Timeless melodies of a living legend Gowri Kuppuswamy
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Timeless melodies of a living legend Gowri Kuppuswamy

March 8, 2023

By B. Sreekantswamy

Sa Re Ga Ma… Pa Da Ni Sa… the pitch of reverberating musical notes rendered in chorus that make for the common impression of any music teacher’s house has fallen silent. But, mention music, the talk that follows, lasts for over two hours, albeit with short breaks and the help of interpreters. For a musician, what inspires the most is connoisseurs who swoon over ‘raga’ and ‘tala’ in sync with the performance of a vocalist. No matter whether the audience is a mix of amateur or accomplished music buffs, what allows the music to flow, is the common rhythm of the cognoscenti.

Till two years ago, when Covid-19 pandemic altered the life of people to a larger extent, Dr. Gowri Kuppuswamy, a renowned vocalist, taught students interested in Karnatak Classical music at her flat in Jayalakshmipuram in city. Though age took a toll on her health, what kept her going was her passion for initiating the uninitiated into the field of music.

When Star of Mysore Correspondent visited her flat on a cozy evening, the 92-year-old Gowri Kuppuswamy greeted with a smile on her face, firmly seated on a cane chair. It was her penchant for music again that had prompted Gowri Kuppuswamy to share her views at this rickety age, with music topping the chart of questions that followed later. 

For Mysureans, especially those having a taste for music, Gowri Kuppuswamy is a known name, who for over five decades was a vocalist in demand, performing at three concerts in a day. Be it any occasion — cultural event or marriage, Ganesha festival or any auspicious occasion, Gowri Kuppuswamy was the first choice. Such was the power of her soothing voice that transcended music lovers into a different world. It was a mix of classical music and Bhavageethe with only Rashtrakavi Kuvempu’s poetries finding life in her melodious voice, the few lines of which she also sang.

For record, Gowri Kuppuswamy was born on Aug. 3, 1931 to R. Natesan and Balakujam couple in Pudukkottai district in Tamil Nadu. Having an inclination towards music as a child, it was her upbringing at her maternal grandparents home in Pudukkottai that naturally ingrained music in her.

Gowri Kuppuswamy was 15 when she got married to Kuppuswamy on June 3, 1946 at Pudukkottai. Kuppuswamy was working as a scientist in Bengaluru, before he got a job in the newly founded Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), Mysuru, in 1950.

It seems to be divine intervention, as Mysuru, which had produced doyens of music, percussionists and composers like Mysore Vasudevacharya, Mysore Varadacharya, Veene Seshanna, Piteel Chowdiah a violinist of repute (grandfather of  late actor M.H. Ambarish) to name a few, got a new addition in Gowri Kuppuswamy, who goes on to set a new precedent in the field of music.

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As said, owing to age and diminishing energy, Gowri Kuppuswamy cannot speak at one go, with her son and daughter-in-law adding on her behalf, recollecting whatever they have heard from her, to the perfection.

Gowri Kuppuswamy with her son Dr. M. Hariharan and daughter-in-law V.S. Rama Hariharan at their flat in Jayalakshmipuram.

Gowri Kuppuswamy reminisces how Piteel Chowdiah, who heard her singing, coaxed her to perform at Bidaram Krishnappa Sri Rama Mandira, Shivarampet in the city. A known name already, Chowdiah was smitten by the mellifluous voice of Gowri Kuppuswamy. He encouraged her further and since then there was no looking back for Gowri Kuppuswamy.

Wadiyars, the royal family of Mysore, during whose rule, stalwarts in music were produced under their patronage, were also quick to notice the talent of Gowri Kuppuswamy.

As she recalls, “I have sung at the marriage of Gayatri (referring to late Gayatri Devi, the eldest daughter of Jayachamaraja Wadiyar). I have presented concerts in most of the ceremonies of royal family including their marriages.” Her tryst with music got a deeper connotation, when she joined University College of Fine Arts, Manasagangothri, as a lecturer in Vocal Music since its inception in 1967.

How it happened is another interesting story, as Gowri Kuppuswamy vividly remembers. “I was summoned by the then Vice-Chancellor of Mysore University Prof. D. Javaregowda (Dejagow), who was keen on having me as a faculty. From PUC to MA in Music, I taught many students, till I retired in 1992, after 25 years of service.”

After having read till here, many may be wondering, why does the suffix ‘Kuppuswamy’ follow in each and every mention of Gowri and the answer is worth it. Kuppuswamy was not just a spouse,  but also a great pillar of support to his wife.

