Madras Lalitangi Vasanthakumari (popularly referred to as MLV) (July 3, 1928 - October 31, 1990), was a disciple of G. N. Balasubramaniam, one of the great singers in the Carnatic musical tradition of southern India. She is also popularly referred to as one among the female trinity of Carnatic music , others being D. K. Pattammal and M. S. Subbulakshmi. Endowed with a fluid voice and rich imagination, the initials MLV could be an acronym for her Melody, Laya and Vidwat - the watchwords of her rare musical artistry that were an aural feast to both the lay and the cognoscenti. Her leisurely, explorative and adventurous manner of handling ragas deserves special mention. She was the youngest among the established musicians of that era, and was the youngest awardee of the most prestigious award in Carnatic music, Sangita Kalanidhi. As well as being a much sought-after playback singer for films, MLV contributed immensely to popularise the devarnamas of Purandara Dasa (and other Dasas), and was responsible for popularizing his compositions Baarokrishnayya, Innu daya barade, among others. Her most famous disciples include Srividya (her daughter), Sudha Raghunathan, A. Kanyakumari and Charumathi Ramachandran.
MLV was born to a musical family. Her father, Kuthanur Ayya Swamy Iyer, was a noted musician while her mother, Lalithangi, was also a great musician. When Deshbandu Chitharanjan Das (1870 -1925) died in 1925, Lalithangi came out with a beautiful song by way of tribute to his national spirit and patriotism. A rare gramophone record (made in England) of her glorious voice rendering this song is said to be in V.Sundaram's private possession.His coach was C.VIGNESHWARAN living in Adayar,Chennai.
MLV's school education was in Madras, in a convent, where all was set to pursue a medical career until the great Carnatic musician G. N. Balasubramaniam (GNB) came into her life. He became her guru. In her own words: 'My parents had rendered yeomen service to Carnatic music. They were mainly instrumental in popularising the compositions of Purandara Dasa in South India. They were not keen that I should enter the music field and gave me general education. But in the musical atmosphere of my house, I had ample opportunity of practicing vocal music. Once G N Balasubramaniam heard me sing and he prevailed upon my parents to place me under his tutelage. It was he who was responsible for the status I occupy in the music world today'.
MLV was very privilleged to learn Carnatic music at the feet of G. N. Balasubramaniam. She was also GNB's first disciple. Indira Menon said that GNB was a self-taught artiste, his racy style sparkling with brigas and nuances never heard before, revealed a new range of colours on the musician's palette. The brisk tempo unleashed by his powerful and pliable voice found many admirers and imitators among the younger generations, though it raised many an eyebrow among the senior vidwans. Was his music according to Sampradaya (tradition) or not, was the question that was frequently asked?' To answer, GNB was a genius, so much so that what might have seemed like a deviation from tradition was acceptable from him though it might not have been so from a lesser artiste. His charismatic personality, bold innovations and technical virtuosity became an inspiration for an entire generation of musicians. After GNB, speed and briga-laden music became the vogue to the extent that to be true to one's self and to sing according to one's vocal capacity required a great deal of courage.
MLV imbibed much of his style, but did not make a fetish of speed and struck out on her own and evolved an inimitable style.
In 1940 her mother Lalithangi gave a resplendent musical recital in Simla. MLV was then only 12 years old. She made her debut by accompanying her mother. Two years later in 1942, MLV gave a solo recital in Bangalore. She also cut her first 78 rpm disc which many music lovers of that period recall vividly because it created a sensation. From then on she progressed in geometrical progression as a platform artiste and by 1950 she had established herself as a front-ranker. A learned music critic has said that MLV brought the struggle of women in the world of music to a successful culmination. Her music had more male characteristics than that of any other female musician.
While MLV was known more for her cerebral style, rather than her emotional style, this was compensated by her rich and original manodharma. Similarly to GNB, she was a genius in her tricky, instantaneous brilliant manodharma. Indira Menon comments 'MLV did adopt her Guru's idea of a quick impressionistic sketch of the raga covering the two octaves at the start, but settled down to a reposeful elaboration, unfolding it gradually with her virtuosity in the form of BRIGA -CASCADES appearing only where necessary. She was careful not to carry to an excess what her versatile voice was capable of'.
