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Becoming the voice of a dancer

S. Rajeswari, recipient of the M.S. Subbulakshmi award, on how she chose to sing for dancer Kumari Kamala

S.Rajeswari, who was recently honoured with the M.S.Subbulakshmi award by Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram, had to make a difficult choice.

In 1967, at the Central Music College (where Rajeswari was a student), veena vidwan S. Balachander was conducting a lecture-demonstration. Totally oblivious to everything around her, Rajeswari began to hum while listening to the demonstration. A young woman sitting right in front of her turned around. It was the legendary Bharatanatyam dancer, Kumari Kamala, who was so taken by Rajeswari's singing that she insisted she visit her home.

I travel back in time to Pollachi, 1946. There was general excitement in the air. As the entire country was getting ready for a new birth, the Subramanian household welcomed a third daughter, Rajeswari, who went on make her own place in the music world.

She had the advantage of growing up in a home where her two older siblings were already receiving training in music. When she was five, the family moved to Madras and then began her musical journey. Rajeswari acknowledges the great role that her teachers played in laying a strong foundation in classical music and shaping her as a singer.

Training under stalwarts

She began learning from Thanjai Balasubramaniam and later trained under Ramnad Krishnan. When Ramnad Krishnan became too busy with performances, Rajeswari came under the tutelage of Madurai Krishna Iyengar. At about the same time, she training in Thevaram and Thiruppugazh from Dharmapuram Swaminathan. Later, S. Rajam and D.K. Jayaraman also trained her.

When she joined the Central College of Carnatic Music, she was once again blessed to learn from stalwarts like T. Brinda, K.V. Narayanaswamy, T.M. Thiagarajan, T.K. Govinda Rao and ‘Sandyavandanam' Srinivasa Rao (the then Principal of the college).

It was in college that she met Kamala. The meeting changed her destiny. Her father encouraged Rajeswari to make her own decision. His only advice: “Do not stray from the lessons you have learnt.”

She was at a fork in the road and she made the choice to join Kamala. Until Kamala left India in 1975, Rajeswari was her voice just as Shammi Kapoor famously said, “Rafi was my voice”. She learnt the finer nuances of singing for dance and if Kamala conveyed bhava through dance, Rajeswari did so through her singing.

Becoming the voice of a dancer

She had to perform solo concerts at the age of 11. She was all of 15 when she first sang at The Music Academy. So, when she made her foray into dance music, she continued to perform concerts.

In 1979, she joined her alma mater as a lecturer and later became Principal. In parallel, her singing career too progressed. In 1983, former Chief Minister MGR attended the performance of Vempatti Chinna Satyam's production ‘Srinivasa Kalyanam' in which Rajeswari sang for the veteran dancer. So impressed was MGR with the singing that he instituted an award for dance-musicians and Rajeswari became the first recipient of the Kalaimamani State Award for dance-music.

In 1996, she was chosen by ICCR, New Delhi, to teach music for four years at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Indian Culture in Mauritius. It was a challenging as well as enriching experience. But when Rajeswari returned to India in 2000, the concert began to dwindle. She continued to teach, train and sing. She even released a set of 13 cassettes that contain basic lessons in Carnatic music. She soon won many accolades, the most significant being the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2012.

The strong foundation in music enabled her to improvise or even compose at short notice. She recalls an incident when a rasika came backstage before a programme, wanting Kamala to dance to a composition he had written on Lord Muruga. Rajeswari set it to tune during the interval and Kamala danced to it spontaneously.

Humbled to receive an award named after the iconic M.S., Rajeswari says it her of the appreciation that she got from M.S. and DKP.

The Chennai-based author is a

freelance writer.

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