“From preparing the notes for the concert including the timings and arranging transport, with required wherewithal, all was handled amicably by Kuppuswamy. The attention to details by Kuppuswamy was often evident, when he used to remind his wife of stretching of the timing of a rendition by bit,” recalls her son Dr. M. Hariharan (who retired as Special Officer, Government of Pondicherry), who spoke the words of his mother, along with his wife V.S. Rama, a former student of Gowri Kuppuswamy.

Kuppuswamy passed away at the age of 87 on Oct. 1, 2010. Since then, Gowri Kuppuswamy has been living with her son in Pondicherry, but often travels down to Mysuru to stay for a few months here, as she feels indebted to the city for giving her everything.

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Learnt Kannada

Gowri Kuppuswamy, a Tamilian by birth, deserves a standing ovation, for how she picked up the smatterings of Kannada and perfected in the language of the land, which she made it her home after her native Tamil Nadu. It is evident with the musical notations — written in Kannada, still preserved by Rama, who was her student in early 80s.

“I was learning music under the tutelage of Amma (Gowri Kuppuswamy), when she sought my hand for her son,” chuckles Rama, who has etched in her memory every details of Amma.

Music Masters

Gowri Kuppuswamy still recalls names of ‘Kalaimamani’ Kolkata K.S. Krishnamurthy, ‘Kalaimamani’ late S. Kalyanaraman,  ‘Sangeetha Kalanidhi’ Padma Bhushan late M.L. Vasanthakumari and ‘Sangeetha Kalanidhi’ Padma Bhushan R.K. Srikantan from whom she learnt music and fine tuned her prowess in vocal in different stages of life.

Concerts

The concerts include Ganapathi festival at 101 Ganapathi temple, Agrahara, Mysuru, where she performed for 25 years, Chowdiah Smaraka Ramotsava Samiti, Mysuru, Nada Brahma Sangeetha Sabha, Mysuru, Gayana Samaja, Bengaluru, Malleshwaram Sangeetha Sabha, Bengaluru, Ragalaya, Bengaluru, Hubli Sangeetha Sabha, Hubballi, Music Academy, Madras, Annamacharya Sangeetha Samiti, Tirupati, Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Calicut, Cochin Sangeetha Sabha, Ernakulam, to name a few.

For over 50 years, Gowri Kuppuswamy enthralled music buffs on radio as she regularly performed from Mysuru, Dharwad, Madras and Pondicherry Stations of All India Radio (AIR) besides performing on TV from Tashkent (USSR), Singapore and Trivandrum.

Gowri Kuppuswamy was awarded Ph.D degree for her thesis ‘A Comparative Study of the Scales of Karnatak and Western Music’ by Arizona University, USA, way back in 1982 and was conferred Hon. Doctorate by Karnataka State Dr. Gangubai Hangal University for Music and Performing Arts, Mysuru, on March 7, 2017.

Gowri Kuppuswamy was recently chosen for the one-time Sangeet Natak Akademi Amrit Award-2022 (Karnatak Music) which she is yet to receive from the President of India.

Author of Books

She has jointly authored 45 books with Dr. M. Hariharan including The Ragas of Tanjore, Tillana (in Tamil), Purandaradasar  Sahityangal (Tamil), Purandaradasara Kritigalu (Kannada), Music of Indian Art and Archaeology (English) to name a few. While three more books are ready to go to print.

Dancer-Daughter-Doctor

Gowri Kuppuswamy’s daughter Dr. Radhika Prabhakar, who is Pathologist in Singapore, was a Bharatanatyam dancer, who had performed for a charity show of Ganabharathi in Kuvempunagar. Radhika’s husband Dr. K.S. Prabhakar is a Nephrologist at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

9 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Timeless melodies of a living legend Gowri Kuppuswamy”

