I remember when I first sang during my kindergarten days. “Soldier, Soldier will you marry me?” I played the role of a girl proposing a soldier and sung this twice and I still wonder, why people went ga ga over it.
“You did it so well, you sang so well”, up until I was seven years old, my Amma’s friends always boasted about my performance. Well, even now, whenever I visit Delhi and I meet my Amma’s friend while on a stroll to the market, I still get to hear that. And I keep wondering, is that the only song I have ever sung in my entire life?
We had finally shifted to a permanent place in 1989 after hopping many rented houses. Those were struggling days when we had to shift every eleven months to a new house, new locality, make new friends, not that we were not in touch with the old ones. We rented house around the same place. Everything was new and the place was still developing. My father sold his newly bought LML Vespa to get this house. It stood under my rented house for a day like a new bride. Chandanam and kunkumam adorned the front side and a garland to add to the beauty. We bought her with such pomp and show. The same day that evening, he received a call from the broker that a house is available.
Those days it was not easy to get finances for buying a house, the only option was to let go off the scooter as the house seemed much a priority. The bride was to depart the same day she arrived with grace. I was angry, had made some friends and had settled in when such a thing happened, so was my sister. She asked me, “Hey Dee, isn’t it mean of amma and appa to make us move from here? Do you think we would have to change school as well? Shwe pouted.
I did not know what to answer and I too got worried, what if we do? Soon amma entered the room. We didn’t feel like talking to her. “Excited about moving to a new place and that too of your own?” she asked. “NO!” me and Shwe yelled together. “Dee and Shwe, no yelling!” said amma and she left.
After dinner we went straight to bed without making any sound. When I got into bed, I hugged Shwe and went to sleep. I got up to a lot of noise coming from the kitchen. I rubbed my eyes and went lazily to brush. As I came out of the washroom, amma was already waking up Shwe. “Get ready to move to our new house, a much better and spacious one, Dee and Shwe!” We looked at her in surprise.
Amma was losing it when she couldn’t find a music guru and was not willing to send me and my sis out of our area.
It amazes me how ammas smell people of our community and do not even wait a second to pounce on them and ask…”Inga edavadu paattu guru irukkala? Enakku rendu pongal, avalukku thedindirukken.” (Do you know any music guru here? I am looking for one for my daughters.) “Enakku theriyadu mami aana naan Rajitta kekkaren, aval padichidirukkal engayo avalukku teriyum.” (I don’t know anyone but Raji is learning music, I will ask her for sure).
The very next day amma, my sis and I were found peeking into a house which didn’t have a bell. It was a ground floor house with a gate. We could hear voices from inside but didn’t know how to get in or grab their attention to open the gate for us. Amma finally called out…”Is anybody there?”
We were seated on a mat in the living area of the house with a very old man sitting in a cot looking at us. From that very first moment, I felt a connection existed between the man and his cot. As if, they were sewn together. I can never imagine one without the other. He murmured a few words but we barely understood what he was speaking. His son mentioned that he could not strain his voice like before but still taught music to a few people.
His wife walked in who was equally old. She wore the traditional kosha podavai. Her hair was silver grey and she had a limp which was may be because of a swollen foot. She offered us some snacks and asked amma in a very polite tone, “Can I teach them? I am his wife, I have never learnt music formally from a guru” and pointing towards the old man. He is my guru, and I have heard him sing and teach many kids. Whatever I know I owe it to him. I practice daily though he doesn’t like me to sing. But I still go on.”
Amma was surprised at what the elderly lady said. As she served my amma a glass of water, she continued “Please do not mind me intervening here. They are small and they won’t be able to understand the way my husband teaches. He is very strict with his students and those who learn from him are mostly adults.”
Amma was still in a state of shock. She couldn’t believe that the lady who will teach her kids music would be a newbie in her own way. We were probably her first students for vocal music. “Have they learnt music before?” asked the lady. “No they have not, they are new to this. I have learnt during my childhood days and I want them to learn too.”
This is with every South Indian family, most of the children boys or girls would have aced in the field of music or dance before the marriageable age. They very clearly also boast about it if it is an arranged marriage set up. The groom’s family will not budge to ask “Ponnukku paattu pada theriyuma?” (Has the girl learnt music?) As if it is one of the criteria to be ticked before the marriage. Nevertheless, I am one of them too, my son also learns Carnatic music. Well, the reason for me to make him learn the art is different.
