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Women on stage: who's where

For decades it was MS. Now it's Sudha Raghunathan who commands star attention. Is this good music, or just good packaging? A look at the women singers on the Chennai music circuit

As news that M S Subbulakshmi was singing in the Nanganallur Anjaneya Temple in a corner of Madras spread through the city, it seemed as though all roads led to the small and crowded area. So rare were her public appearances that no one wanted to miss the opportunity to hear her sing.

As I reached the temple, I found all seats taken and a huge crowd surrounding the hall. For a minute I wondered whether to go back home, but then I decided to stay on, a decision I have never regretted.

For that was MS's last public concert. Her husband T S Sadasivam died soon after, shocking the music world, and everyone knew that MS would never sing again.

That evening however, as she sang O Rangasayee, Bhaja Govindam and Bhavayami Raghuramam, the delight of the listeners increased to near saturation. And as her voice lifted to Kurai ondrum illai, the rains came down as though the very heavens were listening to her.

"She is truly divine", said many members of the audience, as they dispersed slowly, unwilling to let the magic of the music go away.

An old MS album Another occasion: It was the inaugural day of the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam's special Sunday evening programme, Sravanam, which is dedicated to concerts replete with bhakthi. The small hall and courtyard were full and people were outside on the road, listening on the loudspeakers installed by the organisers. I was lucky to get some room inside the hall and as MS was about to conclude, a man came to the door, pushing his way through the crowd, his wife holding on to his hand. Seeing his agitation, one of the organisers opened the door a crack.

"Please, please she just wants to see Amma for a second, please allow her", he begged again and again. The crowd parted in response to her plea and she could get what she wanted -- a darshan of MS.

Yes, a strange word to use for a human being. Normally associated only with a deity. But so was MS looked on where ever she went. As a manifestation of Goddess Saraswati, as someone whose feet should be touched and blessings sought at any opportunity.

The other stalwart lady singer of her times, D K Pattammal, was and is still looked on with the same regard and respect. At a recent ceremony to honour her, organised by the Carnatic Music Association of North America, DKP gave a concert along with her granddaughter Nityashree Mahadevan. Her voice was cracked and would desert her in snatches, but not a member of the huge audience minded. In fact, they pressed her to continue singing, and demanded that she sing her trademark piece, Eppadi padinaro, before a measure of satisfaction crept in. So also, at a recent Parampara concert in which DKP and three other members of her family sang together. There was no doubt who among the four was the star on stage -- all eyes were on the veteran singer.

Stardom. A word more akin to the tinsel world of cinema. But still, in any form of the performing arts, people become stars by virtue of different qualities -- brilliance, charisma, audience appeal. In recent years, among the male Karnatak singers, Maharajapuram Santhanam could be said to have achieved star status.

About 1,800 concerts are scheduled in Chennai this season. Coming back to the women Karnatak musicians, who today can be said to be a star?

If the definition of a star can be someone who draws crowds to a concert based on the strength of her name alone, today there can be said to be only one star. That, of course, is Sudha Raghunathan. A star pupil of a star singer, M L Vasanthakumari, Sudha is the only one whose concerts are packed however frequently or where they are held.

During the music season last year, she had the maximum number of concerts, beginning before the others did and ending after they had finished their round. Her Music Academy performance was scheduled a little late in the season, and as she started, it was obvious that her voice was tired. But she was not. As she sang on, it picked up in strength, and it became vintage Sudha as she continued singing well past the appointed time to please the large audience which had come to listen to her.

I asked Sudha once how she managed to sound effortless in every concert she gave. She answered that the reason was "the dedication to the art".

And this is what marks her out as a star. It is not glitzy packaging, using films as a springboard to achieve popularity, or good grooming, which go into making a star. It is sheer weight of merit coupled with single-minded dedication.

Says a music critic, "Many women singers start out with a lot of promise. Look at Bombay Jaishree for example. So much talent. But she has let her penchant for light singing take over and the audiences at her concerts are dwindling. Another example is Nityashree Mahadevan. Enormous potential. But today, in her classical concerts, the back benchers shout for Soukkiyama (a popular number she sang in the film Sangamam). Or, have a look at Shanmughapriya and Haripriya. There are more comments in the audience about how well their ensembles match than how well their voices match".

Rather unfair, you might think. What is wrong if a woman makes the best of herself whether she is in the field of Karnatak music or some other sphere? But, as the critic hastens to add, he is not being sexist. He is saying that if these singers put as much hard work and effort into their singing as they seem to do with the frills, no one would perhaps even notice the frills. The halls would fill with music and when music is predominant, all else takes second stage.

Sugar may add flavour to a dish, but ultimately it's the hand-hurting effort that goes into stirring it on the fire that gives it the right consistency.

Ambujam Anantharaman

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