The Legendary D. K. Pattamal


Born in an orthodox Brahmin family in the district of Kanchipuram in the Madras Presidency (the name of Tamil Nadu in Colonial India), Damal Krishnaswamy Pattamal was an eminent Classical musician and playback singer who sung for film songs in various Indian languages. She was originally named as Alamelu. However, she was fondly called Patta by her dear ones. Damal Krishnaswamy Dikshitar, Pattamal’s father, was fond of music and was deeply interested in it. Her father was her first inspiration to learn Carnatic music. Kanthimathi, also known as Rajammal, mother of Pattamal, was a talented singer herself in spite of not being able to sing even for friends or relatives, as she had to adhere to restrictions laid in line with strict orthodox tradition. Nevertheless, these rules were not laid upon Pattamal for she dedicated herself to music in spite of having being born into an orthodox family. She sang and exhibited an appreciable talent in music at a very young age. It is indeed a surprise how Pattamal at a very young age, could handle such an orthodox and chauvinistic air around her and continued to quench her thirst for the Holy Chalice of Carnatic music.

Pattamal, like other exponential Carnatic musicians received no formal training from the Gurukul. Her journey of learning music was very different and peculiar. She attended many musical concerts as a child. She made sure to sit through the entire concert, and on returning hone, notated the Kritis she had heard along with the key phrases of the Ragas.

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Later, she was guided by her brothers in her musical journey. D. K. Ranganathan, D. K. Nagarajan, and D. K. Jayaraman, the brothers of Pattamal trained and accompanied and helped her to fulfill her dreams in music. Her journey started by practicing simple Carnatic songs her father had taught her. Gradually, she started to sing uncomplicated devotional hymns and Bhajans. After few years later, she started to receive training in music form an unnamed Telugu musician. He was referred to as Telugu Vadyar or Telugu Teacher by Pattamal. Under his tutelage, she slowly started to learn the intricacies in Carnatic music.

When she was about eight years old, Pattamal bagged the first prize in a singing contest. She sang Thyagaraja’s Raksha Bettrae in Bhairavi at a musical contest conducted by C. Subramanya Pillai (also referred to as Naina Pillai popularly). Pillai was one of the deepest admirations of Pattamal. According to her, Naina Pillai would always organize and host the Thyagaraja Utsavams (the annual musical festival dedicated to Thyagaraja) in the district of Kanchipuram every year. He was a veteran singer who mastered the art of singing Ragam Thanam Pallavi.


In the year 1929, when Pattamal was about 10 years old, she sang her first ever radio performance for the Madras Corporation Radio (known as the AIR at present). After a period of three years, she shifted to Chennai in order to be a regular performer in concerts. After settling in Chennai, she got an opportunity to perform at the Mahila Samajam (the Egmore Ladies Club). Her first performance at the Samajam earned her much acclaim and reputation. She was married to R. Iswaran in the year 1939. Later, she rose to stardom in a short span of time and her career as a Carnatic singer spanned for more than 65 years.

D. K. Pattamal’s wisdom in the field of Carnatic music was encyclopedic. She played an influential role in the compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar. She was widely known for her renditions of these musical compositions. She studied the authentic versions of these musical compositions from Ambi Dikshitar (the descendant of Muthuswami Dikshitar), as well as from Justice T. L. Venkatrama Iyer (an authoritative person in Dikshitar’s compositions). Through her musical concerts, she popularized a number of Dikshitar’s musical compositions. She sang the Tiruppugazhs and the Tevarams that she had learnt from Appadurai Achari. She also had the opportunity to study the musical compositions of Papanasam Sivan, from the direct tutelage of the composer himself.

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Pattamal holds the privilege of having been the first woman to have performed the Ragam Thanam Pallavi in the musical concerts. In the beginning, this was considered to be a male stronghold, the most difficult concert item in Carnatic music, as it called for great finesse and high degrees of concentration to handle all the rhythmic intricacies and complexities involved. However, Pattamal went a step further to perform very complex Pallavis in intricate Talas (the rhythmic cycles).


Pattamal, along with her other contemporary singers like M. S. Subbulakshmi and M. L. Vasanthakumari were widely referred to as the Female Trinity of Carnatic Music. This trio of women opened the entry for women to enter into the world of Carnatic music.



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