The old lady wanted us to start as soon as possible. Our school timings were a problem but she adjusted and we agreed upon a solution, in fact my amma came up with the solution. She took a good one hour from my play time, and it irked me. I was disappointed and I moaned unhappily.
“You are yet to make friends here, whom are you going to play with?” she exclaimed. I was a tomboy throughout and I made friends really fast, but here I was getting deprived of that.
“You have only two classes a week Dee, so please don’t sulk about it.
I was least interested in music and my mind always egged me for not losing my playtime. We started off on a good note with the newbie guru. I was awestruck when she started off with teaching us about shruthis. She gave us a brief on Carnatic music, where it originated from. The first class was interesting and we did not know, how it was time to leave. She stayed close by, so me and Shwe walked past the children’s park to reach back home.
I had a long face on the days when I had music class as I lost on my play time. I was never studious and always got punished at home for not returning on time from play. Despite the grumpiness, I learnt the basics well, it came naturally to me. Our guru always said, “It should come naturally to you, I will give you the knowledge, but how you utilize it and put it forth is up to you.” We started participating in competitions and got good exposure. Children of our age were singing a lot better than us. She always emphasized on practice and we hardly got the time to do that. Amma would forcefully make us practice for an hour, but I was so impatient that I always wanted to play.
We grew and so did the competition, whether studies or music. We were getting better under the guidance of our music guru. She was becoming old as well but her spirit for music never died, she was always enthusiastic to teach us. We started preparing for an upcoming competition. She wanted us to leave a mark this time and made us work really hard for it. Her husband never appreciated her for the music skills she acquired just by listening to him teach other students and I disliked him for not acknowledging her intelligence. He remained stationed at the cot observing her during the class. He will often walk by into the room to just hear her teach us and often retorted negatively to her methodologies or found a fault on how she taught a particular raga.
We walked into her house like any other day, the old man was lying in the cot. There was an unusual smile on his face. We entered the room where guru taught us. She was already seated there and appeared perturbed. We practiced what we were about to sing in the competition. She stopped us in between to correct us on a few notes and asked us to sing again. When the class got over, she mentioned, “Mama is going to judge the competition, I want you both to give your best.” My heart jumped when she uttered those words. I knew he will look into every detail and will scrutinize the smallest of mistakes committed.
The day of the competition neared and both of us were as nervous as our guru. We went in the morning for one last rehearsal and I could sense how anxious our guru was. We bowed down to her as goes our tradition and as Shishyas do to their Guru, took her blessings and wished to make her proud.
It was very humid and hot inside the hall, a huge crowd of parents and children gathered there to make the situation worst. The judges were placed on the right side just beneath the stage. The names were called out and each participant headed to the stage to perform. My name was called out and I walked to the stage. I switched on the shruthi petti and took a while to match mine with it. I was not a very good singer but I always did something different and it was a clincher as my guru always used to say. I started off and it was going quite well. As a curious child, I opened my eyes in between to see what the reactions of the judges are. Especially the old man, I always saw him with the cot even if he was sitting on a chair. The cot was quite symbolic to him. For me he was on a cot, with a blank face and he carried the same look which I saw, the day I met him. A grumpy old man, not appreciative and crude with his words. I should not have seen him, for such an odd look on his face, anxiety creeped in, as he stared right into my face. He had never done this before and as soon as I noticed him staring at my face, I lost control on my swara, raga and shruthi. That was the end of me on that competition.
Later I recalled, the old man felt like a haughty king and his cot his mighty throne who was determined to find me guilty, no matter how much ever I strove. I felt decimated.
I could see the reaction of the audience, I was singing well and was a competition to others. I managed to cover up but it was too late. As I finished and got up, I was weak on my knees and I could hardly breathe. As I faced the audience, I imagined them pointing at me and laughing out loudly. The old man was seen exactly sitting on the cot mocking me. Sweat rolled down from my forehead towards the ear and then to my cheeks. I thought of crying my heart out, but I didn’t want to create a scene. Shwe was called next, she seemed nervous, she could understand the pressure we were in, she didn’t even get time to boost me through and had to walk to the stage without a wait.