MLV's mastery over vocal techniques was comprehensive and complete. She could effortlessly render several difficult Ragas, with her Alapana and Swaraprasthara suitably embellished with shruthi-bheda. Even as Yasoda had glimpses of several worlds in the open mouth of Lord Krishna, her listeners too had the same ecstatic experience when she sang and more particularly when in a lightning manner she shifted gracefully from the melodic world of one Raga in one pitch to another Raga in another pitch. In this context one has to refer to Raga combinations like Shanmugapriya-Sankarabharanam, Bhairavi-Kamas, Abhogi-Valaji to illustrate this point. Ragam - Thanam-Pallavi (RTP) was her forte. In this exciting sphere of Carnatic Music, MLV not only maintained the great tradition established by DK Pattammal but enriched it in her own unique way.
As one of the top ranking platform artistes, MLV was noted for her charm, grace, warmth, self-restraint and humility. Her self-restraint as an artiste can be understood from her own words: 'Brigas in fast tempo should adhere to the sruthi and above all, true music must touch the listener's heart.'
Lalithangi, MLV's mother had a vast repertoire of Purandaradasa, the Father of Carnatic Music. She passed on this glorious tradition to her daughter MLV. Like Brinda bringing Kshetrayya Padams to the public platform, MS Subbalakshmi bringing Annamacharya Kritis to the public arena, MLV made the Devaranamas of Purandaradasa popular coins of currency in wide circulation in the world of Carnatic Music.
Mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer, in a rare gesture, accompanied her in concerts. MLV helped others including Mannargudi Easwaran, Srimushnam Raja Rao, Seerkazhi J. Skandaprasad, Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, R.Ramesh, Karaikudi Krishnamurthy, G. Harishankar (kanjira) and more, establishing them by encouraging them and giving them opportunities to accompany her in concerts.
MLV taught her daughter Srividya, who at the age of 10 was ready to perform and sang very much like MLV. Srividya however, wanted to pursue a career in the film industry, so wasn't well known as a Carnatic musician, but as an actress in Indian movies.
MLV trained several other students, and many of them are the front-ranking musicians today. Some of the notable musicians who have studied under MLV include Sudha Ragunathan, A. Kanyakumari, Trichur Ramachandran, Charumathi Ramachandran, Vanaja Narayanan, T.M Prabhavathi, Meena Subramaniam, Jayanthi Sridharan Jayanthi Mohan, Rose Muralikrishnan and Bama Visveswaran. She also taught music to children at the Rishi Valley School started by Jiddu Krishnamurti.
By 1946, she had become a playback singer as well. It goes to the credit of MLV's music that she earned the admiration of even male stalwarts.
She popularised the composition 'Kalyana Gopalam', composed by Narayana Theerthar, in raga Sindhubhairavi. She also popularised the composition 'Venkatachala Nilayam' in the same raga, but composed by Purandaradasar. Hindustani maestro Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was generous in his praise for her music. Sudha Ragunathan mentions, ``MLV Amma has told me that it was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab who taught her the nuances of Sindhu Bhairavi in the Hindustani style."
A.Kanyakumari who had accompanied MLV on violin for almost two decades says, "MLV-akka had a sharp mind and good memory and I have never seen her practice a song or a ragam or for that matter a ragam-tanam-pallavi also before a concert." Sudha Ragunathan, a prime disciple of MLV, remarked that "In all my twelve years of learning under her, I had never seen Amma practising at home. But, to my great surprise, she would compose a Pallavi in the car on the way to the concert!"
MLV was honoured with a Doctorate degree.
She also received the third highest civilian honour from the Indian Government, "Padma Bhushan".
MLV also received the most prestigious award in Carnatic music, Sangita Kalanidhi in 1977. She was the youngest woman to earn this award, at age 49.
MLV was a front ranking artiste for more than 50 years. She died in 1990 at the age of 63. Beauty and sublimity were the cardinal characteristics of her music.
A concert is a daily test of the calibre of a musician. A slight lapse may let the musician down and a constant vigil is essential - MLV.
MLV got married to Late Kalaimamani Vikatam R.Krishnamurthy in the year 1951. They had a son, K.Shankarraman and Late K.Srividya (Renowned South Indian artist).
She received the third highest honour given to Indian Citizens which is Padma Bhushan. The Bharat Ratna is the highest honors given to Indian Civilians (Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi was awarded with the Bharat Ratna)