  1. Jalandhara says:

    The story about Gowri Kuppuswamy is too much embellished.
    She was a good musician, but was not a great musician.
    I had heard the concerts of Gowri Kuppuswamy in places like Rajaram Agrahara Ramanavamy celebrations etc.., Inspite of what the article says I had not heard her perform at the Bidaram Krishnappa Mandira until 1967, when Chowdaiah passed away.
    Neither she performed at the Ramanavami celebrations at the Seshadripuram High school premises hosted by the businessman Gopala Iyengar, which was test for any front ranked musician at that time.
    She was massively eclipsed at that time by ML Vasanthakumari, MS Subuulakshmi, Radha Jayalakshmi, Sikkil Sisters and Bombay Sisters.
    She had not performed at Madras Music Academy, evening concerts, the place where really distinguished musicians performed.
    In her time as a musician-she and her husband used to boast about her being the disciple of GN Balasubramaniam ( GNB), which she was not, but was the disciple of one GNB disciples.; the direct disciples of GNB, M L Vasanthakumari and Radha Jayalaskmi were in great demand in Mysore , as well as the brilliant Sikkil Sisters. All the three were awarded Sangitha Kalanidhi title. Gowri Kuppuswamy was not awarded.
    Sangeetha Kalanidhi award is the Noble Prize for Carnatic musicians, which was awarded to Violin Chowdsaiah, Veene Doreswamy Iyengar and RK Srikantan. Ofcourse Mysore Vasudevachar was its recipient in 1930s.
    Gowri Kuppuswamy was appointed as a lecturer in the UOM’s Music College, in where, she gradually progressed over the years.
    I am not sure about her performance at the Gayathri Devi ‘s marriage, as Jayachamaraja Wadiyar was a very devoted listener of MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasantha Kumari and Alathur brothers. I cannot believe that he did not invite MS Subbulakshmi to sing at his daughter’s marriage.
    If you have met Ms Subbulakshmi or DK Pattammal, or ML Vasanthakumari or Radha Jayalakshmi, you would not hear them saying about themselves-they were too modest, and will let the Carnatic Music World to speak for them-the acid test for really great musicians.

  2. Jalandhara says:

    The story about Gowri Kuppuswamy is too much embellished.
    She was a good musician, but was not a great musician.
    I had heard the concerts of Gowri Kuppuswamy in places like Rajaram Agrahara Ramanavamy celebrations etc.., Inspite of what the article says I had not heard her perform at the Bidaram Krishnappa Mandira until 1967, when Chowdaiah passed away.
    Neither she performed at the Ramanavami celebrations at the Seshadripuram High school premises hosted by the businessman Gopala Iyengar, which was test for any front ranked musician at that time.
    She was massively eclipsed at that time by ML Vasanthakumari, MS Subuulakshmi, Radha Jayalakshmi, Sikkil Sisters and Bombay Sisters.
    She had not performed at Madras Music Academy, evening concerts, the place where really distinguished musicians performed.
    In her time as a musician-she and her husband used to boast about her being the disciple of GN Balasubramaniam ( GNB), which she was not, but was the disciple of one GNB disciples.; the direct disciples of GNB, M L Vasanthakumari and Radha Jayalaskmi were in great demand in Mysore , as well as the brilliant Sikkil Sisters. All the three were awarded Sangitha Kalanidhi title. Gowri Kuppuswamy was not awarded.
    Sangeetha Kalanidhi award is the Noble Prize for Carnatic musicians, which was awarded to Violin Chowdsaiah, Veene Doreswamy Iyengar and RK Srikantan. Ofcourse Mysore Vasudevachar was its recipient in 1930s.
    Gowri Kuppuswamy was appointed as a lecturer in the UOM’s Music College, in where, she gradually progressed over the years.
    I am not sure about her performance at the Gayathri Devi ‘s marriage, as Jayachamaraja Wadiyar was a very devoted listener of MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasantha Kumari and Alathur brothers. I cannot believe that he did not invite MS Subbulakshmi to sing at his daughter’s marriage.
    If you have met Ms Subbulakshmi or DK Pattammal, or ML Vasanthakumari or Radha Jayalakshmi, you would not hear them saying about themselves-they were too modest, and will let the Carnatic Music World to speak for them-the acid test for really great musicians.

  3. Jalandhara says:

    A detail: The Seshadripuram High School as the name suggests is in Bangalore with a large frontal lawn, where a special pandal was erected in those days, and literally most of the Carnatic music lovers in Bangalore would come and listen. A free feast for them.

  4. Jalandhara says:

    Correction: It was Soolamangalam Sisters: Jayalakshmi and Rajalakshmi, who were very gifted vocal musicians, who were in great demand in Mysore at that time. Their rendering of “sevantige chendinanta muddu koli’ in the then popular Kannada film: ‘Chinnada Gombe’ repeated at the ending of their Carnatic music concert every time , was so popular.
    Sikkil sisters , Kunjmani and Neela, were flutists.

