My friend Ravi had called one day morning to inform me of the demise of Muktamma. Since that time I had been meaning to write this article but somehow it has not happened. As saying goes, "Better late than never". So here comes the article.
I can say that I had the good fortune of having brief encounters with Brinda and Mukta. In case of Brinda the encounter was in the form of a concert and in case of Mukta I was able to meet the great lady at her house.
The concert of Brinda I heard was sometime during 1984 or 1985. I am not sure which year it was. I was studying engineering at Hyd and had come to Chennai for the summer vacation. I had heard a few of Brinda Mukta's padams and javalis on Hyd radio and had wanted to hear more. I was desperately searching for their tapes in Chennai not realizing that they had never recorded. So when I saw Brinda's concert announcement in Hindu I was thrilled and set out that evening to attend the concert.
The concert was held at Sastry Hall and I think it was Ariyakudi's anniversary that day. The concert was arranged by Ariyakudi's disciples and I remember seeing people like Madurai Krishnan and Rajam Iyer on that day. Everyone remarks that Brinda was a musician's musician and not a crowd puller. Even on that day Sastry hall was sparsely populated. The thing was that most of the population happened to be musicians. I remember seeing M.S.'s daughters, T N Seshagopalan, Kanyakumari and the disciples of Ariyakudi.
I can definitely say that this concert was probably one of the best live concerts that I have ever attended. I guess it had to do with the fact that I was hearing Brinda for the first time in a concert. She was singing with Vegavahini. Unfortunately I dont have the habit of writing down song list in a concert but I can still remember some of the ragas / songs of that day. She sang the Poorvi Kalyani piece 'Satre Vilagi Nillum'. The two ragas that stayed with me were Mukhari and Todi. She sang an excellent Mukhari and it was the first time I was hearing an elaborate Mukari with an elaborate krithi. The Todi was fantastic.
At the end of the concert I was stuck by a couple of things. First was the intensity of the singing. It was almost like watching an intense scene from an Ingmar Bergman's film. As long as you are watching the scene, you are so very engrossed. The intensity hits you only when the scene finishes and you say 'Oof'. It was the same with the padam singing. I remember her singing a couple of padams. I dont remember the ragams but I was fully engrossed and when the padam ended I could realize the intensity she has brought in. The second thing that stuck me was that the whole concert had only one song for which kalpanaswaras were sung. Otherwise it was only the alapana and the krithi. Inspite of that the concert never sagged and there was never a dull moment !! It was an extremely satisfactory concert and as I took the 12B bus to get back to my grandma's house, the Todi worm crept into my mind and started running thru mazes throwing up one new phrase after another that I could never think I was capable of generating. That is what great singing does to you !!!
It was during the music season of 2004 I met Muktamma. I had been to Chennai to attend the music festival and my friends Ravi and Sridhar had come from Tiruvannamalai. They being students of Muktamma, I asked them if it would be possible to meet her. They asked me to come down to Muktamma's Adayar residence. I went there with my brother.
Now I surely did want to hear Muktamma sing but there was no way I would get any courage to ask her for a song. I neednt have worried. We went there in the afternoon after attending part of a concert at Music Academy. Ravi and Sridhar were there and after the initial introductions Muktamma asked me as to what concert I had been. I told her about the concert that I had attended and was saying that the singer, who shall remain unnamed, was singing the Durbar krithi, 'Mundu Venuka' looking at lyrics from the note book in front of her !! Muktamma on hearing the raga Durbar told that the krithi 'Nitya Roopa' was sung in both Durbar as well as Kapi and went on to sing that krithi in both the ragas !! Muktamma's memory was amazing. One of us would mention a krithi and she would immediately sing that krithi with every sangathi intact. I was mentioning about a Mukhari javali which I had heard Semmangudi sing and she immediately sang that javali.
What was striking was the natural way Muktamma interacted with us. She was very clear when she was expressing her views on various musical topics. She spoke in a natural way and it was a joy hearing her speak and sing. She infact asked me to sing a song. That would have been a natural disaster !! Ravi came to the rescue saying that I am more a rasika than a musician. She then asked my brother if he would sing !! Now, he is even worse than me and he too naturally declined. As I had said, her memory power was amazing and she related many anecdotes related to Dhanammal, Brinda and other greats of the past. We also had the good fortune of watching her teach some krithis to Ravi and Sridhar.
I guess it is mostly in India it happens that such great musicians are so easily accessible and interact with you without any trace of ego. Muktamma was a great musician and it is our good fortune that Carnatica was able to make Muktamma give some concerts and release CDs. They had released two CDs. One of them having Padams and Javalis and the other with krithis. Both of them are excellent and I would recommend everyone to buy these. Hearing her sing a krithi like 'Vachamagocharundanu' in Atana is bliss. Brindamma and Muktamma are not someone you may immediately like. You need to listen to them multiple time but beware. Once they get into your system, you will see that suddenly all those who you loved till now arent as good as you thought !! So step ahead only if you are ready to reassess some of your most beloved musicians !!
May Muktamma's soul rest in peace.
(For those interest in knowing more biographical details about Brinda and Mukta: Ravi and Sridhar had written excellent articles on Brinda and Mukta in Sangeetham.com. This website is not available now. Hope they have this article in their database. You can also read their biography in V.Sriram's "Carnatic Summer". Indra Menon's "Madras Quartet" also carries a section on Brinda)