Written by 1:28 PM Music

Ranganayaki Ammal – the woman who broke the gender barrier to become a percussionist par excellence!

How a woman fought her way through misogyny, cultural barriers, and other stigmas and rose to be a …
Photo courtesy: Pon Dhanasekharan. Ranganayaki Ammal on the left

Playing the mridangam remains largely a male vocation, but Thirukokarnam T S Ranganayaki Ammal gained fame as an acclaimed mridangam artiste even as early as the 1940s. 

Some facts

  • Thirukokarnam Ranganayaki Ammal was the second of seven children, born on May 28, 1910. 
  • Her father, Thirukokarnam Sivaraman, was a well-known nattuvangam and Avadhana Pallavi performer. (Click on the link to learn what Avadhana Pallavi is)
  • When Ranganayaki wanted to learn how to play the mridangam, he sought out the legendary Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai. 
  • Her Bharatanatyam training was also extensive. 
  • She shared the stage with famous performers from the 1940s 
  • She began her teaching career in 1966 at India’s Padmavati College and taught at Madurai’s Sadguru Sangita Samajam.
  • Ranganayaki Ammal’s brother, Ulaganathan Pillai, was a violinist
  • Pioneering physician and social worker Dr. Muthu Lakshmi Reddy was a close relative
  • Her elder sister Siva Brinda Devi became the first-ever female Adheenam – head of a Saivite mutt

Even as the controversy over the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple is raging, it may be worth recalling that some 35 years ago, a woman became an Adheenam – the head of a Saivite mutt – in Tamil Nadu. No eyebrows were raised, and no questions were asked. 

In 1926, at 17, she accompanied Lakshmana Pillai at the music conference conducted as part of the All-India Congress session in Madras, now Chennai. She played for the Ustad Abdul Karim Khan concert that followed Lakshmana Pillai’s performance.

When M S Subbalakshmi performed on the stage, replacing her mother Madurai Shanmugavadivu at the Mysore palace for the first time, Ranganayaki accompanied her on the mridangam. Ranganayaki has played with stalwarts, including Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, T R Mahalingam, Mysore Chowdiah, and Veena Dhanammal.

It is well known that many senior and accomplished mridangam players refuse to play for women artists.  Although the reasons are not precisely expressed, some women artists guess it is because the mridangam has to be tuned to a higher pitch to align to the higher scale of the female singer. So, to align the mridangam to the higher pitch, the skin of the mridangam must be tightened, causing a lesser ‘give,’ which, in turn, makes it harder to play.   There is also a very misogynistic rumor that women generally had a poor sense of rhythm.  It is said that Palghat Mani Iyer, the legendary mridangam player, was averse to accompanying women musicians, but he made an exception for D. K. Pattamal, a famous singer. 

Here was Ranganayaki Ammal, a virtuoso, disproving this awful misogynic generalization. Weaving complex rhythm patterns during the Tani avartanams (solo performance during a concert) and highly complex jathis (beat patterns) and theermanams (usually an ending pattern played three times over), she used to leave her audience spellbound.

Guru Ranganayaki Ammal,  at an early age, performed in concerts across India, Singapore, and Malaysia. 

Ranganayaki Ammal began her teaching career in 1966 at Sri Padmavathy College in Tirupati. She worked as a part-time mridangam teacher at Sri Sadhguru Sangita Sabha in Madurai after a seven-year stint there. She participated in the artist selection process while working in Trichy for All India Radio.

She accompanied many leading artists during her time, including Veena Dhanammal, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, the Brinda-Mukta duo, and the genius Flute Mali (Mahalingam).  Accompanying a mercurial genius like Mali was no walk in the park.  He was a temperamental genius whom nobody could predict what he would do next in a concert.

M Karunanidhi, the then-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, bestowed the Kalaimamani, a prestigious State award, on her in 1971-72.

“T.S. Ranganayaki Ammal award,” named after her, is a prestigious honor given to mridangam artists. 

Ranganayaki Ammal also taught Bharatanatyam to many of her students, including Soudamini Rao.  Guru Soudamini Rao, now 88, remembers her guru Ranganayaki Ammal fondly. 

Ranganayaki Ammal was highly attached to her mridangam and rarely let anyone else come close to it. Usha Vijayakumar, an exponent of Gottuvadyam and a Bharatanatyam student at Padmavati College, recalls how Ranganayaki Ammal, despite her diminutive stature, commanded the stage. She could effortlessly recite elaborate laya calculations. She preferred an academic career to be a performer. She instructed students in not only mridangam but also Bharatanatyam. Some of her students, like Caroline, came from other countries to participate in the arangetram she orchestrated.

Ranganayaki Ammal passed away on August 15, 1998.

According to mridangam artist Charu Hariharan, the current gender gap makes it difficult for a female musician to thrive in this stifling environment. Hariharan believes women must carve a place for themselves in an unfair and competitive art world. It may be mentioned here that Thirukokarnam Ranganayaki Ammal, seventeen years old at the time, was the first woman to make a name for herself in the predominantly male domain of Carnatic Percussion.

All glories to her!

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