  5. Srini srinivasan says:

    Well embellished. She was a very frequent visitor to Prof Mysore V Ramarathnam’s house since she moved to Mysore. Her tenure or University of Mysore was under the leadership of Prof. Ramathnam who was the first principal of the college of music and dance in Mysore. Before that he served as the vice-principal of Ayanar college of music in famed Bidaram Krishnappa’s Shri Seetha Rama Mndira Inder violin maestro T. chowdiah. Yet, no mention of professor Ramarathnam in this article which goes to show professional integrity of the artist as well as the news reporters who publish things without any sort of credibile journalistic review.
    Last but not least Vidushi Gowri Kulpuswamy is a fine musician, teacher and a scholar and to say that she is anything less than that because she did not get the so called self proclaimed Kalanidhi from Chennai is absolute bullshit. There are many great scholars and artists that music academy has ignored. If you don’t have a god father or a lobbying sponsor madras music academy is not going to care for your.

  6. Nandini says:

    Hello @Srinivasan
    I wonder whether you know Carnatic Music at all, and have listened to maestros like ML Vasantha Kumari and Radaha Jayalashmi, let alone MS Subulakshmi.
    I also wonder whether you have understood the term ’embellished’. it was used here meaning decorative, which in simply means: exaggeration.
    She was a good musician which the above poster @Jaladhara agreed, but as he said , she was not a great musician, which I agree.
    Can you name a list of great musicians who missed the title: Sangeetha Kalannidhi? You seem to be totally ignorant of how this Sangeetha Kalanidhi award is given. I suggest you read this:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangeetha_Kalanidhi. This award has been given over the years by the Madras Music Academy, in recognition of excellence. Violin Maestro Chowdaaiah was given the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award, it is hence insulting to say iit was ‘self-proclaimed award’
    Just read the list that appears in the above link; hence, do not post nonsense, challenging anything, without doing research.
    I see this kind of half-baked poorly researched posts most of the time in the SOM.
    Yes, There was Principal Ramaratnam. So what? He himself was recommended to the position by Sangeetha Kalanidhi Chowdaiah ( it was not self-proclaimed award to him as you have said)), whose student was Ramaratnam, although there were several other better candidates available. Ramaratnam himself tried to get Sangeetha Kalanidhi award by inviting Carnatic music great like Semmangudu Srinivas Iyer to the Music College at Manasagangothri for talk, as Semmangudi was in the awards committee of Madras Music Academy which gaveout the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award to great musicians of the time.
    We were then only a small crowd of Tamilians who migrated to Mysore, in my parents’ time in 1940s, and as such knew Gowri Kuppuswamy family well. Her biography changes every time she talks to people. When our families met in mid-1950s, I was young at that time, in middle school, , her story was , her parents lived in Chennai, she learned her music under the great GNB. In this article, it is aid she lived in Pudukottai and was married to Kuppuswamy in 1946, and they moved to Mysore, when Kuppuswamy got a job at the CFTRI, Then , when did she learn music from GNB?
    In her time in Mysore, there were not many female Carnatic vocal musicians , hence, she was able to make a name for herself as a good musician. But again , I emphasise, she was not a great musician of the calibre of those mentioned above and by @Jalandhara.
    I would take Gowri Kuppuswamy’s narrative about herself with a large spoonful of salt, as it changes every time!
    Finally, Comments like:” bull shit” says more about you and the quality of your upbringing.

  7. Nandini says:

    Just to add to the above: The late violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman declined the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award, criticising Madras Music Academy for not recognising solo Violin concerts as worthy of the prestigious evening slots at its meet in December every year since 1930s. Later the Music Academy made amends and invited him for a solo violin concert.
    Lalgudi Jayaraman’s son and daughter got the awards recently in their own rights as great violinists.
    I have to regret the poor quality of rebuttals that appear in the SOM. like the ones I responded to.

  8. In cricket batting legends say”My batting will express what words can’t say”. Simply listen to her Classical Karnataka Sangitam to know her. Vidushi’s quality of music is primary consideration. Rest, secondary.

  9. Tara says:

    @Madhava
    The two posters who commented responding to the exaggeration of this musician being a legend and giving superlative accolades, know what they were saying , after listening to the true legends in Carnatic Music. The examples of these legends were given.
    Your analogy of cricket , the boring colonial sport, which India is addicted to, while the world has taken to football ( soccer) says all about you.
    There is a tendency these days in India, calling any average person a living legend.

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