PALM HARBOR — Her students of Carnatic music, which has been called the classical music of southern India, regard Gomathy Sundaram with a devotion normally reserved for beloved relatives.
Dance performers nationwide yearned for her accompaniment on the violin or the veena, a stringed instrument, and considered themselves lucky if they could get her.
Tributes to her character, her childlike spirit and a seemingly effortless generosity flow as spontaneously as the notes she played throughout her life. All describe Mrs. Sundaram as a first-rate musician, a selfless teacher who charged low rates to generations of students, and a bedrock of Indian culture in the Tampa Bay area.
Mrs. Sundaram, who enhanced orchestras with her skill and understanding of Carnatic music, died Saturday of cancer. She was 78.
Dancers in the Bharatanatyam tradition of southern India, whose solo graduation performances can last more than three hours culminating a decade of training, need at least a violinist, a veena player and a percussionist. In the Tampa Bay area and well beyond, they wanted Mrs. Sundaram to play.
"She was an extremely sought-after violinist by most of the Bharatanatyam dancers in this country," said Sheila Narayanan, who owns Shreyas-An Expression of Dance in Tampa. Mrs. Sundaram played at Narayanan's solo recital in 1979, and another one for her daughter 25 years later.
Qualities that pushed demand for Mrs. Sundaram, Narayanan said, included her musical range, her reliability and encouraging temperament, and her natural ability to play from the heart.
Carnatic music evolved from ancient Hindu tradition. It is a soothing genre that usually includes a vocal element; the instruments often echo the embellishments of a singer.
"It's sort of like jazz in that it's always improvisational," said Nina Durai, 28, Mrs. Sundaram's granddaughter. "You have a scale but you never play it the same way twice."
She followed the same rhythms in everyday life. Relatives smile when recounting the delight Mrs. Sundaram took when a bird landed nearby, or when she spotted a deer in the woods or was just walking the beach.
She welcomed Jehovah's Witnesses into her home and told them that "Krishna is god," her granddaughter said.
Born in Trivandrum, India, Mrs. Sundaram began studying the violin at age 3. By the 1950s she was performing on All India Radio.
She came to New York in 1971 with her husband, systems analyst Raghu Sundaram. In the 1970s, she helped form two Indian classical music groups and taught both violin and voice.
Students called her "Gomathy Mami," an affectionate term that translates roughly to "Aunt Gomathy." Former student Pavani Yalla said Mrs. Sundaram used a grandmotherly style with students, often calling them Indian names that mean "child" or "dear one."
"The way she would teach, you were never scared," said Yalla, 27.
She was even better known as a performer, and traveled all over the northeast United States as well as California, Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama.
The couple moved to Palm Harbor in 1996, where she continued to teach.
An invitation by the St. Petersburg Times to former students and friends to reflect on her passing quickly netted more than a dozen e-mailed responses.
"Music was not just a passion, it was her way of life — it was the food she ate, it was the clothes she wore, it was the way she looked at life," wrote Tampa surgeon Meera Menon, whose mother and daughter both studied with Mrs. Sundaram.
As cancer spread to her lungs, Mrs. Sundaram continued to teach and perform, even though she found it difficult to walk. She performed at the Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, N.Y., last month. On July 4, she watched a graduation dance recital in Tampa.
In accordance with Hindu tradition, family members participated in an hourlong cremation ceremony Friday at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens. The ceremony involved bananas, rice and black sesame seeds used in a prayer for the dead. They sprinkled rice on Mrs. Sundaram, a symbolic gesture of providing food for a 10-day waiting period before the soul goes to its next destination.
Family friend Suresh Krishnamoorthy placed a burning half-coconut on her abdomen and Mrs. Sundaram was rolled into the cremation chamber. Her ashes will be scattered in the water by the Dunedin Causeway, where they will eventually find the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean beyond.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.