MUSICAL STYLE OF THE BALASARASWATHI SCHOOL
THE DHANAMMAL SCHOOL OF MUSIC
(Natya Kala Conference 2000)
by Gowri Ramnarayan
Dec 2001

Only a few old-timers still among us can describe Veena Dhanammal's (1867-1938) live recitals in her home. And few old records are left to give us a taste of her magic. The redoubtable lady played the veena in the slow tempo (without the plectrum as it was too harsh for one so aurally sensitive as she was) to bring out the subtle glints and nuances of the bakti ragas. She also sang the compositions along in a manner that left listeners spellbound.

Though we associate the padam tradition with her school, Dhanammal was equally adept at rendering the awesome kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar, and reflecting the melting moods of Syama Sastri. Such was her impact on the cognoscenti that even today her bani or style is considered to be the acme of all that is refined and chaste in traditional Carnatic music.

Dhanammal belonged to a lineage of musicians and dancers at the Tanjavur court, traceable to Papammal four generations removed. Her own art drew admirers from the ranks of musicians and critics. Many composers like Tiruvotriyur Tyagayyar, Muthialpet Ponuswami and Dharmapuri Subbarayar, wrote songs in praise of her musical genius, such as the gem-like javali “Sarasundaranguni” in Pharaz.

Dhanammal has been the fountainhead of three generations of artists in her family-her four daughters (Rajalakshmi, Lakshmiratnam, Jayammal, Kamakshi) were exemplary vocalists. Her grandchildren include Brinda, Mukta (Vocal), Abhiramasundari (violin), Sankaran (musicology), Ranganathan (mridangam), Viswanathan (flute), and Bharatanatyam legend Balasaraswati, Great grand daughters Lakshmi and Vegavahini continue to bear the torch.

Anyone who has seen Balasaraswati perform will know that to her, dance was nothing but sangita, it was visual music. No wonder she noted that every adavu in her guru's dance compositions was perfectly aligned to the swaras. She never forgot mother Jayammal's teaching, “Your head, your whole body, must move with the sangati, the gamaka, not just with the tala.”

Sadly, despite the zealous guarding of their musical wealth by family members, the Dhanammal School has few proponents today. The widespread feeling that it is too pure and profound to satisfy current preferences for speed and fireworks has led to its near-obsolescence. The style extracts tremendous discipline, sensitivity and breath control as it at once demands weighty rendition, powerful oscillations, and delicate loops and links.

However, if such a resplendent style disappears without a trace, mainstream Carnatic tradition will be the poorer for it; it will certainly lose depth and sophistication. Bharatanatyam will equally be the loser, as it is the music, which evokes, colours, enhances and modulates the dancer's rhythms of expression.
Artistic growth and the maintenance of standards, whether collective or individual, have as much to do with restoration and recovery as with innovativeness. In this session on the Dhanammal School of Music, vocalist P Unnikrishnan is engaged in reminding us of a latent, bypassed, near forgotten heritage that he encountered when he attended the six-month workshop (1991) conducted in Chennai by the late T Brinda and T Viswanathan. The aesthetics of this style recaptures the original meaning of the word “sangita”, referring to a performance genre in which the music and the dance were inseparable aspects of the rasa experience.


A graduate in Commerce and General Law, postgraduate in Personnel Management, Industrial Relations and Labour Welfare, P Unnikrishnan had his initial training in vocal Carnatic music under V L Seshadri and then from Dr. S Ramanathan and Calcutta Krishnamurthy. He is at present learning from Savithri Sathyamurthy and P S Narayanaswamy. He has received many awards notably Kalaimamani Award in 1994, National Award for best playback singer in 1994, Nada Brahmam, Isai Peroli, Ugadi Puraskar Award and Yuva Kala Bharathi. An “A” grade artiste with All India Radio, he has performed in many countries.