Every year, for the last ninety years, the first of January is the most exciting day in the world of Carnatic music. It is the day of the famous ‘Sadas’ at the Madras Music Academy, the Vatican of all Carnatic music. They honour one eminent musician with the title of the ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’. This award his higher than any other award in the world of Carnatic arts. It is higher than any State recognition, only next to the Bharat Ratna. You can be any of the Padma awardees but if you aren’t a ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’, you really aren’t anything. This year, this prestigious award has been bestowed upon violinist Vidushi Avasarala Kanyakumari. She is the first lady violinist to be honoured with this award in the ninety-year-old history of the Academy.
The coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh have been a proud home to several classical arts and communities of artistes. The numerous communities of traditional Kalavantulu or the dancers who were dedicated to several ancient temples across the region, the famous composers like Kshetrayya hailed from these parts. The classical dance-drama traditional of Kuchipudi from the village of Kuchipudi, the various organizations that patronized Telugu drama and acting were also from here. One thing that stands out exceptionally is the famous Vizainagaram style of Carnatic classical music.
Not going too much into the history and technical details of this style of rendering Carnatic, one can easily reel of some of the greatest stalwarts who’ve made a mark in the last century. The famous Harikathak exponent Adibhatla Narayana Dass and the legendary violinist Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu are names everyone knows. Their pioneering work in propagating Carnatic music is unparalleled. The three famous vocalists who were also Sangita Kalanidhis were Sripada Pinakapani, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy and last but not the least, the greatest of them all, Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna who we lost recently. There was also the famous Vidushi Srirangam Gopalaratnam, who was snatched away by fate in the peak of her performing career. Among instrumentalists, we had Veena exponents like Emani Shankara Sastry and Chitti Babu. Among percussionists were greats like Dandamudi Ramamohan Rao, Vankayala Narasimham and many others. The Andhras and Telugus were once the largest community of artistes and scholars in the Carnatic arts. Into this rich lineage of artistes hailed violinist Ivaturi Vijeshwara Rao. Hailing from the Dwaram lineage, Rao is a Guru par excellence. He has trained some of the finest Carnatic vocalists we have from Andhra, like Manda Sudha Rani and Pantula Rama. But his star disciple is violinist Kanyakumari.
Born on December 31, 1952, to Jayalakshmi and AS Ramaratnam in Guntur, Avasarala Kanyakumari hails from a rich musical background. Her mother was a trained Veena artiste. So, she grew up with enough Carnatic music at home. She began training with Ivaturi Vijeshwar Rao at a very young age. She migrated to Madras, the Mecca of all Carnatic arts. She continued her training with Sangita Kalanidhi M Chandrasekharan. Along with her training in violin, she also graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in music from the Queen Mary’s college. In 1971, the great Carnatic vocalist M L Vasantakumari, fondly addressed as ‘MLV’ by her fans and followers, heard her performing with the violin and took an instant liking to her. After that, for the next two decades, Kanyakumari accompanied MLV to all her concerts. MLV was not just an able guide and Guru but a patient mentor who shaped Kanyakumari’s approach to understanding Carnatic music. Her career soared high in association with MLV.
The other two musicians MLV mentored were the Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghunathan and the Mridangam Vidwan Thiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam. MLV toured and performed countless concerts with these three students. Each of them have turned out to be stars in their own right. Sudha was honoured with the Padma Bhushan award from the President of India and the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy few years ago. Bhaktavatsalam is a super star among Mridangam artistes. And this year Kanyakumari has been awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi award.
In addition to being an excellent soloist, an able accompanying violinist, Kanyakumari is also a composer. She has researched extensively and invented numerous new Ragas like those named after the seven hills of Tirupathi, Ragas named after rivers and so forth. She has conducted numerous violin orchestras and presented a range of Jugalbandis with several artistes down the years. She is also an able Guru who has trained some of the finest accompanying violinists on the Carnatic scene today. Some of the names known are Embar Kannan, Sanjeev, Nishant Chandran, L Ramakrishnan, Rajeev Mukundan, Vittal Rangan and Vinjamuri Kamalakiran.
She was honoured with the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award by President APJ Abdul Kalam. In 2015, the President of India honoured her with the title of Padma Shri. In honouring Kanyakumari with the prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi, the Madras Music Academy has once again made history. Kanyakumari is the first lady violinist to receive this honour in the ninety-year-long and illustrious history of the Academy. She is also one of the first Telugus to have won this in a long while.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)