My Musical Journey… (II)

Electronic veena, a blessing

Last time I wrote how I began my musical journey..This post is about how it continued after a seemingly long break, and how it continues even today…

The miracle that I spoke about in my last post is about how I found my teacher and my guru, Mala aunty (for that’s what I went on to call her, rather than the traditional “mami”) . I had happened to visit the Giri stores shop next to Ram Mandir at Bangur Nagar one evening. Now everyone who begins his Carnatic lessons knows about Giri Trading at Matunga where we are dispatched to fetch the tomes of Ganamurtha Bodhini (and later Varnamalika) by Panchapakesa Iyer. To find that it had opened shop in Goregaon was more than reason enough to browse through the store. So I entered and was searching for Dr. Emani Shankar Shastry’s veena CDs. Finding none on display, I asked the lady at the counter.You see my father would many a times pick out the musicians who he thought we MUST listen to, to hone our musical abilities and understanding. If it was violin, then we had to listen to MS Gopalkrishnan’s father (Sundaram Iyer) who had also learnt the Hindustani style, and thus was a purist with the raagas than any other (according to him). Bhajans had to be only from Gwalior gharana, and Yaman only by Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, and so on. So if it was veena, it had to be Dr. E.

The lady at the counter sounded perplexed. You are too young to even know about Dr. Emani Shankar Shastry, she said. We have some Chitti Babu’s CDs – he was his student you know, she further said. Well, (but I stuck to my guns), will you let me know when you get them? (Dad’s training you may call it). That’s when the lady decided to ask who I learn from currently. There is Chitti babu’s student here at Lokhandwala, Mala Viswanathan. I had a long gap in my music studies at that time, and told her I was searching for a veena teacher nearby. Why don’t you ask her, not sure if she teaches though, Giri Stores lady said, and proceeded to write her number on a scrap of paper.

I think this incident must have happened on a Wednesday. For I remember my mother asking me to wait for the auspicious Guruvar (Thursday) to even make enquiries! So on Thursday evening, I hesitatingly dialled the numbers on that scrap of paper. It was her  daughter who answered, saying aunty was out for her evening walk. She asked me to leave a message. It was about the veena class, I said. But my mother doesn’t teach, the daughter was as perplexed. Are you sure, I asked. Someone gave me her number, I explained further. No, she doesn’t, she was firm. But perhaps you can call again in an hour, she said kindly, perhaps after hearing the disappointment in my Oh!. That was the longest hour I must have waited.

You see, in my  search for a teacher, I had in the meantime contacted my old teacher Lakshmi from Shanmukhananda. In the years that had followed my exit,  she had stopped teaching veena there, focussing only on vocal. But you are welcome to come home. To Mulund. That was halfway across the city. It took 2.5 hours just to reach her place from mine on Sunday. I started at 1 pm, reached her house at 3:30 pm, had a class for an hour, and came back home after 7:30 pm. I lasted only two such Sundays.

So cut to the present, I dialed the number again. This time she answered. And I heard the same answer, I don’t teach. I was so crushed, perhaps sounded so too, and I think she picked that up. Coming from her, there was no hope left. She asked me where I had learned previously and I told her all about it. Come on Saturday evening, and we’ll see, she said. This was not something definite, but budtyala kadicha adhar, as they say in Marathi (the drowning person will hold onto even a twig). I and my mother, went to see aunty at the appointed time.

She was the strictest looking teacher I had ever encountered. I already knew (from the phone conversation) her voice had that quality of strictness that can make you squirm. And in person that was magnified. Over the years’, of course, I learned that beneath that strict exterior lies the most warm hearted soul, you will ever have the fortune to know. I do not remember what I played, and how (perhaps I do, rather badly!!). But nevertheless, she accepted me as a student. I timidly asked her about her fees. We’ll see, she said, patting my back. (I must mention I was really worried about that aspect. I was informed veena teachers charged Rs 1000 per class, one-on-one. And we didn’t have that kind of money then. It took a lot of prodding before aunty agreed to charge any fees). I can say now, this was a classic case of ‘when the student is ready, the Master appears.’ (Also, equally reciprocally, when the Master was ready, a willing student appeared. For you see, aunty had not taught for nearly 10 years, disappointed by some students, and domestic conditions.)

