A tiny one-bedroom flat tucked into a quieter lane of Chennai’s Mandavelli neighbourhood is something of a pilgrimage destination for Carnatic violin students. This is where, overseen by images of dozens of deities, A Kanyakumari, 71, has taught some of the brightest young talent on the concert circuit today.
How vast is her field of influence as a violin guru? One of her star protégés, 23-year-old Sayee Rakshith, offers a response: “Of the 60 concerts played this last winter music season in Chennai at the Music Academy, 25 featured Kanya ma’s students. That is well over a fourth of the music heard this season, and that too at just one landmark venue.”
Her students are all over the Carnatic firmament – on the classical stage, collaborating with western musicians, playing and composing for films, or sometimes doing all these at once.
“Oh, more than a 100,” Kanyakumari said, throwing up her hands after trying to count the graduates of what is called the ‘Kanya school’ over nearly three decades.
Her landmark apartment is undergoing renovations so Kanyakumari asks to be interviewed at her sister’s flat down the road. With her petite frame, the trademark ochre of her sarees, and rudraksha beads at her neck and wrist, she is a noticeable presence. She is also known to be wilful and the first to admit it.
“I am a very sentimental person and I believe in prescience,” she said. “If I don’t have a good feeling about something I don’t take it on. I refuse to move out of this apartment because this is where my guru ML Vasanthakumari used to stay every time she came to Chennai from Rishi Valley [where she taught]. People might say I am eccentric but this is who I am.”
Kanyakumari’s violin playing is admired for many qualities but most pronouncedly for its exceptional quality of vocalism, innovation and fearlessness. It is these very qualities that she demands from her students, without raising her voice, but without compromise.
Just a month ago, she played an exceptional concert at the Music Academy with two of her students, the senior-most of them, Embar Kannan, and the supremely talented Vittal Rangan. The three violins were set in three different octaves, no mean feat to pull off in the Indian classical system.
There is a story to Kanyakumari’s generosity – it is payback for the unique circumstances under which she carved a successful, albeit hard-won, place, for herself in the music world. As a young woman breaking into a circuit dominated by men and Chennai’s music royalty, she was mentored and fiercely supported by a sisterhood of women musicians. Leading this league was the legendary ML Vasanthakumari.
Avasarala Kanyakumari’s roots go back to Vizianagaram in northeastern Andhra Pradesh, the turf of the legendary violinist Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. Her early learning was under Ivaturi Vijayeshwara Rao of the Dwaram school, an erudite violinist fabled for his dedication to his students. Encouraged by him to take an academic interest in music, Kanyakumari joined the bachelor’s programme in music at the Queen Mary’s College in Chennai. Under the renowned violinist M Chandrasekaran, she further honed her skills.
“It was my senior at college, [vocalist] Charumathi Ramachandran who suggested I play for MLV amma,” Kanyakumari recalled. “I first played for her in 1971 at a wedding concert when her usual violinist wasn’t available. It was an association that ended only when she passed away in 1990. She was my mother, guru, and mentor. Without her, I would not have been where I am today. She taught me, encouraged me and fought for me.”
In a special edition of the music journal Sruti dedicated to Vasanthakumari, Kanyakumari recalls with characteristic humour how as a youngster she had dreamt of playing for the grande dame of Carnatic music. Standing in the way of the dream was All India Radio’s grading system for radio artistes, which accorded her grade L. Fortunately for her, none of this mattered to Vasanthakumari. Known for her personal and creative camaraderie with her accompanists, she refused to perform on AIR when the authorities quibbled about her protégé’s grade. In the end, they caved in.
Although expansive on the subject of Vasanthakumari and other mentors, Kanyakumari doesn’t like to dwell much on the patriarchy in the Carnatic establishment. All she says is, given that she is a “woman and a performer”, what she has achieved is considerable. But among scholars and music historians, it is a fact well-documented that the Carnatic establishment was – and continues to be – highly patriarchal.
Around the time she appeared on the scene, there was only one other woman violinist – T Rukmini. Add to this the violinist’s place as an accompanist and it is not hard to see the walls Kanyakumari must have come up against.
