions of Syama Sastri, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Subbaram Dikshitar and Patanam Subramania Iyer. Her kirtana repertoire is so huge, so extensive. Then of course, Kshetrayya padams, javalis, then so many Tamil compositions from Nandanar Charitram. The family knows so many compositions, the Tamil padams of Vaidyeeshwarankoyil Subbarama Iyer, Ghanam Krishna Iyer, and other composers. You cannot think of such a huge repertoire in those days. And she was the only person who had such a respectable and amazing repertoire. Actually, the term repertoire is used in western music, but they mean it in a different sense whereas we here just say it is a stock of songs. Pathantaram in Tamil. Prof. Sambamoorthy has used the term repertoire and he also gives the meaning of the term pathantaram as repertoire, collection. But it is not just collection. According to western musicians, repertoire is not just a collection. The way you render your repertoire, how do you specialize your repertoire, how do you internalize your repertoire, all this is included in the term repertoire. Not just a mere collection. Yes, I know so many varnams, you know so many kirtanas, but how many have you specialized in? Can you sing all of them just like that? You have to master them, you have to internalize, you have to specialize. This kind of specialization, this kind of mastery over all the compositions were there in her repertoire. So you get the real, significant meaning of the repertoire when you say Dhanammal had a huge, extensive repertoire. Brindamma had told me that she knew about 500-600 shlokas, everything in oral tradition, that is very important. Even to this day, they don’t have notebooks, not even the present family members to the extent that I know. Vegavahini, Brindamma’s daughter, she cannot sing from a notebook, she has to sing from her memory. It is a great value in our tradition. Karna parambara as we say in Tamil. So whatever was learned, that was learned by listening and imbibing. Not from books, not from notation. So you just listen and listen and get it absorbed into your system. That kind of oral tradition is very strictly followed in Dhanammal’s repertoire.



P: The vast repertoire that you have just mentioned, and you said they are specialized in certain things, so you mentioned earlier that there were some specialties in varnam techniques, also singing of swara sahityam, and also what you just mentioned, the shlokas that were sung. Can you elaborate on those aspects?


R.R.: For example, let us take the varnam. How do you normally sing a varnam? Please sing a bit of varnam. (Praveena singing…) Why did you choose this kala pramanam? You wanted to sing the second speed of this varnam. Ok. They never sang the second speed. The very kala pramanam taken up was…. (demonstrating…) What do you find, anything other than the speed of kala pramanam?



P: The explicit showing of each swara.


R.R.: Yes, that accent, that throb. They very much believed that the varnam should have the throb because the tana accent varanamennu cholva, meaning they (musicians) would insist that the tana accent should be when you sing the tana varnam. (Singing…) Like that, the throb should be there. They were very particular about this. And regarding the swara sahitya. Yes, it is a very good question. In this very particular tradition of Veena Dhanammal, in her family, the rendering was done in duet. When the swara sahitya kirtana of Syama Sastri or Subbaraya Sastri is taken up, we usually sing the swara after the anu pallavi and then sahitya after the charanam—that is the procedure. When the same kirtanas, the swara-sahitya were rendered as duets in Dhanammal’s family, the swara and sahitya would be sung simultaneously. When Brindamma and Muktamma sang, after the anu pallavi, Brindamma would sing the swaram and simultaneously Muktamma will sing the sahitya. (Demonstrating…)—like that it used to go. This is something that you wouldn’t have heard anywhere. This is a kind of tradition that has been followed and I was told by T. Sankaran that this was suggested by Annaswamy Sastri to Sundarambal, Dhanammal’s mother, that when they sang in duets, why didn't one person sing in swaram and the other person sahitya. Sometimes I would think what made them do it like this? Probably it was some kind of practice in Bharatnatayam recitals in olden days. I had an opportunity to work with Tirukokaranam Ranganayikal Ammal—you wouldn’t have heard the name—she was a very respectable dance teacher. She belonged to Pudukkottai. She also learned the mridangam from Pudukkottai Dakshinamurty Pillai. She was teaching dance and I used to be there. She made me sing for her dance students and as I was singing she used to recite jatis. Usually jatis are sung when the singing is stopped. But she would ask me to sing and simultaneously would sing the jatis.



P: You also mentioned the slokas and the singing and playing of slokas.


