Pattammal was born on March 28, 1919 at Kancheepuram in Tamil Nadu, India. She gave her first public performance in Chennai at the age of 14. She quickly rose to stardom, and her musical career has spanned more than 65 years.
Pattammal's sweet disposition and humble nature belie the fact that she started a few revolutionary trends in Carnatic music. She is the first Brahmin woman to have performed this music publicly, both on stage and on air. Brahmins ranked as the highest in the caste hierarchy prevalent in India in the early 20th century, and society considered it taboo for a Brahmin woman to perform on stage. Furthermore, Pattammal is also the first woman to have performed Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi on stage. Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi (or Pallavi) is the most difficult concert item in Carnatic music. Before Pattammal, it classed as a male stronghold. Not only did Pattammal boldly venture into Pallavi-singing, but she also performed very complex Pallavi-s in intricate Talas (rhythmic cycles) impressively enough to earn the respect of her male peers. For this reason, she became dubbed “Pallavi Pattammal”. Today, many female Carnatic musicians perform Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi as the main item in their concerts.
Pattammal popularized many compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Papanasam Sivan. Particularly, she has a reputation as an authority on the compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar. She has learnt authentic versions of Dikshitar's compositions from Ambi Dikshitar (Dikishitar's grand-nephew) and from Justice T. L. Venkatrama Iyer.
Pattammal has performed in numerous venues throughout India, the United States, and other countries. Although she received many offers to sing for films, she only accepted those which involved the singing of devotional or patriotic songs. She has popularized several nationalistic compositions of Subrahmanya Bharati, and other composers.
Pattammal has received several awards and titles throughout her career. Most notably these include the title “Gana Saraswathi” bestowed on her by the musician Tiger Varadachariar, the Sangeetha Kalanidhi (considered the highest accolade in Carnatic music) in 1970, the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India in 1971, and the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian honor, in 1998.
Pattammal possesses a full-throated voice in the low alto/high tenor range. Her outstanding musical qualities include an overwhelming technical expertise, an uncompromising adherence to pitch and rhythm, and clear enunciation of lyrics. Her performances of shlokas and viruttams (poetry or verse sung improvisationally without rhythmic accompaniment) express great emotion. She also has a reputation as a very disciplined musician. As a child she woke up before dawn and practised for hours. Throughout her performing career she meticulously planned her concert items weeks in advance and practised rigorously.
Pattammal's style of singing attracted many students, foremost among them her younger brother D.K. Jayaraman, who sang with her in several concerts, and who himself received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 1990. A few of her other popular students include Lalitha Sivakumar, Geetha Rajashekar, Nithyasree Mahadevan, and Bhavadhaarini Anantaraman. Pattammal has taught students from several countries.