Seetha Ravi, November 2008

It’s hard, even impossible to say something about MSS which is not already known to her extended family of rasikas and admirers. The name unfailingly sets the listener’s face aglow – as radiant as it would be while listening to her sing! What was the magic that pervaded her music and her personality, we wonder… After some futile efforts we stop seeking an answer to the question and settle down to just happily admire!

My earliest memories of Ammu Patti as we used to call her, go back to the birth of my younger sister Lakshmi in 1962. As typical to a South Indian family, my mother Vijaya had moved to her mother’s house a couple of months before she was to deliver her second baby. I joined her after the birth of Lakshmi who was a fretful baby and kept us awake all night. I distinctly recollect Ammu Patti deeply worried over the nocturnal adventure of rocking Lakshmi to sleep in a thooli. There was an old-faithful Kamala to assist my mother full time and a number of cousins in the household always at hand to run an errand or do a chore. But Patti HAD to be there too..fussing and praying for the baby’s circadian rhythm to get set right! Well, Lakshmi took her time to give us our good night’s sleep and that’s how I first understood how serious Patti was about her domestic responsibilities.

She was equally serious about the moonlight dinner she treated us to during the summer holidays. The front verandah of the first floor at Kalki Gardens would bustle with activity. Grandchildren, their cousins, cousins’ cousins, children of acquaintances or friends would be there. A noisy semi-circle of hungry kids (some badly overgrown ones too!) with outstretched hands. The hot sambar sadam would first be tasted by Ammu Patti. Often she would ask for more ghee to be added to it to ‘tone’ the tang and spice down for the younger ones. Blobs of it would be doled out by her patiently, till we emptied out vessel after vessel of it and followed it up with thayir saadam. She would hold the ladle of vathakuzhambu and gently perch a thick drop of it onto each hand with exquisite grace!

Such starry-night treats were rare and therefore not to be missed occasions for us kids. Not so rare were the dinners thrown for guests of various hues and nationality. Ammu Patti would be equally at ease with a Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan or a Siddheswari Devi as she was with a Sundakka or Chinnani Mami! Hosting was not easy, for husband T.Sadasivam was a stickler for perfection and the smallest of upsets would mean a hard day ahead! She took it all in her stride and unfailingly wore with her lustrous silks, her best, beautiful smile

Sleepless, noisy and demanding nights never let Ammu Pattti oversleep. She would be up in the morning at her usual 5.30am and when I was ready to get out of bed, I would find her in the music room, freshly bathed and with her lovely curls cascading over her back. She would be seated with the tamboora, singing by herself or looking into music notebooks written in her own hand. During summer vacation, Veenai Mama (K.S.Narayanaswami) would be there opposite her and the two would be playing thaanams of different ragams alternately on their veenais. From the threshold of the music room, I could peep into a world of indescribable beauty. I surely cannot recollect the ragams for I could not recognize them then, but the picture and the music would blend to leave a lump in my throat even as the memories do now.

It was the greatest of Art housed in humblest of simplicity much like the well-worn handloom cotton saris that draped Ammu Patti’s fragile frame during her last few years of life. Perhaps, such times were the best times of her life too, though she never declared so. For I understood in later years, that the seeking for Beauty and Perfection which filled the music room, was manifest in her concert music too. Why concert music, it pervaded the Kanchadalayathakshi that she sang for the nurses of St’Isabel’s hospital, a day before she was discharged from there, post-surgery for a fractured thigh bone. The women in white stood around her coaxing her to sing and as she sat up in bed in her hospital gown, she broke into song, meticulously progressing through the sangathis, each repeated twice! As she neared the chittaswaram, she realized that she did not remember it and turned to me for being prompted. My ignorance did not please her and she admonished me to be back the next day at the hospital with the chittaswaram learnt by heart, so that she could render it properly for the ‘sisters’!

Her last days at the hospital were pain-filled – for us rather than her. She would sweep the nurses off their feet with her regular and genuine enquiries about their health , family and breakfast! It was inexplicable that one so good to all, and so filled with beauty and so ethereal in her Art should suffer the pain of slow release from a body. In that too she seemed to etch out a lesson for us – that the Hand of Life writes on its own and is bound by none or nothing.

After spending six nights with her at the hospital, I went to her birthplace of Madurai for some work. On the morning of December 11th, 2004 I was the Meenakshi temple, praying and thinking of her so much. The priests enquired after her and at the Sundareshwarar sannidhi, the morning poojai and deeparadanai were followed by the oduvamurhty’s rendering. Spontaneously, and entirely unaware of my presence or the circumstances, he sang the Vaitheeswarankovil padikam:

“Peraayiram paravi vaanor aethum pemmanai
Endrum pirivilla adiyaarkku vaarada selvangal varuvippanai
Mandiramum tandiramum marundum aagi theera noi theertharula vallan thannai…”

“பேராயிரம் பரவி வானோர் ஏதும் பெம்மானை
என்றும் பிரிவிலா அடியார்க்கு வாராத செல்வங்கள் வருவிப்பானை
மந்திரமும் தந்திரமும் மருந்தும் ஆகி தீரா நோய் தீர்த்தருள வல்லான் தன்னை…”

It was as if Appar’s lines had been written for Ammu Patti – ‘The one who is the chant, the charm and the cure for the incurable – HE is at Pullirukkuvelur (Vaitheeswarankovil). She passed away close to midnight on the same day.

The poignancy of the experience at Sundareshwarar sannidhi remains with me, as do other precious memories of Ammu Patti. So does the music of M.S.Subbulakshmi remain – not just in my life, but in that of millions across the globe – it remains as mandiram, tandiram and marundu to the seekers of Truth and Beauty.