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The Freedom Movement
Some Carnatic participants

12th Aug 03

The Freedom Movement was possibly the last struggle in our history which witnessed almost complete participation by the country’s population. Methods may have differed and so did techniques, but most people were agreed on the necessity of throwing off the foreign yoke. The field of Carnatic Music was no exception and we did have quite a few people who actively participated. Of course keeping the shrewdness of the average South Indian, several of them kept the ruling powers happy as well. It was a difficult task. But given their talents in keeping the pancama clear of the prati madhyama, they carried out this task too with aplomb. But many were motivated by sheer patriotism. We bring you brief profiles of some prominent women artistes who contributed to the freedom struggle.

C Saraswathi Bai (1894-1973) – The doyenne among Harikatha performers, who made her debut in Mylapore, in the teeth of opposition from the Tam Brahms, was an ardent nationalist.

MS Subbulakshmi remembers watching her performances, when she (MS) was a young child in Madurai. In the middle of the sequence, while describing vibhishana saraNAgati, Bai would launch into a song in English, set to rAga khamAs – This is the occasion/For our liberation/This Congress Resolution/Gandhi’s Inspiration and would be received with wild cheering and applause. She would then proceed with the story, but not before saying “Just as Vibhishana surrendered to Rama, the English will one day surrender to us,” this being in Tamizh of course.

Later in life, Bai was one of the founders of the Mahatmaji Seva Sangam in Triplicane, a society that still functions. This was devoted to women’s uplift and was of course named after Mahatma Gandhi. Saraswathi Bai was its charter president.

The other equally influential member was Vai Mu Kothainayaki Ammal.

Vai Mu Ko (1901-1960) – That was the name by which she became famous. For she was the publisher cum editor of Jaganmohini, one of the most successful Tamizh magazines of its time. Vai Mu Ko started out in life completely illiterate, but blessed with bountiful imagination. She in fact dictated her first novel to a friend who wrote it down. This was later vetted by Vaduvoor Dorasiwami Iyengar, Vai Mu Ko’s neighbour in Triplicane.

Blessed with a supportive husband and in laws, Vai Mu Ko learnt how to read and write and blossomed out into the first woman writer to spin out crime stories. These were run in her magazine. Blessed with a sweet voice, Vai Mu Ko could sing very well. Subrahmanya Bharati who lived down the street is said to have heard her sing, while passing the house. He barged in, sang a duet with her in ecstasy and marched out again. Her bhajan sessions during the month of mArgazhi (Dec/Jan) were also well known. It was Vai Mu Ko who persuaded DK Pattammal’s father to encourage his daughter to become a concert artiste. She undertook several visits to Kanchipuram for this. Vai Mu Ko was a traditional housewife interested in jewels and silks until Mahatma Gandhi asked her if so many gold chains were necessary when Mother India was in chains. She gave up wearing jewels and sported only khadi thereafter. Vai Mu Ko was encouraged by Bangalore Nagarathnammal to become a concert artiste and her first performance took place at Saundarya Mahal, George Town, with Nagarathnammal strumming the tambura. She also released several 78 rpm plates. She later composed many songs and set them in rare rAgas.

Her neighbour and patriot S Sathyamurthy persuaded her to come to Congress meetings and sing prayer songs. Never given to half measures, Vai Mu Ko plunged wholeheartedly into the freedom movement. She picketed shops, sold khadi and was finally arrested in 1932 during the Civil Disobedience movement. She was also a close friend of Rajaji and was responsible for naming his eldest grandson as Rajmohan. On August 15, 1947 she unveiled a statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Singaperumal Koil. In independent India, Vai Mu Ko served as the chairperson of the Censor Board.

Madras Lalithangi (c 1910-c1956) – One cannot call her a freedom fighter, but she sang the first Tamizh nationalist song to be released as a 78 rpm plate. The song was sudantira dIpam in rAga kalyANi. She also recorded an elegy when Deshbandhu Chittranjan Das died.

Tanjore Kamukannammal (1905 – 1967) – A dEvadAsi by origin, she lived in Tanjore and by 1940 was fully involved with the freedom movement, conducting processions, organising meetings and being a powerful member of the local chapter of the Congress party. When asked to contest the elections she refused stating that she was not interested in any position and campaigned for the Congress candidate with full vigour and zest. During the electioneering, funds were badly needed and she donated all her jewellery for the cause. She wore only khadi and all her spare time was spent in spinning thread using the charka as Gandhi has instructed. On 15th August 1947, she organised an enormous function in celebration at her own expense. However the powers that be completely forgot her in the years that followed. In 1952, she was struck with paralysis and remained bed ridden till her demise. (source for this account – BM Sundaram’s “marabu tanda mANikkangaL” published by the Dr V Raghavan Centre for Performing Arts, April 2003)

KB Sundarambal (1907 - 1980) – Who can forget the Kodumudi Tilakam as she was known? The powerful voice that could match that of SG Kittappa on stage, was used to good effect during the Freedom Movement. S Sathyamurthy had been a friend of the Kittappa-Sundarambal couple from the very early days. When he found that Rajaji had more or less monopolised MS Subbulakshmi for his public meetings, Sathyamurthy’s choice fell on KBS.

She was a great crowd puller and many were the meetings that were attended to bursting point at the Tilak Ghat (today’s Sheerani Arangam) due to the combination of KBS’ singing and Satyamurthy’s oratory. The election campaign meeting speeches and songs at the same venue in 1937, was even released as a 78 RPM plate. KBS of course had earlier released several plates with songs that were of a patriotic nature such as Pandita Motilal Nehruvai parikoDuttOmE (an elegy on the death of Motilal Nehru), Gandhi London pOnAr (when Gandhi travelled to London for the Second Round Table Conference) and also Gandhi oru Ezhai sanyAsi. In independent India, KBS was made a member of the Legislative Council (upper house that existed in Tamil Nadu at that time), when Kamaraj was Chief Minister.

The contributions of MS Subbulakshmi and DK Pattammal are of course too well known to necessitate a listing here. But there have been many more women and men, memories of whom have vanished without a trace. As and when we do have details, we will keep adding to the list. Let us enjoy and value the independence that was won with many struggles and at great sacrifice.


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