Thursday, July 28, 2005

Nithyasree - Nightingale of the South

Nightingale of South India, Nithyasree Mahadevan thrills audiences on her 5th London Charity tour

Text by Ashanti OMkar (
Pictures by Akin Falope (

Born to multiple music lineages, Nithyasree Mahadevan has an inimitable simple beauty and demeanour that not many can truly propagate. She shows this in all her actions and performances, that she is the epitome of the younger generation purporting South Indian culture and patriotism. Alongside her Engineer husband, Mahadevan who gives her full support, a very close family and a gorgeous new baby daughter, Tejashree, who has been touring with her from 50 days after her birth – thus is the commitment Nithyasree keeps to her art. Steeped in tradition, Nithya, as she is fondly called by friends, well-wishers and family alike, is rarely seen without the traditional South Indian attire, the saree, usually dressed in brightly coloured Kancheepuram silk (this is a famous town in South India which is well known for it's silk looms, where the gold thread used is actually pure silver, coated in 22 carat gold, the saree itself being worth a lot). Performing from a very young age, she has honed her Carnatic music (South Indian Classical) skills to give performances that are second to none, with her incredible vocal range, reaching many octaves, her voice buoyant and her inherent ability to coerce notes into melting within each other, to capture the essence of the scale (Raga).

Her family history is made up of 2 doyens of Classical music; she is the maternal Granddaughter of Mridangam (South Indian drum with two sides, made of wood and the fingers are used to bring out the bass and treble rhythm tones and dexterity of playing) Maestro, Palghat Mani Iyer and even more famously, the paternal Granddaughter of the legendary Carnatic vocal exponent, stalwart of music, Damal Krishnaswamy Pattammal (DK Pattamal), who was one of those who broke barriers about Brahmin (high caste) women singing in public and also the lady who sang a patriotic song at midnight on India's independence day – Nithya has followed this family tradition and keeps her family's heritage intact to the core. To top all this off, her granduncle, DK Jeyaraman is another distinguished musician whose music can even be downloaded at popular website, Having been endowed with all many awards and accolades, like being an A Grade artiste of All India Radio, awards like Kalaimamani and Isai Peroli – given only to the best of the best; one would think that Nithya would have some head-weight, but in actual fact, she is one of the most humble people one could meet, possessing the gift of diplomacy, the grace of carrying herself with utmost decorum and being one of the most gifted 'stars' one would have the pleasure of meeting.

Being surrounded by musicians and music lovers alike, this eminent, singer has captured the hearts of many listeners not only in her specialist area of Carnatic classical music but also in Kollywood (the equivalent of Hollywood in the heart of South India – Tamil Nadu to be precise, where the cinema city is known as Kodambakkam, hence, Kollywood). This is where the 1998 AR Rahman connection came in -being encouraged by the fact that her Grandmother DKP was one of the few women who had sung in Tamil films back in the day, and with encouragement from her husband, Nithya was called up to Panchathan Recording Inn, in Chennai, for a voice test by ARR. Little did she know that the song of 1998 would be the output of this visit. The song, 'Kannodu Kanbadhellam', from the film Jeans, featuring Aiswariya Rai, produced by Ashok Amitraj of US was not only a huge hit, but also brought back the trend of using Classical music (it was in the raga Abheri, like the old classic, Singaravelane) and it's inherent scales in film music – Nithya was suddenly in demand for playback singing for films and drama serials. With this, she has reached nearly 150 songs that are outside her massive repertoire of Carnatic songs - this is no mean feat, considering the depth of the Carnatic music that she has learnt and that she performs. Her latest song sensation is from the hit movie "Chandramuki", with the South Indian Superstar, actor, Rajani Kanth. The song, loosely based on the Raga (Scale) Soorya/Sallabam is in Tamil (like the Ilayaraja song, "Isaiarasi" from "Thaaye Moogambigai"), but for the Telugu version of the movie, "Vaarai naan unnai thedi" - the song has a feel of the old MS Subbalakshmi Classic "Kaatrinile varum geedham", a haunting number which suits her classically trained voice to perfection.