R.R.: Dhanammal knew at least 500-600 slokas, and all the slokas she remembered, I mean towards the end of her life she became blind. She never referred to any notebook, just sang from memory. And all these slokas she could sing from memory. And the sloka rendition by Dhanammal with her playing the veena too, and later by her granddaughter Brindamma, was strikingly beautiful. The slokas were rendered so beautifully. Sloka singing was something unique in Dhanammal’s repertoire. She would use many desiya ragas in her rendering. She did a recording of Kulamtharum selvam—by the Alvars (Thirumangai Alvar, Tamil Vaishnava poet of the seventh century). You can see the influence of Hindustani music in that. Later I will tell you about her association with Hindustani musicians and how she used to enjoy listening to Hindustani music.



P: Veena players are known for their techniques. Can you tell us about Veena Dhanammal’s playing technique?


R.R.: Yes. She lived in a period which was dominated by male stalwarts on the instrument, like Veena Seshanna. It was all technique oriented. Amongst them she was the only lady musician playing the veena who commanded equal respect. What was her technique? According to T. Sankaran, her plucking or meetu of Veena string had a kind of melodic continuity. She never used the metallic plectrums, she used to pluck with her hands and with the flesh; she couldn’t grow nails in her fingers much. So she used to pluck the strings with the flesh of her fingers. Even then it was very powerful but not over-powerful. It was very strong, melodious, continuous, that’s what he used to say.  She never used the side strings as the tala strings, but as shruti strings. So whenever it was required she plucked the tala strings, for shruti accompaniment only, she would not use them as tala strings. You must have heard it in the veena playing, the regular plucking of the tala strings would be there to ascertain the tala. Now that kind of plucking was not there in Dhanammal’s technique. And also, Sankaran Sir told me, she used to keep the pitch of her strings a little higher so that she could sing along with it. This was very important feature of Dhanammal’s music. She did not just play the veena, she sang along with the veena, you must have heard Mahima teliya on YouTube (playing the song on the laptop…) All those nuances, just look for those nuances. Dhanammal’s music was replete with all those nuances, subtle ornamentations which you will not find in others’ music. I mean, this is something very special about Dhanammal. The setting of the kala pramana, it is such a comfortable kala pramanam, within that, all nuances will be so beautifully incorporated.



P: I have also heard that she is the first musician to have played the ghana raga tanam.


R.R.: Yes, she has played the tanam in five Ghana ragas in just seven minutes. And it’s a very beautiful music recording, you must listen to that. What is interesting is that you will find she has not played Sriraga as the fifth Ghana raga. Sriraga is the fourth and Varali is the fifth. So that was the older tradition. The order is Nata, Gaula, Arabhi, Varali, Sri… But she played in the order Nata, Gaula, Arabhi, Sri and Varali. That is something very interesting. You can play a little bit of it (playing on laptop…).



P: Can you tell us a little about her concerts and public performances?


R.R.: Dhanammal used to perform on Fridays in her George Town house, which was attended by the elite of Madras (Chennai) music world. They very much looked forward to it. And all the leading musicians and connoisseurs, musicians like Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, Mridangam Narayanaswami Appavu, Thiruvaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai, and connoisseurs like Kirtanacharya C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, T.T. Krishnamachariya etc. These people used to attend. And I must say a special word about S.I. Krishnaswami. He has written a beautiful article about Tiger Varadachariar and Veena Dhanammal. Tiger Varadachariar had a great admiration and respect for Veena Dhanammal. He was also a regular visitor. Sarva Sastri, the great flute vidwan, was another visitor. Such great vidwans and connoisseurs were regular visitors to her Friday concert, which was attended with pin-drop silence. One musician once referred to himself as the ‘Friday pilgrim’. He called himself a Friday pilgrim, so he was a regular visitor to Dhanammal’s concerts on Fridays in her residence. So you can imagine these Friday sessions at Dhanammal’s house were looked forward to, how they were enjoyed, how they drew the entire attention of music-loving public in Madras in those days. No one asked her to perform this or that. Whatever she performed, they all listened to it. Very few had the privilege to ask her to play something. Apart from these performances, every year at the Music Academy annual confluence, she would play. Very select concerts. She was not performing what you would say box-office hits. Very select, very choosy, and very exclusive. She was called an aristocrat among the musicians. She regarded the veena as a complete instrument, she never had any accompaniments. She also had her own views regarding music. She did not like lady musicians to sing aggressively like male musicians and to do the tala so vigorously. She had her own views. Her family played tana on the veena but they would not sing tana. In one of the concerts, Brindamma’s daughter, Vegavahini sang pallavi in the Music Academy, she just sang the raga and then the pallavi. I was so surprised, I went and asked her. She said, 'No, in our family we do not sing tana.'