She performed really well, on the other hand I felt very lowly of myself. The old man on the cot was right in front of my eyes, making fun of me, rather his own wife because I put her down. I could not live upto her expectation and he will get another chance to put her down on her knowledge which she gained from listening to him teaching other people and MS Subhalakshmi and the likes of others who visited them often when they were back there in Chennai. Every Vijayadashami K.J Yesudas will visit them as the old man was his first guru.
The competition concluded and everyone was eagerly waiting for their result. I had absolutely no hope for on Shwe even getting a position, I was anyways out of it. It was a nail biting moment for the audience as the results were getting delayed. Soon the results were announced and to my surprise Shwe bagged the first prize and I was really happy for her. All I could think was at least one of us didn’t let our guru down. The hall got filled with the sound of claps and those who won had a big smile on their face. I hugged Shwe and wished her. I did not feel bad for myself for the first time. Shwe’s winning the competition outlived the joy I had in my heart for not letting our guru down.
We continued to learn from her and I had immense respect for her. She carved out the best she could have of herself. The old man passed away in the same cot. I didn’t have any hard feelings against him, as I found out, that day, Shwe was not the winner, actually he declared his own wife a winner and I appreciated his gesture. Soon the same cot was occupied by my guru. She was getting old too, not that she was not old enough when we started off with her. She couldn’t sit down and teach us now. Her legs were swollen always. She taught us sitting on the same cot. I sometimes saw the old man in her. It’s strange but I think I missed him on his cot! Somewhere his mocking me had challenged me to come out with my best…
Time passed on and I was nearing my 10th standard, and we became irregular for music classes as studies took over. But I cherished visiting my guru and learn from her. One such day she just mentioned, let us do something different, let me teach you Varali Raga. We were surprised, such words from our guru was not expected. (Varali raga has to be learnt on its own. It is believed that if a guru teaches the raga, the relationship between the guru and the shishya breaks). However she was ready enough to take the challenge. She started off and we followed her wholeheartedly. She was mostly confined to the cot now. She couldn’t go about the house chores anymore but when it came to music, it was her soul. Her health deteriorated and she spent most of her time in the same cot.
We attended classes whenever we could find time. In one such class, she mentioned, “girls, it has worked. The curse has worked and it is time for us to get separated.” We were almost in tears. We thought she will stop teaching us due to her health condition, but they were shifting to a new place and that was quite far from our place. Our hearts broke, but she was smiling and she said “no matter where I go, I will keep blessing you and yes, I am glad that we tried the new raga. It has certainly broken the guru shishya relationship but it cannot break the bond and love we carry for each other in our hearts. You may not see me or meet me often but you were my first students and you made me proud each day. I also learnt a lot, teaching you and this is a journey which I will cherish through the life I am left with.”
She left us much sooner than I expected her to. I was married with a kid by then, but every time I visited Delhi, I would meet her for sure. The day she died, I felt as if something has left me from inside. I planned to travel to Delhi to join her in her last journey. I saw the cot there lying empty now. I felt a pang. My heart skipped a beat. I wiped a lone tear.
Her son performed her last rites and they decided to immerse her in the Ganges. I wanted to be a part of it and the family readily agreed. We started our journey towards Varanasi. The day came and she was all set to board the boat, I boarded the boat too and today I was not sad but proud of a self-made woman who taught me so much, not only music but life lessons as well. There she was sitting on the boat smiling at me. I smiled back at her.
Of course, it was not just a boat ride but as the undulating waves carried the vessel to our destination, it felt like I was sharing her journey of a lifetime. It felt so surreal.
Once we reached, we lifted her from the boat as we would have from the cot and immersed her in the divine embrace of the Ganga.
Her silence rang in my ears as a melody. She would tighten our broken chords unless our notes rang. Lyrics flowed from her lips and any soul would surrender to her voice. There is still a desire in me to master the art but I don’t have my guru and each time I jump into the multiverse of music, I feel she is with me.
Shruthi Petti – An instrument for matching the pitch of the voice.
Mama – Term used in Tamil to address someone as uncle.
Shruthi – Pitch.
Kosha podavai – Nine yards saree, normally worn by a tambrahm