Born into a family of singers, this supreme classical Indian carnatic vocalist was eventually known as MLV, an acronym standing for melody, laya, and vidwat, three essential components of her, and hopefully anyone else's, music. (Loosely translated, that's melody, rhythmic variation, and depth of feeling.) She was one of a select triad of female vocalists who pushed the envelope in a male-dominated culture, not only earning the right to perform on concert stages instead of only at private parties, but also being allowed to develop and demonstrate the ability to perform extended serious pieces from a variety of classical disciplines. Her associate female liberators were the vocalists D.K. Pattammal and M.S. Subbulakshmi. Vasanthakumari's mother was the concert performer Lalithangi.
As a child, the little MLV was already used as a support singer and also picked up training later on from the vocalist G.N. Balsubramaniam. He was her first large influence, and the early stages of her music are marked by the same kind of rapid-fire phrasing and tricky rhythmic patterns that he was known for. Later in her career, she made a stylistic change which was focused around a slowing-down of her vocal attack.
In the world of the Indian raga, she was known as a highly adept manipulator of scales and inventor of variations. Accompanying musicians had to really be on their toes in order to follow her as she would often introduce completely new sets of variations from night to night. No matter how often a musician had performed with her, there was always the very real possibility of a total surprise waiting in the midst of even the most familiar composition. She took on lesser-known pieces and complicated styles and mastered them, earning the respect of fellow musicians as well as the always-fussy Indian classical music critical establishment. Concert-goers embarked on an adventure when they purchased a ticket to one of her events. She was known for introducing completely unexpected new material or spontaneously adding brand-new twists to the program. Her repertoire encompassed not only the traditional music passed on from her mother, but the songs and compositions of modern composers as well. She made the move into film music and was in demand on soundtracks. She was awarded with many titles and honors from music organizations all over the world. Among these were a doctorate degree, the cherished Padma Bhusan from the government of India, the title of Sangita Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy, and many, many more. Somehow she also found the time to take on more than her share of students, the names of whom comprise a list of some of the most talented musicians on the Indian classical scene: Trichur Ramachandran, Charumathi Ramachandran, Sudha Ragunathan, Vanaja Narayanan, Meena Subramaniam, and Jayanthi Mohan. Fans of Indian percussionists can also count her as an ally, as her use of these players in concerts often gave them boosts in their professional careers. Her drumming collaborators include Mannargudi Easwaren, Srimushnam Raja Rao, Karaikudi Krishnamurthy, and G. Harishankar. The violinist A. Kanyakumari was one of her most loyal musical partners, accompanying her in concerts for more than two decades. Her recordings include Carnatic Vocal on EMI and the aptly titled Legend on Koel. ~ Eugene Chadbourne