- Papa Choodamani was called the ‘M S of Karnataka’.
- Such was the impact of her performance that Maharajah Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar invited her to sing on all the nine days of the Navaratri celebrations. It was an honour that had never before been bestowed on any other female artist.
The year was 1965 and it was the start of the famed Mysuru Dasara annual celebrations. The Maharajah of Mysore, His Highness Dr Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar, philanthropist and well-known Carnatic music aficionado along with his darbar were listening enthralled to a young Carnatic vocalist who was effortlessly taming complex ragas, the intricate patterns of her Swara Prastharam (permutations of notes) was reaching scales and variations previously thought unimaginable.
The lushness in her voice and the immaculate rendition of the songs made this performance an unforgettable experience. The aftermath of her kacheri (concert) was akin to the silence after a rainstorm.
Such was the impact of her performance that the Maharajah invited her to sing on all the nine days of the Navaratri celebrations. It was an honour that had never before been bestowed on any other artist.
The singer was none other than Papa Choodamani, a disciple of Shri Ambi Bhagavathar. Legend has it that she not only surpassed the expectations of each day’s performance but set new standards for the classical music establishment.
On the ninth day of the Dasara celebrations, the Maharajah of Mysore H H Dr Jaya Chamaraja Wadiyar produced a song, “Shri Lalitham Tripura Sundareem” that he had penned in praise of Shri Chamundeshwari, the reigning Goddess of Mysuru.
Within a matter of minutes the song was composed, set to the tune of Nagadhwani raga and Papa Choodamani sang it with aplomb. The royalty was thrilled and honoured her with the title of “Gaana Visharadhe” and awarded her the Ganda Berunda padhakam --- the iconic state symbol Ganda Berunda locket set in rubies and diamonds.
A musical icon had been born and there was no looking back.
Born in Nurani village of Palakkad in 1934 as Seethalakshmi to Choodamani Shastrigal and Subbalakshmi, she was affectionately called Papa. The fourth child to her parents, Papa was drawn to Carnatic music right from the start.
Her innate talent in trapezing effortlessly through the world of ragas and the timbre in her voice caught the attention of Guru Ambi Bhagavatar. He took her under his tutelage and this child prodigy made her kacheri debut at the tender age of nine in Bengaluru’s Puttana Chetty Town Hall.
The kacheri was a runaway success and the Guru had found an able shishya in Papa Choodamani. Her meteoric rise was dotted with several prominent concerts and performances all over the south of India.
Sri Ambi Bhagavatar, a Carnatic stalwart in his own right, was a direct disciple of Sri Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. He had the unique privilege of learning Carnatic music by living with his Guru, in the traditional gurukulam style and attain his title of a Bhagavatar.
He was a guru to several celebrities in Karnataka including yesteryear Kannada actress Pandaribai, Mynavathi, former AIR Director D R Saroja, among many others. He refused to accept offers to perform on the stage when he discovered the prodigy Papa Choodamani and dedicated his life to honing her talent.
Papa Chudamani followed in the same guru-shishya parampara tradition and mastered her art through rigorous hours of practice. Among her well-known signature songs were the Thyagaraja keerthanam ‘Saroja Dala Netri’ a composition by Shyama Sastrigal set to raga Shankarabharanam and Enthara Neethana in Hari Kamboji raga.
The heady combination of her powerful voice singing the Upacharamu in raga Bhairavi is a masterpiece that remains a favourite of many rasikas.
Her rendition of devaranamas and Thyagaraja kritis are still played by the All India Radio (AIR), Bangalore. The lanes of 10th cross Seshadripuram in Bengaluru, where she used to live, have reverberated with her deep voice practicing swaram and aalapanai’s all night.
There is this interesting incident of the famous violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan refusing to play in accompaniment for Papa Choodmani since she was just a young performer.
After much persuasion and coaxing, he agreed to play for a short time. Young Papa’s raga delineation for the Thodi raga went on for about two hours with improvisations hitting a zenith and yet she showed no signs of slowing down.
The master violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, realising he had met his match, is said to have placed his violin down and profusely apologised for underestimating her talent.
Her kacheri’s became an instant sell-out with legendary artists vying to play the accompaniments for her. Musical greats such as L Bhimachar, who was famous for his morsing, T V Gopalakrishnan along with U Krishnamani Iyer are some of them who have played for Papa Choodamani.
While several memorable incidents surround the legend of Papa Chudamani, the one that puts a spotlight on her musical prowess took place at Badaganadu Sangha in Bangalore.
During a kacheri, as she sang the Punnagavarali raga, a snake is said to have appeared on the stage out of nowhere and seemed to listen in rapt attention. Without any show of fear or a break in her voice, the legend that she was, Papa Choodamani continued to sing and go on to complete the song after which the snake was driven away.
An unparalleled musical talent, her unique voice was an intoxicating combination of the fluidity of M S Subbalakshmi along with the deep richness of M L Vasantha Kumari.
Destiny played a cruel hand in snatching this ‘M S of Karnataka’ (as she was popularly called) at the young age of 44. The world of Carnatic music lost one of its gems and her memories got relegated to the corners of a few yesteryear rasika’s hearts.
A tyranny of those times, there is little or no video recording of this brilliant musical talent and only the memories of aesthetes stand witness to this musical giant who walked this very earth.
This was first published in Swarajyamag