In The Madras Quartet, her 2005 book on the four contemporary female stars of the Carnatic scene – Vasanthakumari, MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and T Brinda – author Indira Menon talks about the refusal of the top male violinists and percussionists such as Lalgudi Jayaraman, TN Krishnan and Palghat Mani Iyer to pay for even leading women musicians. Female accompanists felt this marginalisation twice over.
“ML Vasanthakumari, though younger, must have faced similar problems,” writes Menon. “In her later years, she trained a young girl, Kanyakumari, to be her accompanist.”
This reluctance to collaborate with women artistes was often traced to reasons such as pitch compatibility and so on but, as violinist Akkarai Subbulakshmi points out in interviews, it was just the unshakeable belief that women somehow made for inferior artistes.
“Even decades after women’s emergence as musicians there was entrenched patriarchy,” said music writer and commentator S Gopalakrishnan. “Imagine, Kanyakumari was the very first woman violinist to be accorded the Sangeeta Kalanidhi honour by the Academy in 2016. And all of Kanyakumari’s mentors were women.”
Revelling in complexity
Vasanthakumari was the wind behind Kanyakumari’s sails and their 20-year-long, deep emotional solidarity is now the stuff of legend – in a commemorative issue, Sruti narrates touchingly how Kanyakumari bolstered the star’s fading vocals during concerts in her declining years. There were other women musicians too who fought in her corner. These included DK Pattammal, Ramachandran, Bombay Sisters, Mani Krishnaswamy, R Vedavalli and Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan.
In a TV interview to Doordarshan, Kanyakumari acknowledges this: “The Bombay Sisters were like my own sisters, they would feed me, support me and I played with them for 15 years. R Vedavalli would say I will only perform ragam-tanam-pallavi [a complex elaboration system] with Kanya.”
Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan’s daughter, literary and dance scholar Sujata Vijayaraghavan, recalls Kanyakumari’s early brilliance. “In the 1970s, as a young girl, she played a lot for my mother who would either seek her or Rukmini out for violin accompaniment,” Vijayaraghavan recalled. “Kanya was playing for every MLV concert and only if she was not would she accompany my mother. MLV herself would encourage her to play more widely because she knew of the prejudice among male artistes.”
Kanyakumari, Vijayaraghavan says, was a fun person on concert tours, waking up at 4 am to practise on her violin and mischievously jolting the troupe into wakefulness. “We used to share a room and I would be startled awake with her playing these really high pitched, high-speed phrases,” she said. “She was a relentless perfectionist and insisted that my mother sang complex compositions, especially MLV’s four-raga composite.”
With time, Kanyakumari became a sought-after violinist among the male superstars too, including flautist N Ramani, saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath and mandolin wizard U Srinivas. Her jugalbandis with them were electrifying works.
Kanyakumari is known to revel in the adrenaline that complex, uncharted music poses. Her work with three octaves, 27-violin ensembles and new ragas are evidence of this. Gopalakrishnan believes that Kanyakumari’s training inclined her towards treating the violin the way western maestros do, exploring avenues of virtuosity, and the reason why she hit it off so well with the saxophone and mandolin. He has another theory about her work: two of her gurus, Rao and Chandrasekaran, as well as Naidu, the fountainhead of the Dwaram school, were visually challenged to varying degrees. “I believe that this led them to concentrate deeper on the listening faculty, creating a different kind of nuance in their – and her – music,” he said.
This unfazed prowess she expects from her students as well. Kanyakumari manages it with a steadfast strategy – by simply refusing to use the violin to teach the violin. “Our classes are her singing and us playing by ear,” said Rakshith. “The only time she picked up a violin around me was when we played a duet on stage. She is curious to know how you figure out a piece of music. She recognises that we have different bodies and thus different ways of playing the violin. So there is no one path to any work.”
At the moment, three generations of violinists from the Kanya school are on Carnatic stages in various parts of the world, engaged in eclectic musical forms. It is not a triumph many musicians can claim.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2022.