From a concert perspective, Nithya's shows are always full, especially when she sets foot in London, where she is usually busy doing interviews for TV shows and enthralling audiences with her mesmerising singing. Her music troupe usually consists of her father, I.Sivakumar, who accompanies her on the Mridangam, and this year, for the first time, UK based artistes, east/west expert, Dr Jyotsna Srikanth on the violin and nimble fingered RN Pratap on the Ghatam (clay pot) accompanied
her. Winston Churchill Hall in Ruslip is the preferred venue and as usual, Carnatic music lover, young and old came for the show. Mr Devendran, of the Tamil Orphan's Trust has been organising such shows for many years, where only classical music is showcased and all the money is donated to charity. Nithya's shows are highly anticipated and this time was no exception - it was her 5th time in London, amidst the terror and bombings, she decided to keep her commitment to the orphans and come down with her entire family – this in itself shows her selfless commitment to the art. Starting the show with Lalgudi Jeyaram's Varnam in Charukesi, her lilting voice captured the Aalap and the intricacies of the composition with total dexterity. She carries on with the invocation to the Lord Ganesha, Papanasam Sivan's (one of her grandmother's gurus) composition, 'Sri Vatapi', in the Raga Sahana, with the instrumentation following in perfection. In all the concerts I have attended, the only singer who gives me that insight into the divine is Nithyasree, whose inimitable style gives transports me into a different world - it was evident that I wasn't the only one in the audience who felt this. An Aalap in Malayamarutham Raga followed, brisk and accurate, with Jyotsna also illustrating the Raga beautifully, Ms Managlam Ganapathy's composition 'Malayamarutham veesidum' was sung. A detailed Shanmukapriya Raga exposition came with the sweet flow of the violin and Nithya sang the Papanasam Sivan composition 'Aandavane', which incidentally was one of the songs from her early concerts 'Spirit of Youth'. With I.Sivakumar at full force, she transcended into a brilliant Kafi Raga Thyagaraja composition, 'Nee valla' and then came the piece de resistance, the viruttham in Raga Soorya (aka Sallabam), followed by her Mother's composition, 'Karya kara swaroopane'. She then sang 'Thiruvadi Charanam' in Kamboji, by Gopalakrishna Bharati. The Raagamalika by Veeramani Iyer, 'Saraswathi veenai' followed, with Ragas Saraswathi, Durga, Hamsanandhi, Sankarabarnam and Surati. The concert continued in such fashion with many Tamil compositions, thrilling the audience and ending in the Maharajapuram Thillana in Basanth Bahar and the climax, the Mangalam (closing song) in traditional Sowrashtram Raga.

From a personal perspective, I had met Nithya first in 1998, when she had reached the first mainstream milestone in her profession, singing for music whiz, AR Rahman, the same year when she did her 1st charity show in London, for the "Tamil Orphans Trust" and having followed her career and even visiting her in her own home in Chennai (Madras), India, having been treated to the best coffee I have ever tasted and spending time with her illustrious family, I must say that hers is a talent worth keeping abreast of. Later on, I had the pleasure of the company of her mother and guru (teacher), Mrs Lalitha Sivakumar, and her father, the renowned Mridangist, I.Sivakumar – both totally oblivious of their parentage and showing that humility is the key to understated success. To add to this, she has a musical sister, Mrs Gayathri Sundaraman, also a vocalist, who performed at the Bharathya Vidhya Bhavan in London in 2004, and her niece, Lavanya, a finalist in the illustrious Balashree competition, who also gave a stunning performance in London, at the tender age of 12. Theirs' a truly musical family, with her husband being a true 'Rasika', meaning fan of her music (one of her truly cherished memories is of the first time her listened to her in concert, back in May 1996), he is often seen immersed totally in her singing, while her concerts take place and her sister-in-law Jayashree also a trained singer living in the US. DKP, Nithya's grandmother, a sweet and unassuming lady, in her infinite greatness still teaches music to students who flock from around the world and she is still there to support Nithya in her musical endeavours. We wish this family all the very best and hope that their encouragement keeps Carnatic music going for years to come and that Nithya's baby Tejashree will carry on with this long standing tradition of music. With her music available via portals on the weblike it is very easy to keep tabs on this Classical genre of music.

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