Playing the mridangam is still mostly a male occupation, however Thirukokarnam T S Ranganayaki Ammal rose to prominence as an acclaimed mridangam artiste as early as the 1940s. Ranganayaki Ammal is regarded as the first woman to achieve success in the male-dominated world of percussion. At a time when women were not allowed to do anything that men did, this young girl dared to try her hand at playing the mridangam. The story begins in 1927, when a 17-year-old girl from Kerala named Ranganayaki Ammal participated in the All India Music Conference in Madras, which became legendary. She was the only female performer among the 23 mridangam artists who took part in the event.
Ranganayaki was the second of seven siblings, born on May 28, 1910. Thirukokarnam Sivaraman, her father, was a well-known natuvanar who was also recognised for his avadhana pallavis, the art of playing distinct talas with both hands, legs, and the head. Ranganayaki was inspired by his laya prowess, took up the mridangam and studied under the great Pudukottai Dakshinamurthi Pillai while continuing her Bharatanatyam studies.
She shared the stage with famous performers from the 1940s. When a prominent singer like DK Pattamal performed, Ranganayaki Ammal played the mridangam for her in 1936. Several reviews appeared in magazines reporting on Ranganayaki’s talent.
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.
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.
“It’s difficult to think Ranganayaki Ammal has managed to add so much glitter to its tonal quality (Naadham) in just two years.”, said a review. Another critic proclaimed her the highlight of the show, praising her approach with Kriti as well as her stunning performance during Taani Avataram.
Her popularity grew so much that she got offers to perform outside her country. In 1960, she enthralled the audience with her performance in Singapore.
In 1966, she joined Padmavati College in Tirupati as a faculty member. 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.
In 1971-72, M Karunanidhi, Tamil Nadu’s then-chief minister, awarded the Kalaimamani, a renowned State award, on her.
The coveted “T.S. Ranganayaki Ammal prize,” named after her, is given to mridangam musicians.
“She could read complex rhythm calculations with ease. She was more interested in teaching than acting. Apart from Mridangam, she also taught Bharatanatyam. She organised arangetram for her students, including Caroline, a foreign student”, recalls Usha Vijayakumar, her Bharatnatyam student.
On August 15, 1998, Ranganayaki Ammal died.
According to mridangam performer Charu Hariharan, the current gender divide makes it difficult for a female musician to thrive in this suffocating environment. Hariharan feels that women must carve out their own space in an unjust and competitive art environment. Yet, hats off to Ranganayaki Ammal, who was seventeen at the time and was the first woman to build a name for herself in the primarily male arena of Carnatic percussion.
(The writer is a Hindustani classical singer and instrumentalist)