Madras Lalitangi Vasanthakumari (Tamil: மெட்ராஸ் லலிதாங்கி வசந்தகுமாரி) (popularly referred to as MLV) (July 3, 1928 - October 31, 1990), was a Carnatic musician and playback singer for film songs in many Indian languages. MLV and her contemporaries D. K. Pattammal and M. S. Subbulakshmi were popularly referred to as the "female trinity of Carnatic Music. A prime disciple of the G. N. Balasubramaniam, she was the youngest among the established musicians of that era, and was the youngest female awardee of the Sangita Kalanidhi award. As well as being a much sought-after playback singer for films, MLV popularised unfamiliar ragas and her Ragam Thanam Pallavis were considered cerebral. Additionally, she popularised the compositions of Purandara Dasa (and other Dasas), and was responsible for popularizing his compositions Baarokrishnayya, Innu daya barade, among others. Her most famous disciples include Srividya (her daughter), Sudha Raghunathan, A. Kanyakumari, Charumathi Ramachandran and Meena Subramanian.
MLV was born to a musical family. Her father, Kuthanur Ayya Swamy Iyer, was a noted musician while her mother, Lalithangi, was also a great musician. When Deshbandu Chitharanjan Das (1870–1925) died in 1925, Lalithangi came out with a beautiful song by way of tribute to his national spirit and patriotism. A rare gramophone record (made in England) of her glorious voice rendering this song is said to be in V.Sundaram's private possession. MLV's school education was in Madras, in a convent, where all was set to pursue a medical career until the great Carnatic musician G. N. Balasubramaniam came into her life. He became her guru. In her own words: My parents had rendered yeomen service to Carnatic music. They were mainly instrumental in popularising the compositions of Purandara Dasa in South India. They were not keen that I should enter the music field and gave me general education. But in the musical atmosphere of my house, I had ample opportunity of practicing vocal music. Once G N Balasubramaniam heard me sing and he prevailed upon my parents to place me under his tutelage. It was he who was responsible for the status I occupy in the music world today.
MLV was very privilleged to learn Carnatic music from G. N. Balasubramaniam (GNB). She was also GNB's first disciple. Indira Menon said that GNB was a self-taught artiste, his racy style sparkling with brigas and nuances never heard before, revealed a new range of colours on the musician's palette. The brisk tempo unleashed by his powerful and pliable voice found many admirers and imitators among the younger generations, though it raised many an eyebrow among the senior vidwans. Was his music according to Sampradaya (tradition) or not, was the question that was frequently asked?' To answer, GNB was a genius, so much so that what might have seemed like a deviation from tradition was acceptable from him though it might not have been so from a lesser artiste. His personality, bold innovations and technical virtuosity became an inspiration for an entire generation of musicians. After GNB, speed and briga-laden music became the vogue to the extent that to be true to one's self and to sing according to one's vocal capacity required a great deal of courage. In 1940, her mother Lalithangi gave a resplendent musical recital in Simla. MLV was then only 12 years old and made her debut by accompanying her mother. Two years later, MLV gave a solo recital in Bangalore. She also cut her first 78 rpm disc which many music lovers of that period recall vividly because it created a sensation. From then on she progressed in geometrical progression as a platform artiste and by 1950 she had established herself as a front-ranker. A learned music critic has said that MLV brought the struggle of women in the world of music to a successful culmination. Her music had more male characteristics than that of any other female musician.
MLV imbibed much of GNB's style, but did not make a fetish of speed and struck out on her own and evolved an inimitable style. Endowed with a fluid voice and rich imagination, the initials MLV could be an acronym for her Melody, Laya and Vidwat - the watchwords of her rare musical artistry that were an aural feast to both the lay and the cognoscenti. Her leisurely, explorative and adventurous manner of handling ragas deserves special mention. While MLV was known more for her cerebral style, rather than her emotional style, this was compensated by her rich and original manodharma. Similarly to GNB, she was a genius in her tricky, instantaneous brilliant manodharma. Indira Menon comments MLV did adopt her Guru's idea of a quick impressionistic sketch of the raga covering the two octaves at the start, but settled down to a reposeful elaboration, unfolding it gradually with her virtuosity in the form of BRIGA -CASCADES appearing only where necessary. She was careful not to carry to an excess what her versatile voice was capable of.
MLV's mastery over vocal techniques was comprehensive and complete. She could effortlessly render several difficult ragas, with her alapana and kalpana swaras suitably embellished with shruthi-bheda. Her listeners had the same ecstatic experience when she sang and more particularly when in a lightning manner she shifted gracefully from the melodic world of one raga in one pitch to another raga in another pitch. In this context one has to refer to raga combinations like Shanmukhapriya-Sankarabharanam, Bhairavi-Kamas, Abhogi-Valaji to illustrate this point. In GNB's own words,“Vasanthi typifies real discipleship -- she absorbs all, but presents her own glorious creations.