I had my summer holidays then, so classes would be twice a week in the mornings. Straightaway, without mincing any words, I was told I needed to practice. A lot. (That hasn’t changed still). One of my first lessons was on how to tune the instrument. Your internal ear should be able to detect something is off, aunty would, and still says. I can imagine the patience it must have required from her, for I took a very long time, learning to tune my instrument. (Dad’s meddling didn’t help matters).

The lessons began slowly. We brushed up what I had learned earlier. Of course, I was apprehensive a new teacher would mean new fingering techniques. I had already gone over that twice. Aunty didn’t insist on that, atleast in the beginning thankfully. Perhaps that was why I stuck around. Slowly, she manoeuvered me to her style and school of playing. Interspersed in the lessons were anecdotes about how she learned the Veena, the dedication it required (4 am practices), learning without written notes, and of course learning from a rather temperamental guru. The Chitti Babu anecdotes scared me a lot. How he would simply walk out of a class when the student had not practised, how students were expected to learn without the teacher providing written notations…I half expected it to happen to me too! It was enough to make me practise before I landed up for each class (at least in the beginning, and my mother would always remind me of it whenever she saw me dawdling)

One of the first compositions I learnt from her was the swarajati Sambashiva in ragam Khamas. And then many other gems followed. It was (and still is) a long ardous journey, for both of us. It is not easy to coax and cajole notes out of the veena. What makes it easier to learn with her, though, is the technical explanation you get on how to hold your instrument, which muscle to bring into action for what result, how to flick your fingers just so, when to hold onto a note, and when to just touch it in the passing. Of course, perhaps I need this input because I am not observant enough of the technique. Another student might need some other input to make his playing more effective. But this is exactly what a guru is for. To hammer and chisel away imperfections, and bring out the best in each student.

The bond between the guru and shishya is perhaps inexplicable. It is born out of your good karma to find the right teacher. And also perhaps some good fortune on part of the teacher to find sincere students. And while it seems difficult for a student, it is perhaps even more difficult for the teacher. It takes a lot of patient correction, and having to come down to the student’s level of understanding on the part of the teacher.

Also each student is different in his or her needs, and that’s where aunty excels (this is called lahan tondi motha ghas – commenting about something you have no business to, but when you meet a great teacher, as opposed to a good one, you cannot hold yourself back). She can find out what is needed for every student, and customises her lessons accordingly. She understood that I struggled with understanding the mostly Telugu and Tamil compositions of Carnatic music. From that struggle on her part to make it more relate-able to me, we embarked on an experiment to play Marathi abhangs on the veena. Abhangs were home turf for me, and though not strictly classical in the sense of term, they enlivened our classes like no other. Perhaps because I understood what was being conveyed, the bhaava (emotion) along with pauses and murkis needed to bring out that effect on the veena came far more easily.

As it happens in a typical Hindi film, just before intermission, dark clouds gather on the horizon, and the the villian is usually in the form of the heroine’s father, who decides to be thorn in the works for the couple. For us, it was in the form of a tempting job offer I had landed and couldn’t refuse… in Hyderabad. I knew, I still had a lot to learn from her, and was loath to go away. I tried to learn as much as I could before we moved. We were both saddened, but the powers above heard my pleas. Aunty was undaunted. Come down when you can, she said, and we’ll see. And with this gesture, she further threw open her doors for me.

