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One of her own kind
Kanyakumari also happens to be the first female Carnatic musician to create ragas. One example is the Raga Bhaarath - she created the raga and composed a piece for the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence in 1997. The more recent and shining example is a group of seven ragas, dedicated to her 'ishta daivam’ (favourite god) Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati, with each raga named after each of the seven hills at Tirupati.
Kanyakumari’s chaste classicism, boundless musical creativity, immaculate bowing and wondrous 'vocalisation’ of the violin, have established her as an outstanding accompanist and soloist. Critics have often said of Kanyakumari that she has redefined the scope of an accompanist. With her formidable talent and intelligence as a musician, she has proved that an accompanying artiste can be as much of a crowd-puller and significant contributor to a performance as the main artiste himself.
Kanyakumari was born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, in 1951, into a musically inclined family (her mother was a veena player, and her elder sisters were vocalists). Her family moved to Vijayanagaram, also in Andhra Pradesh, where she began learning the violin at age eight from the legendary Ivaturi Vijayeswara Rao. He was a student of Dwaram Narasinga Rao Naidu, of the famous Dwaram school. "I would begin my music practice at 4 am in the morning on my guru’s advice and work hard after school hours too,” she reveals.
She began performing even as a child in small concerts in and around Vijayanagaram. "My teacher was widely admired in South Indian music circles as a treasure-house of music theory, practical knowledge, and an outstanding artiste. I am fortunate to have had such a great guru.”
After high school, she left for Chennai - where she has since remained - to pursue her musical career and also joined Queen Mary’s College for a BA degree. She later came under the tutelage of well-known violinist Sangeeta Kalanidhi M Chandrashekaran. From her teenage years itself, she began accompanying top musicians from Charumathi Ramachandran, Bombay Sisters, D K Pattammal, Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna to the doyen M L Vasanthakumari. "I accompanied MLV and learnt from her for nearly 20 years. MLV was not only a musical genius but a great human being too. She was tremendously encouraging and helpful.”
Kanyakumari loves to recount the incident when MLV preferred to postpone her national concert recording in Delhi when AIR authorities said the accompanist Kanyakumari did not have the requisite AIR grade to be part of the concert. MLV said: "Kanya should be given the opportunity to accompany me or else I will wait till she gets the grade as the recording will be done only with Kanya.” They agreed and the concert happened with Kanyakumari as accompanist.
Kanyakumari’s talent and skill made her a much-sought-after accompanist and she performed alongside maestros like N Ramani, Flute Mali, Yesudas, T V Gopalakrishnan, O S Thiagarajan, Sikkil Sisters, Kalyanaraman, and younger stars like Mandolin Shrinivas, Chitravina Ravikiran, etc.
"I knew only my mother tongue Telugu and some English when I came to Chennai. But I quickly picked up Tamil and it was useful for my interactions with musicians and lecture-demonstrations,” she adds. "Tamil Nadu has this wonderful culture of enouraging and supporting classical music and I will always admire it and be ever-grateful for it.”
Gradually, Kanyakumari’s stature rose even higher and soon she became popular as a solo artiste too. However, she says she had to work hard for it. "Besides the rigorous sadhana, I had to innovate within the boundaries of classicism in order to earn more recognition for the violin and myself.”
She has evolved her own style, now known and respected as the Kanya Baani. "Even though one learns from gurus and fellow musicians, one must also develop and maintain one’s own identity. My baani is my unique identity as a violinist.”
Kanyakumari is admired for her combination of technical perfection and aesthetics, and her gayaki style.
In a significant move, around 20 years ago, she gave up being an accompanist completely and began to give only solo performances. "A solo performance gives more scope for an artiste to express himself,” she says.
Kanyakumari is also a noted teacher. Amazingly, she does not charge any of her students. "However, I choose my students carefully, and only those with potential are admitted to my classes. I don’t charge for my lessons - this is my way of paying back to the music world.”