Lalithangi, MLV's mother had a vast repertoire of Purandaradasa. She passed on this tradition to her daughter MLV. As a result, like T. Brinda who brought Kshetrayya Padams to the public platform and M. S. Subbalakshmi who brought Annamacharya kritis to the public arena, MLV popularised the Devaranamas of Purandaradasa. She popularised the composition 'Kalyana Gopalam', composed by Narayana Teertha, in raga Sindhubhairavi. She also popularised the composition 'Venkatachala Nilayam' by Purandaradasa in the same raga. Hindustani maestro Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was generous in his praise for her music. Sudha Ragunathan mentions, ``MLV Amma has told me that it was Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab who taught her the nuances of Sindhu Bhairavi in the Hindustani style.
MLV's forte was Ragam Tanam Pallavi where she not only maintained the great tradition brought to the stage by D. K. Pattammal, but enriched it in her own unique way. A. Kanyakumari who had accompanied MLV on violin for almost two decades says, "MLV-akka had a sharp mind and good memory and I have never seen her practice a song or a ragam or for that matter a ragam-tanam-pallavi also before a concert." Sudha Ragunathan, a prime disciple of MLV, remarked that "In all my twelve years of learning under her, I had never seen Amma practising at home. But, to my great surprise, she would compose a Pallavi in the car on the way to the concert!. By 1946, MLV was also a playback singer. Her first big hit was in the 1951 film Manamagal, where she sang the song Ellam Inbamayam in Ragamalika, and Subramania Bharathiyar's evergreen composition, Chinnanchiru Kiliyae. In the 1960 film Raja Desingu, MLV also sang another Ragamalika, Parkadal Alaimele, which was well received, and later became popular in Bharatha Natyam recitals. In later years, MLV would also sing these song towards the end of her Carnatic music concerts, and today, many musicians often include them in their repertoire.
MLV was also known for singing Ayya Sami in the 1951 film, Or Iravu. This song was based on the song Gore Gore from the film Samadhi, which was in turn based on the Latin American song Chico Chico from Puerto Rico, from the film Cuban Pete. In the 1952 film Thayullam, MLV sang Konjum Purave which was based on the famous Hindi song, Thandi Havayen. Other songs MLV sang included Adisayam Vanathu Arivumayam, Senthamarai Kannanae, Vanna Tamizh and Adum Arul Jothi in the films Vikramadithan, Vairamalai, Sornakili and respectively. Incidentally, each of these songs contained the raga Kalyani and were also well-received. MLV sang melodiously the Dasavatara song for Bhookailas like Munneeta Pavalinchu Nagasayana, while Kamala Kumari dancing in a classical way.
As one of the top ranking platform artistes, MLV was noted for her charm, grace, warmth, self-restraint and humility. Her self-restraint as an artiste can be understood from her own words: Brigas in fast tempo should adhere to the sruthi and above all, true music must touch the listener's heart. MLV however maintained a philosophy: A concert is a daily test of the calibre of a musician. A slight lapse may let the musician down and a constant vigil is essential. Mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer, in a rare gesture, accompanied her in concerts. MLV helped others including Mannargudi Easwaran, Srimushnam V. Raja Rao, Seerkazhi J. Skandaprasad, Thiruvarur Bakthavathsalam, R. Ramesh, Karaikudi Krishnamurthy, G. Harishankar (kanjira) and more, establishing them by encouraging them and giving them opportunities to accompany her in concerts.
MLV got married to Late Kalaimamani Vikatam R.Krishnamurthy in the year 1951. They had a son, K.Shankarraman and late K.Srividya (notable actress in Indian films). MLV taught her daughter K.Srividya, who at the age of 10 was ready to perform and sang very much like MLV. Srividya however, wanted to pursue a career in the film industry, and went on to become a notable actress in Indian films. MLV trained several other students, and many of them are the front-ranking musicians today. Some of the notable musicians who have studied under MLV include Sudha Ragunathan, A. Kanyakumari, Trichur V. Ramachandran, Yogam Santhanam, Charumathi Ramachandran, Vanaja Narayanan, T. M. Prabhavathi, Meena Subramaniam, Jayanthi Sridharan, Jayanthi Mohan, Rose Muralikrishnan and Bama Visveswaran. She also taught music to children at the Rishi Valley School started by Jiddu Krishnamurti. Saraswathy Srinivasan is the first disciple of MLV till the late 1960s. After marriage also Saraswathy Srinivasan jointly with MLV gave some concerts.
In 1976, MLV was honoured with a doctorate degree from Mysore University for her work with regards to Purandaradasa's contributions to music. MLV also received the third highest civilian honour from the Indian Government, "Padma Bhushan". In 1977, at age 49, MLV became the youngest woman to earn the award and title in Carnatic music, Sangita Kalanidhi. MLV was a front ranking artiste for more than 50 years. She died in 1990 at the age of 63. Beauty and sublimity were the cardinal characteristics of her music.