Spotlight on women composers — From Andal to Ambujam Krishna and beyond

From the first century CE, the Sangam period, to the present day, numerous women composers have emerged from south India. While some were revered as saints, most were women who straddled domestic responsibilities with their passion for writing. Some remained closet-composers out of necessity.

Under the auspices of Kala Prashala (a division of SciArt Services), hosted on Facebook by Vanitha Suresh and Revathi Subramanian, Dr. S. Sowmya and musicologist Dr. Radha Bhaskar shared their ongoing exploration of women composers, aided by vocalists K. Gayatri and Vidya Kalyanaraman. The women sang brief excerpts and shared illustrative recordings of other vocalists too.

Expertise in music

One of only three women Nayanmars, Karaikal Ammaiyar, 6th century, demonstrated her knowledge of the intricacies of music, referring to the saptaswaras, various percussion instruments, and even the veena at a time when it was the yazh that was in vogue.

Karaikkal Ammaiyar  

Andal (7th/8th century), the only woman Azhwar, composed the Thiruppavai when barely 15. She saw no obscenity or vulgarity in expressing her innermost desires in the most descriptive manner and did not worry about society’s expectations. In Nachiyar Thirumozhi, she tells Manmatha (the god of love) that she is nurturing herself only to be given to god and, therefore, cannot be given to just any human being. She would not live if that were to happen.

When in the 12th century in Karnataka, Akka Mahadevi’s husband told her that everything she owned, including the garments she wore, were his, she shed everything, even her clothes, and wandered about in the nude which, Sowmya said, is reminiscent of Sadhasiva Brahmendral. Akka Mahadevi told her horrified mother that she cared for no earthly attachments and wished only to merge with her chosen god, Chenna Malikarjuna.

Helavanakette Giriamma (18th century) was the only woman Dasa of all the Haridasas. She set her verses to tune, mostly in keertanai format in simple Kannada.

Radha spoke of how women composers visualised the divine in different ways — as partner, companion and friend. Some of them also composed from the male perspective and conveyed emotions like sarcasm.

Talapaka Tirumallamma (15th century), wife of Annamacharya, was the first Telugu poetess — she wrote Subhadra Kalyanam about Arjuna’s marriage to Subhadra. Molla, also 15th century, was a young village girl, who was the first to write the Ramayana in Telugu, weaving into it, like Tyagaraja, imaginative anecdotes.

Avudai Akkal, a child widow of the 17th century and a follower of Sridhara Ayyaval, composed many verses, specifying ragas for the same. Andavan Pichai, mothered ten children and lived until 1990 to age 91. She wrote several compositions, many on the god Muruga.

Muddu Pazhani (18th century) of Andhra Pradesh, a Devadasi, wrote an erotic narrative poem about the marital relationship of Radha, Krishna and his new wife Ila. Facing severe opposition, it was soon banned by the male bastion, with the original version seeing the light of day only after Independence.

Bangalore Nagarathnamma

Bangalore Nagarathnamma  

Bangalore Nagarathnamma (1878-1952) composed the popular Kannada javali ‘Maataada Bhaaradhaeno’ in raga Khamas. She was a pioneer in many spheres, including bringing the work of other women to light. Nagarathnamma was also able to persuade men to not just join, but actively champion her causes including fighting for women to perform at the Tyagaraja Aradhana.

Both Radha and Sowmya also referred to the many women poets who had to compose in secret because of restrictive social mores. Radha spoke of the crucial role played by family members and other musicians in bringing many such works to light.

Abused and traumatised after losing her first six children, K.M. Soundaryavalli propitiated Ghatikachalam and went on to conceive seven children. She said she looked forward to her menstrual cycles, when she got time for herself, to compose unhindered. Soundaryavalli wrote many compositions, including some 30 on Tyagaraja, for which notations are available. Her daughter and son-in-law actively publicised her work.

Adding music to kritis

Ambujam Krishna wrote several compositions but did not tune them, preferring to entrust the task to stalwart musicians who went on to present them at concerts.

D. Pattammal

D. Pattammal

Several other women composers, however, set their pieces to music themselves. Other names that came up during the session were D. Pattammal, Mangalam Ganapathy, Kalyani Varadarajan, Neela Ramamurthy (elder daughter of Papanasam Sivan), and Padma Veeraraghavan (explained by Vidya Kalyanaraman) too.

Mangalam Ganapathy

Mangalam Ganapathy

V.M. Kodhainayaki, who was married at age five, was a writer, publisher, novelist and performing musician. She gave her first vocal concert for AIR Chennai’s inauguration where Rajaji was the chief guest. Her husband was most supportive of her activities. She wrote many patriotic songs and was jailed for her activism. Besides mainstream ragas, she also composed in ragas that she coined.

K. Gayatri spoke of her late guru, Suguna Purushothaman’s, compositions that reflect tremendous understanding of melody, layam and lyrics, the use of ragas that reflect the subject matter, the changes of nadai (gait), and the different compositional forms like thillana, kritis, varnams and ragamalikas she worked with.

Rukmini Ramani, daughter of Papanasam Sivan, composed hundreds of pieces, including on the 108 divya desams and the shakti peetams.

In their exploration of this rich legacy, Sowmya and Radha traced the evolution of women composers from poetesses with a strong underlying bhakti theme to performer musicians who melded lyrical expertise with musical acumen and sophistication. In subsequent sessions, the panel hopes to focus on composers from Kerala as well as current Carnatic composers from all over India, many of whom are active performers as well.

The author writes on classical music and musicians.

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