This great Indian classical singer will always be remembered for shattering the conventional male dominance in this genre. In an era when audiences tended to lampoon the idea of female performers, D.K. Pattammal was part of the so-called holy trinity, or female trinity, of carnatic music which also included colleagues Bharat Ratna and M.L. Vasanthakumari. She was not born into a family of musicians, already an unusual development among Indian classical performers. Nonetheless, she was considered an extremely gifted child and was able to pick up and repeat prayers her father recited after hearing them only once. She was almost immediately entered into formal classical music instruction and before reaching her teen years, was presented in front of a board of government music examiners which included the virtuoso vocalist Ambi Dikshitar. Undaunted, the young girl let loose with a vocal performance that led to Dikshitar's immediate offer to become her instructor.
She presented her debut public performance at the age of 14, and ten years later, was established on the Madras concert circuit. The Columbia Gramophone Company talent scouts offered her recording opportunities when she was still young enough to be considered a prodigy, an offer her father at first balked at because he was afraid a woman so active in professional life would never find a husband. One of her biggest fans and backers was a local politician and schoolmaster and offered his nephew as a husband so that the father would change his mind about the proposed recording sessions. This marraige was a great success on several levels, as her husband became her manager, both of them finally deciding to get off the road in the late '90s.
She continued her studies, venturing into many realms of Indian classical vocal tradition. But increasingly her energy was taken up with the fight to expand the role of women in the music she loved. First she managed to get onto the concert recital stages, previously a boy's club with women allowed to perform only at private soirées. Then she went right onto taking on the genre of pallavi singing, which until then had only been undertaken by male singers, the female singers expected to perform only in lighter genres such as padams or javallis. The title of "Pallavi Pattammal" was given to her out of respect from senior performers when she took on this challenge and vanquished the cynical. Another expectation-shattering event was when mridangam master Mani Ivey accompanied her at a live concert, the first time he had performed with a woman. The double-cassette set released from these concerts is considered one of her finest documents.
Critics seem undivided in the lavish praise heaped upon her, and she is considered a master of all elements of vocal performance, including control of pitch, rhythm variations (an all-important element of Indian classical singing), and the visual drama of performance as well. She was often known to drape herself in the Kanchipuram silk of her native region, would wear diamond nose rings and earrings, and was said to sometimes look like "the archetypal Madrasi matron." But unlike such social characters, Pattammal was busy collecting honors and awards for her music, not dinner invitations. She has received the Padma Vibhushan award from the Indian government, as well as an honor from the state of Madhya, the Kalidas Samman award.
Following about six decades of performing, she settled more into a role as teacher as the new millennium began unfolding. Her granddaugher, Nityashree, has taken up the legacy of classical singing, and they have appeared together onstage. Her career is supposedly marked by three words that begin with the letter D: dignity, discipline, and depth. "It is enough if I get 100 sincere, discerning listeners," she said. "I will not lower my standards to reach out to 1,000 or more." She continues recording even in her 80s, releasing the album Vocal Raga from South India on the Arion label in 2000.