Imagine a somewhat frail, virtually blind woman in her mid-60s showing up in Chennai to a Columbia records recording session in 1932 or so, to play solos in the Carnatic / South Indian tradition on the large veena string instrument. This was a musical world that was almost exclusively male. Yet, Veena Dhanammal (also called “Veena Dhanam”) was at that time, and still is today, considered one of the major Carnatic artists of the early 20th century. This recording session would have been a very special occasion.
Her year of birth is cited alternately as 1868, 1867, or 1866 – though a recently published biography of her goes with the year 1868, perhaps the most accurate. She was born in a now historic neighborhood of Chennai once known as “Black Town” by the British colonizers due to its population of so-called “natives,” but whose name was changed to George Town in 1911, after the crowning of King George V. As her various biographies state, she was born into a family of professional musicians and dancers in the “devadasi” tradition.
Dhanammal’s musical education began with her own grandmother, Kamakshi Ammal, who taught her vocal technique. Among others, she was also a student of 19th century blind veena player Baldas Naidu, as well as Dharmapuri Subbaraaya Aiyyar, considered a chief proponent and composer of javalis – a type of love song, sometimes with erotic overtones, featured in an instrumental form in today’s post.
Much of the information about Dhanammal is folkloric and anecdotal. According to her granddaughter, Tanjore Balasaraswati, herself a renowned dancer, there was little room for children in the Dhanammal household. By the time Balasaraswati was born in 1918, Veena Dhanammal’s reputation was massive, having been apparently the first woman musician to perform in a Chennai concert hall in 1895. Balasaraswati recalled that her grandmother, despite being a gentle person, disallowed any leisure time or the crying of infants in the house, and demanded she be treated as a revered musician even by family.
According to legend, Dhanammal and Abdul Karim Khan had a special relationship. The possibly apocryphal story goes that after hearing Dhanammal perform while he was on a concert trip to Chennai (then Madras), Abdul Karim Khan was so speechless after witnessing her performance and her close attention to pitch, that he immediately gave her all the money he had earned earlier that day. Another story exists where Dhanammal, a fan of Hindustani classical music, gave all HER money to Abdul Karim Khan. Regardless of what transaction occurred, it appears there was certainly a mutual appreciation between them.
This instrumental javali song (known as “Narimani”) in the kamas raga is indicative of Dhanammal’s style – very slow, nearly minimalist, and without any accompaniment whatsoever, no mridangam drum or harmonium. Just…quiet. She also played the instrument without a plectrum. While Dhanammal made her name in the 19th century, by the time she recorded for Columbia, quite late in her career, there were other female veena artists – Shanmuga Vadivu, for example (and the mother of M.S. Subbulakshmi). However, Dhanammal is the one who is most revered. I am not sure how many records she made – it may only have been this session for Columbia. Although worth mentioning are a series of 5 discs that were issued in 1908 by the Gramophone Company and that were credited as being performed by “Veena Dhanam’s Daughters.”
As a tangential aside, it’s interesting to note that just a few years prior to this recording, there was a strong anti-devadasi campaign being initiated, claiming that the devadasi tradition was akin to prostitution, with an “Anti-Nautch” bill being passed in the late 1920s. Dhanammal and others were members of the Madras Devadasi Association, who did not agree with the movement’s tenets. Dhanammal was, by all accounts, a true and even aristocratic professional, devoted to her craft. She died in 1938.
Issue Number: VE 57
Matrix Number: WEI-2578-1
The aforementioned biography on Veena Dhanammal is written by Lakshmi Subramanian and is titled “Veena Dhanammal: The Making of a Legend” on Routledge India. A biography on her granddaughter was written by Douglas M. Knight and is titled “Balasaraswati: Her Art and Life,” and is published by Wesleyan University Press.