Kamakshi Mallikarjun
(First Published in Jan 2005 in Sruti Notes, Newsletter of Sruti – India Music and Dance Society, Delaware Valley, USA)

Ammupatti is what we, grandchildren called the legendary Smt. M S Subbulakshmi. Depending on their own age, the older folks called her Kunjamma or Kunjakka. Gowri Ramnarayan writes in the Hindu “ … Sadasivam’s family of two daughters ( Radha and Vijaya), a nephew (Ambi) and niece (Thangam) were wholly in their care.” My mother is the niece referred to in this sentence. Gowri (my first cousin, her dad being the nephew referred to here ) goes on to write “Kunjamma thrived on the love she found among the children in her care. … Kunjamma enjoyed recounting details of how she brought up the four children, shielding them from hot-tempered Sadasivam’s wrath. … Her evening Ovaltine making was a ritual treat. Moonlight nights found the children nestling round her on the terrace, as she ladled out curd rice with a drop of vathakuzhambu into each hand by turn.” Past memories and nostalgic moments are flooding my brain, especially of those treasured years when I stayed with Ammupatti at Kalki Gardens.

A Legendary Musician, a Celebrity, but first and foremost, Patti

She was so loving, approachable, supporting and forgiving of our mischief as every grandmother is. I flip through the letters she wrote to me through the years when I was in the United States. They are all addressed to Kamakshi Kanmani. There was always a Kanmani or Kannoo after our names when ever she called us. She writes about how happy she is to know that I am going to have a baby and how much she wishes she could be with me. She tells me not to be afraid or worried if the baby cries. When Anandhi Mami ( Smt. Anandhi Ramachandran) comes to the US to be with me for my delivery, she comes with the most wonderful surprise– a cassette in which AmmuPatti has sung lullaby songs together with my mom and aunts. Just like she sang for the Oonjal (swing) ceremony at my wedding, Patti ‘sang ‘ for my daughter’s thottil (cradling ceremony) as well! Whenever she sang Kanchadalayadaskhi or any of the many songs in which the word ‘Kamakshi’ would appear, she would glance at me and give me a big smile. My cousin Gowri has the exact same recollection, the smile coming her way for lines like Kamala Gowri in Vidulaku and in later years when Patti sang Akhilandeshwari because Gowri’s daughter’s name is Akhila. When I was very young, I was convinced that Patti was singing about me! Whenever Patti saw any one of us after a gap, she used to be concerned that we had pulled down and we should eat better. She was always worried that I might be traveling by myself and was happy to know that I had come with my husband Ramesh. I think of each of the Indian festivals that were celebrated so painstakingly by Ammupatti. Tons of relatives and friends would gather at Kalki Gardens for Deepavali. On Deepavali day, each of us would take turns sitting on a Palaha (wooden seat on which a kolam was drawn) and Ammupatti used to dab a little bit of heated oil on our heads and put kumkumam on our foreheads and then we would be marched off for a head bath. Then came the lighting of all the fireworks. I remember Patti asking me to light a sparkler for her that she would carefully hold up in the verandah and cajoling me to eat some of the Deepavali Marindu since it was part of the Shastras to do it. The priest would come for the various festivals like Shri Rama Jayanthi, Krishna Jayanthi etc AmmuPatti used to carefully draw the kolam footprints for baby Krishna. She was meticulous, had tremendous attention to detail in anything that she did. I also recall one year, how as soon she entered my aunt’s house that she instantly noticed that the footprints were lopsided … they were all for the same foot and did not alternate! During Karthigai , we would help her place the lamps on various spots in the verandah and on the big kolam in the halls. Navaratri is evergreen in my memory. Ammupatti used to do the pooja every day. On Navaratri and other special occasions, she used to do more elaborate Poojas. She used to sing every evening in the Pooja room during Navaratri and it was an out of this world experience, listening to her melodious music and to the nadam reverbrating from the tambura that she used to play. It was also a big treat to accompany her as she visited houses for kolu since she used to sing on those occasions too. Anandhi Mami shared this anecdote with me: When Anandhi Mami, Radha Chithi, and Vijaya Chithi were all young, they would also go with Ammupatti for kolu and my mama Ambi Mama used to chauffeur them. So that the young kids could also sing along, she sang the same songs Sarasi Ruha (Nattai) and Nee Yee Manam (Kalyani) in every house. I believe after the third or fourth house, Ambi Mama said “ Kunjakka , if you keep singing the same songs, I am not going to drive you next time “ and so she immediately said “ No, no Ambi … I will sing different songs for you!”