P: Can you tell us a little bit about her interactions with other musicians. You have mentioned that she was very fond of Hindustani music.


R.R.: She had great interaction with her colleagues Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, who was all respect for her music, and you must have heard of Thiruvaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai, the nadaswaram legend. He had the utmost admiration and regard for his guru Thirukodikaval Krishna Iyer and Veena Dhanammal. And he used to visit her house and play for her. Tiruvottiyur Tyagarajan—you must have heard his name—the famous varnam composer, was a regular visitor. He used to compose varanams, and also taught her daughter, Lakshmiratanam Ammal, and so many other musicians, Sarva Sastrikal, Konerirajappuram Vaidyanatha Iyer. There is a very old photograph of all the famous musicians and great vidwans of those days, and in that photo, the only lady musician is Veena Dhanammal. So you can imagine the respect and the special place she enjoyed during her time. She used to like Hindustani music. The great Abdul Karim Khan, who belonged to the Kirana gharana, was a regular visitor to Dhanammal’s house, whenever he visited Madras. He used to sing for her. He also learned a few kirtanas from her. E.g. Entha nerchina… He also sang Rama Nee Samanamevaru. All these recordings I think you can listen to on YouTube. Can you play Abdul Karim Khan’s Rama Nee Samanamevaru? (Playing on laptop) And there was also one famous sitarist, Nawab Ali Khan. He used to enjoy and admire Dhanammal’s music, and used to visit her. Dhanammal also made a number of trips to Kashi. She used to like Hindustani music very much. You can see the influence in her sloka singing, and also in her javalis and Pharas. There is Prati madhyama in her javali. Here we don’t accept Prati madhyama, but in the earlier version of Desiya Ragas, in the Raga Pharas you have Prati madhyama. So this is the kind of influence that Dhanammal got by listening to Hindustani music, and by also adapting certain features.



P: What is the Veena Dhanammal Bani? Did she create it? What is this Bani that we talk about today?


R.R.: In this context, I must ask you to read an article by Dr V. Raghavan. He had written an article in the Madras Music Academy journal, ‘The Popular and the Classical, in 1957. He distinguishes between what is popular and what is classical. Now coming back to Dhanammal’s bani, I feel it is a very classical bani. When you say bani, it refers to a particular kind of style by which you can recognize the musician. Or when the style is being sung by some of those who have been following or who have been taught by that particular musician, you can recognize that bani. Now, regarding Dhanammal’s bani, I feel she created something, some style that would represent the past tradition, that suited the present tradition and it would also be relevant for the future. She could integrate the best aspects of the past. She could create the best aspects by herself and by imbibing the kind of music that was going in her time and she also thought of the future. She created a bani that could withstand time. If you listen to Dhanammal’s music, and also the music of her colleagues at that time, you will see that she was quite far ahead. Compared to what was played during her time, you listen to all the music that was present during her time and also listen to Dhanammal. You listen to her music now. You don’t know about the future; we don’t know what it is going to be. But what I feel is, whatever she sang and played, it was contemporary in her days, it is still contemporary now, and it is going to be contemporary even in the future.  So this is something that stands the test of time.



P: We hear about shishya parampara (generations of disciples) of many banis, of many gurus that had a shishya parampara. Could we call Veena Dhanammal’s bani as shishya parampara or as you mentioned earlier, a sangeeta parampara?


R.R.: This is a sangeeta parampara. In Carnatic music, we say Shishya Parampara. But before Shishya parampara, we must give credit to sangeeta paramapara that has been there in our tradition, not just our tradition, in any tradition. Take Western tradition. You have heard of the famous family of Bach, which has been there for so many years, more than a century. Then take the Dagar brothers in Hindustani music for so many generations. Like that, we have so many illustrious musical families in Carnatic music. One such illustrious family in Carnatic music is the Veena Dhanammal’s parampara, sangeeta parampara. Shishya Parampara comes later, according to me. Sangeeta Parampara is unique, for any renowned music system in the world, like the Bach musical family, the Dagar musical family, the Dhanammal musical family, or Kanchipuram Dhanakoti Ammal’s musical family.