The setting for today’s post couldn’t be more apt. The Scientist has decided that the sitar has been lying around too long untouched, so he is providing the perfect background score, while I pen my thoughts…
Music has run in my family for the past many generations. My great grandmother, Nena, had a very sweet voice (no formal training but innate understanding) and a huge collection of folk songs. These she used to sing as she got up in the wee hours of dawn. My grandfather, on the other hand, was trained in the Kirana Gharana style. Dad carried on his heritage, however fate found him training in the Gwalior Gharana. And in our house, he would be the one to sing lullabies to me. And you can imagine my mom’s exasperation when dad would be out of station!!
I grew up listening to both Hindustani and Carnatic classical. But Carnatic stayed with me, as those lullabies were all Kannada Purandara Dasa bhajans! And then my brother decided to carry the tradition further and picked up the violin. And I felt so left behind!! I decided then and there, that I wouldn’t be a mere bystander. And for some mysterious reason, my heart was set on the veena. There were no classes nearby, and thus had to wait for the next two years, till I joined college.
I lost no time as soon I joined Ruparel College, and found that the nearby Shanmukhananda Fine Arts Society held thrice a week Veena classes. I promptly turned up there and enquired, only to be told to come back during Navaratri, on Vijaya Dashami precisely. In the Carnatic tradition, you begin new lessons only on this day. That is also the day when you do the Saraswati puja (Saraswati being the goddess of wisdom and learning). And thus, on the Vijaya Dashami day of that year, I picked up the Veena.
Why Veena, you may ask? I myself did not know. There was some draw, inexplicable. Later, when I attended a music conference, one very senior musician was asked why he chose to play the instrument he did. And his reply, which I have hitherto plagiarised, has remained etched in my consciousness, to this day. He said, and I quote, we never choose the instrument. It is the instrument which chooses us. It couldn’t be more true in my case. Suddenly the puzzle fit. And with it came Spiderman’s words – With great power comes great responsibility. The Veena had placed this responsibility on me..was I fit to carry it out?
Lessons began in earnest. My first teacher, Rajyalakshmi was herself a student. She taught us the basics, Swarali varsai, Janta varsai, Dhattu varsai, Alankarams…Classes would be thrice a week, every alternate day. Since I did not have a veena at home, I would turn up an earlier at the class to practice. I was also the only Marathi girl, in the smattering of Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam tongues. That meant I could follow no verbal instructions at first. My teacher would have to be extra careful to translate to English for my benefit. I, of course picked up the music really fast, thanks to my brother who had been practising the same lessons on the violin for the past couple of years (and I had dutifully been the page turner at practice sessions). My classes meant extra work for mom (who had to pack extra tiffins as I would go directly after college) and dad too (he used to come and pick me up, as the classes were on the Harbour line, and it would be quite late to travel alone after class).
Shanmukhananda followed a strict syllabus. That meant bi-annual exams too – both theory and practice. One week before the exam, the list of examiners would be put up. Imagine my horror, when the Director of the Institute had decided to test us, first year beginners! We practised and practised hard. On the d-day, the group of first years, sat on the floor with our veenas. The Director, imposing lady that she was, sat in the chair. Each of us had to come forward, and sit close to her and play. My turn came. I managed the first three pieces. Now mael sthayi, she said. Do you mean upper sthayi, I asked timidly. Ah, she is the Marathi girl, so we should explain to her, the Director said, half explaining the others in the room. So upper or mael sthayi was played. I managed the theory questions.
When the result came, I remember my teacher calling up and telling my mother. Your daughter has done well, in fact she has topped the class! And what an exhilarating day it was. All the hours of practice, the sore fingers was well worth the effort. The destination does matter, even if you have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, at least when you are the beginner. It strengthened my resolve even further.
Classes would be suspended in summer each year. I was worried about losing touch, since everyone around me told that as a beginner you should practise everyday. Well, they were wrong. You should practise everyday, novice or expert notwithstanding. And as if the Universe heard my plea. A chance meeting with a girl in my math class, had her telling she had an old veena – her grandmothers’, lying unused in her flat in Vile Parle. I asked if I could borrow it for a couple of months, and had to go and ask the old lady in person. After much hesitation, she agreed. When I saw the veena, it was really in dire state of repair. We put it into a rickshaw, and took it to Sardarflute Musical at Santa Cruz. The Sardar inspected it, and said, all the strings would need to be replaced. I didn’t bat an eye. I didn’t know how to tune it then. So it had to be taken to the other end of the city to have it tuned. Thus passed the summer.
In the second year, we had started lessons again. We had a new teacher, Lakshmi Natarajan, and I found some of the old classmates had disappeared. That is when I realised that Veena is a more difficult instrument to master in the later stages. And it is extremely demanding, as compared to, say a violin. A new teacher meant new fingering techniques. So we went over the same lessons again. Yes, it was boring, but we couldn’t say so. The new teacher did not speak English, and I couldn’t understand her Hindi. Then I realised I need to understand at least basic Tamil to follow the instructions. Of course, my other classmates would stand in as translators, and I would somehow make through the lesson. This teacher did not believe in sticking to the syllabus. And that was such a blessing. She taught us songs, ragams and techniques not in the books.
Two years came and went. We continued our lessons. In between, one of the teachers at the Institute, Mangalam Muthuswamy, declared she was bringing back four additional veenas from Tanjore. It would cost Rs.8000, which was in those days, no small amount. But dad, who knew what it was to buy a Rs 800 tanpura in his music learning days, decided his daughter should have a new veena. It is perhaps the best gift I have received from my parents. Don’t let a single day pass without you practising the veena, MM said in a grave tone, while handing over the veena to me. I meekly nodded.
And then one day, dad was called upon. Your daughter needs singing lessons, she is not making progress, it was declared. Every instrumentalist is a vocalist first. And I had to join the vocal classes. Which happened on the other three days. Which meant I had to join 5-6 year kids, who would sing lustily, in any manner their mood fancied, and learn vocal basics. Which also meant all six days of the week would be spent in musical pursuit. While that was all fine on paper, I had changed colleges since then. And had taken a challenging (or foolhardy) decision to major in Mathematics. And that meant, there was far too much on my plate, and one or the other had to go. And like in all middle-class households, it meant the music.
What followed then, was a really long gap. I would think about it often, and panic, only to realise that this was all I could do, given the circumstances. The reality of career and academics loomed, pushing away the dreams of the music world…
And then after a gap of almost two years, and when I had given up all hope, a miracle occurred…
…………….to be continued.