What began then were a series of trysts to and from Hyderabad to Mumbai on some weekends every month (my colleagues and friends in Hyderabad thought I am sneaking away to meet a Mumbai friends never knew I was in the city.) Because from 2 PM Saturday until 10 AM Sunday, aunty meant business like no other. There would be lunch waiting for me as I arrived from Hyderabad, and our lessons would begin in earnest. They were planned ahead, so I had to listen before hand and come prepared with kriti we were to tackle. We would break periodically for coffee and dinner, but the playing continued until 10-11 PM at times. Her children who called at times during our sessions would implore her to leave me alone for at least some time. Next day morning lessons would begin early. I would be asked to play, with aunty in the kitchen supervising my playing, as she prepared lunch and tiffin for my journey back. After coffee, what followed was the last lesson, where revisions were made, notes taken, some music recorded. A sumptuous lunch and there would be the usual rushing of packing up my bag, ensuring chargers and mobile was taken, water bag filled, tiffin packed (idlis) – and I would make a rush to catch the train back to Hyderabad, sore fingers not withstanding.

I had always wondered (even before I started learning with aunty) what it would be like to learn music in the tradition guru-shishya parampara, where the students would go and live with the guru, and learn, not only music, but the philosophy of life. I was sad that I might perhaps never get to experience this (a la Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, who filled water for years in his guru’s house – my dad would narrate this story to us, and it filled my head with such romantic notions). I remember one incident, before I moved from Mumbai, where aunty asked me to clean and dust the veenas and the cupboards once, and I was thrilled to bits!! This guru-shishya parampara experience was only to continue further. For those two days would also be packed with many non-musical lessons, real life and spiritual too. Aunty taught me many a shlokas, as I helped her in the kitchen. Sometimes, uncle would join in, and impart some wisdom on how to tackle the corporate world (which I was so new to). And of course, aunty would insist that it was time I got married and settled down. (I hate to admit that I was very stubborn about ‘settling’ down, and it’s only now that I will to eat my own words, and declare that, umm.. she was so right about the whole thing)

We had started off in great earnest, but we both knew that this long-distance learning was not sustainable. On some occasions, aunty had to travel; on others, I had commitments back in Hyderabad. That was when she asked me find music teachers in Hyderabad. I began my search again (not too happily though).

But sometimes, fate or karma is smiling down upon you. I met another great teacher in Hema Raman, which calls for another post of its own. (I must own, I am always blessed with good teachers). But, while on the subject of Mala aunty and my destiny, fate brought us together last year again. As (my) luck would have it, aunty had to relocate to the US for a long while, and I had recently moved to Taipei, with my electronic veena in tow. Furthermore, aunty too had an electronic veena in the US, and had in fact encouraged me to buy one before I left India. That’s the thing about your guru, (S)He anticipates what you might need, even before your need arises. Thus, thanks to technology, began our Skype lessons every week, which I hope will continue for many weeks into the future.

Soulmates are not always the romantic kinds. There are souls you meet on your life’s journey, who help make that journey worthwhile. And nudge you along in the right direction. In spite of the hurdles life throws at you, they stand strong by you, helping you remain strong and rooted and good, with dignity. Many a times with music. Aunty is such a kindred soul.

If this isn’t a miracle, then I ask you, what is?

Aunty, at our wedding, impressing upon The Scientist, that he is very lucky to have me 😉

5 thoughts on “My Musical Journey… (II)

  1. Very well written. Ur passion for music and learning is immense and so is ur guru dedication towards u.. I culd imagine our days while I read this article…


  2. Beautifully expressed thoughts… The journey is picturized right in front of my eyes emotions can be felt. I am learning vwena basics too. I am a big fan of Mala madam. I really want to be her student too. Kindly help me become one by guiding me how to contact her… i am so desperate and early waiting for such a moment… Thanks in advance


    • Hi Amrutha! So good to know that you are also learning Veena. Could you kindly drop me an email at, and we can take it further from there? I am also sorry in responding so late to your comment, I haven’t checked WordPress or written anything in a longish time…


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