Written by Shalini Saxena on 19 March 2020
Born on March 19, 1919, in a Brahmin family at Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, Padma Bhushan Smt. Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal was an eminent Indian Carnatic musician and a playback singer for film songs.
Lovingly remembered as DKP Amma – she was a phenomenon, a trendsetter, a devoted guru and a rebel! She played a pivotal role in challenging conventions and making a place for women in Carnatic Music. Her real name was Alamelu, but she was called Patta (or wonder kid) for the child prodigy she was. She and her contemporaries, M.L. Vasantakumari and M.S. Subbulakshmi, are often referred to as the Female Trinity of Carnatic Music.
Unlike Subbulakshmi and Vasanthakumari, she did not receive systematic formal training under a renowned Guru but she was exposed to advanced level music concerts by her music-loving father Damal Krishnaswamy Dikshithar. She did receive some informal music training from her Telugu Vadyar (language teacher). She was born into an orthodox Brahmin family. However, her father, D.K. Ranganathan, and her brothers, D.K. Nagarajan and D.K. Jayaraman, supported her musical interests.
Her musical career started at the age of eight when she received first prize for performing Thyagaraja's Raksha Bettare Krithi in Raga Bhairavi. Her first radio performance was for the Madras Corporation Radio in 1929, and in 1932 she gave her first public concert at the Madras Rasika Ranjani Sabha. She later moved to Chennai to fulfil her aspiration of becoming a concert singer and performed for the Mahila Samajam (Egmore Ladies' Club), which set the stage for her phenomenal 65-year long musical career.
She was known to mesmerise her audiences through her sonorous voice and was a complete musician in every sense – with her strong technical hold on pitch, rhythm and enunciation of lyrics.
She was an authority on Muthuswami Dikshitar’s compositions and was often referred to as the encyclopaedia of his work. She learnt the original versions of Dikshitar’s compositions through his descendant Ambi Dikshitar, and also learnt with Justice T.L. Venkatrama Iyer, an eminent authority for Dikshitar's work. She popularised several of Dikshitar's compositions including Shri Natthadhi (ragam Mayamalavagowla), Manasa Guruguha (Ananda Bhairavi), Gunijanadhi (Gurjari), Ranganayakam (Nayaki), Mamava Pattabirama (Manirangu) and Minakshi Memudham (Purvi Kalyani).
She also performed the compositions of Papanasam Sivan and Subramania Bharathiyar.
At the time DKP Amma started her musical career, it was considered improper for a woman from a traditional Brahmin family to give public concerts. Carnatic music concerts thus came to be a male-dominated sphere. With her quiet, calm demeanour, Amma turned out to be an unlikely revolutionary. Not only did she perform publicly she also became the first woman to have performed Ragam Thanam Pallavi, then considered to be a male stronghold and the most difficult concert piece in Carnatic music. She even earned the moniker “Pallavi Pattamal” thanks to her performances! So much so that the mridangam maestro Vidwan Palghat Mani Iyer, who would traditionally accompany only male singers, made an exception in her case. She would include patriotic songs in her classical concerts, in the pre-Independence era when such deeds were frowned upon by the authorities.
Among the earliest Carnatic musicians to sing for films, she received several offers but she only accepted devotional or patriotic songs. Her first playback song was a patriotic one for Thyaagabhoomi (1939). Films she sang for included Naam Iruvar (1947), Raama Raajyam (1948), Vedhaala Ulagam (1948), Vaazhkkai (1949), and many more. At the age of 79, she enthralled audiences with her rendition of Vaishnava Jana in the movie Hey! Raam (2000).
DKP Amma was not just a heavyweight in Carnatic music as a singer but also as a loving Guru. Though she herself did not receive formal training in Carnatic music, ironically enough, she went on to train some of the greatest singers in the field. Under her tutelage, her brother D.K. Jayaraman went on to earn the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title. She also taught her daughter-in-law Lalitha Sivakumar who would frequently accompany her on stage. Today, her granddaughter and disciple Smt. Nithyashree Mahadevan is a well-known name in Carnatic music circles.
During her musical career of almost 7 decades, she received many awards and titles, including the Padma Bhushan in 1971 (India’s third highest civilian honour) and the Padma Vibhushan in 1998 (India’s second-highest civilian honour). She earned the title of Gana Saraswathi at the young age of 27. She was also the recipient of Sangeetha Kalanidhi (1970), the highest honour bestowed on a Carnatic musician. In 2014, the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, released a set of commemorative stamps to recognise the virtuosity of this evergreen singer.