In the music room…

AmmuPatti practiced for a full year before she recorded the Vishnu Sahasranamam. I remember her practicing in the music room at Kalki Gardens. This room was the only one that was carpeted. There were stands in the corners so that the tamburas could be placed and secured. Her two tamburas embossed with Lakshmi and Saraswathi images used to be placed here. There was also a magnificent grand piano. There used to be this radio – it was huge and it also had a built in player to play LP vinyl records. I remember going and sitting next to Patti as she recited the Vishnu Sahasranamam. I would pick up the extra copy near her and when she flipped the page , I would too … ( it really didn’t matter that I could not read any Sanskrit at that time !)

There are so many incredible memories about times spent in the music room. This is where Patti and Radha Chithi used to learn from Semmangudi Mama; I recall KVN Mama ( Shri . KV Narayanaswamy) mama teaching them Devi Brova ( Chintamani) and Mayamma ( Ahiri). They learned Bhajans from Srinivasa Rao who played the harmonium as he was singing. Patti would also play the veena in this room and learn additional songs from Veena Mama ( Shri K S Narayanaswamy).

Ammupatti and her fans

My mom used to always say that Patti’s rendition of the Todi varnam is so fabulous. I had not had the oppurtunity to listen to Patti singing this varnam and so when she had some free time at Radha Chithi’s house one day , I went up to her and asked her if she could please sing it for me. She sang it exactly the same way she would have sung it in any of her concerts. When she finished singing, she smiled at me and asked “ Was that all right ? Did you like it?” It does not surprise me at all when reading one of the letters to the editor in the Hindu newspaper that recounts Ammupatti singing Sambo Mahadeva in response to a request from a two year old child ! There are other letters that describe a concert at the E V Kalyani Nursing Home in response to requests from the staff, an impromptu musical interlude sitting on the banks of the Tungabhadra river when she heard some women wondering if they will get to see MS when she comes for the Puradaradasa festival! On one of my trips back to Madras, I told Ammupatti that many of my friends in the Philadelphia area are her fans and that they sent her their regards and also that many of them drove from city to city to attend her concerts when she performed in the US. Patti smiled and said “Please tell your friends that it makes me so happy to know that they still remember me after all these years.”

In Patti’s Room

Patti’s bedroom was at one end at Kalki Gardens and adjoining it was another room that led to the main hall. There used to be this really old record player that used to play 78 rpms in her room. To play them, you had to first manually rotate the knob 20 – 25 times ! I remember stumbling on to her recording of Evari Maata (Kambodhi) sung when she was 10 – 12 years old and Patti laughing at the astonished look on my face when it started playing. I used to love looking at her music notebooks. Each song would first contain the lyrics. Then there would be the word by word meaning and then the notation.

Getting Ready for the Concert

As Gowri writes in the Hindu ““Each concert brought trembling anxieties, she prayed for divine assistance to pass the `test.’” She would start getting ready hours and hours before the scheduled time. Her hairdo was the more elaborate kondai from the one she wore daily. A veni (arc) of jasmine flowers would be placed over the kondai. She would select the matching Hyderabad glass bangles to go with the sari that she was wearing. She would wear bangles in both the sari’s border and body colors. She would put on those coruscating diamond earrings and nose rings. She would have a light tiffin of idlis and steaming hot coffee. The 2 tamburas would be brought to her room and she would sit and painstakingly tune them. She would sing a few scales in the main raga that she was going to sing (Sankarabharanam or Todi or Bhairavi etc). She would first start slow and then accelerate to supersonic speeds; in the blink of an eye she would traverse the entire scale. Sometimes, I would get the chance to play the sruti box for the concert. She would make me practice so that it flows smoothly and not in spurts and starts and the volume is just right. It was an awe-inspiring sight to sit behind Patti and Radha Chithi at one of the Music Academy concerts and see the jam-packed hall in front. During the concert, as I discreetly tried to shift my foot, I would wonder how Patti could sit ramrod straight like that without even moving a little bit for hours and hours.

Travelling for concerts

Ammupatti was obviously an inveterate traveler. I think her favorite mode of travel was the train. The travel was done in style and in the company of not only her accompanists but also family and friends. Elaborate food items would be packed for the journey – Standard idlis ( idlis that were almost like fluffy round pancakes) sprinkled with molaga podi, tamarind rice , and snacks like mixture would be shared by one and all. As they went on their long train journeys to North India, letters would go out in advance to friends in say, Kanpur, and they would come and meet Patti and her entourage when the train stopped for a while at the Kanpur station, bringing with them freshly made delicacies! My mother recalls how people in neighboring compartments would get into the one that Patti was traveling in to come and see her, as word spread in the train that she was aboard. I have these vivid memories of Patti walking so briskly along the corridor in the station carrying her blue Samsonite vanity case and keeping a careful eye on her tamburas. Ammupatti did not like to travel by plane at all. She would find it very difficult to relax during the plane journey and the frequent quip from her husband was that Kunjamma was alert because someone had to be awake to make sure the pilot was driving properly!

One glorious trip

My most memorable trip was one where we went by car all the way from Madras to Trivandrum with multiple stops along the way. The model of the car that she used to travel in was a Plymouth Dodge. In Madurai, we stayed for a couple of days with her brother Saktivel Mama and his wife. Saktivel mama used to look just like Patti and was very jolly and cheerful. His house was the one Patti had grown up in. Since Kalki Gardens was a palatial dwelling, I was very surprised to see how small Ammupatti’s childhood home was. I now realize that I had the opportunity to sit on the very same steps that she used to sit on when she was young and listen to the radio playing in the neighbor’s house. She has said in interviews that she would listen to North Indian musicians like Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan on the radio. We visited so many temples along the way – Nagercoil, Udupi, Suseendram, Mookambikai, Kanyakumari. At the temple, once the pooja was over, Ammupatti used to sing in the Praharam (inner sanctum). It was the ultimate listening experience – being in the presence of the divine was truly cemented. I still remember her out door concert at the Udupi temple and her electrifying Krishna Nee Begane. When we were at the Mookambikai temple, I saw Ammupatti doing pradakshinam and so went up to her and held her hand and also started doing the rounds with her.

In Trivandrum, we were guests at the Travancore Palace guest house. I was fascinated by the bathtub in the bathroom because that was the first time I had seen one. However, Ammupatti was worried that I might hurt myself in the tub and so insisted that I should just place the bucket inside the tub and take my bath. Since it was Ammupatti saying it, I unquestioningly obeyed! (Yes, my mom has gotten me to obey many things by telling me that, that is what Patti wants … until I began to catch on !!)

The advent of the Russian Ballet Dancers

On a recent trip back to India, I went to see Ammupatti. She was living in Kotturpuram at the time. When I walked in, the whole house was in a bustle. I heard that a whole company of Russian ballet dancers were coming to see Patti. I remember thinking that the location may be different from Kalki Gardens but there was never a dull moment at Ammupatti’s house ! I had to wait for my mom to join me so I decided to hang around. I saw Patti rushing to get ready just like she used to for concerts. Soon, the dancers arrived in a huge tourist bus! It turned out that they were actually from Ukraine. They were very excited to see Patti. I was soon involved in a 3 way language translation! The dancers spoke in Ukranian or Russian, then somebody translated it to English and then I translated it to Tamil for Ammupatti and then it went back all the way! They presented her with a pair of pink ballet shoes and she was determined to find out exactly what they were! Then they all wanted to take pictures with her and so she went to the garden with them. Soon, some one came to me and said that Patti was looking for me. It turned out that they wanted her to sing a song and so she asked me if I know “ Kurai Onrum Illai” and to sing it with her. It was one of those moments which are truly marvelous and terrifying ! Just like one would not go around discussing physics with Einstein, in all the years of growing up, we used to be very reticent about singing in front of her. Here was my chance, out of the blue! I waited for her to start and gingerly joined her. I still remember her turning to me and smiling when I hit the high notes properly! If I could only get hold of that video tape that is now with a certain ballet dancer in Ukraine!

In conclusion

My mind flashes back many, many decades ago, to the first time I saw the film Meera. It It was breathtaking to see Ammupatti as Meera and listen to all the bhajans that I was intimately familiar with unfold with such majestic grandeur on the screen. The added element of interest were all the cameos – young Radha Chithi, an even younger Vijaya Chithi, my dad and Ambi mama in various scenes… I remember looking at Patti sitting on a camel and thinking, boy ,she must have been scared. Then came the final scene where Meera sings Suno Meri Mano Vrata and then falls down and her soul mingles with Lord Krishna’s. I remember sobbing. As soon as the lights came on, I frantically looked for Ammupatti and rushed to where she was and gave her a big hug to reassure myself that she was really there and she was okay. I wish with all my heart that I could do the same thing today.