By Rani Ramaswamy
I was all of five years old when my mother decided that it was time I got acquainted with our rich musical tradition. Even at that young age, I sensed her excitement. I also realized, with a sinking feeling that it didn't bode well for me. Seriously, our musical tradition, rich or otherwise, was but of passing interest to me, and besides, I had my own ideas about how I could spend my time - like playing cricket or flying kites with my brothers.
Too young to speak my mind, I trotted along obligingly for my lessons from a Bhagavathar whose credentials had been thoroughly investigated. Unfortunately a few months after I started taking lessons, the man died of a heart attack.
Although my wicked brothers darkly hinted that my singing might have had a hand in his sad demise, I didn't take his passing personally. But I must admit I was quite glad to get back to my friends - that might have tipped my brothers off, I suppose. But those were more innocent times, so no connection was made, and no criminal investigation was initiated.
Although a trifle disheartened at this setback, it was not long before my parents found another teacher. An excellent woman, well qualified, she had the reputation for enforcing the kind of discipline that would have been the envy of the commander-in-chief of the army in Nazi Germany.
The bad news was the lessons were in the morning, at 6:30, before school, and my mother would have to chaperone me. I was relieved - with a family to feed and a household to run, I thought gleefully, there was no way she was going to be able to spare the time. But my mother was a woman on a mission and was not about to let minor details stand between her and her vision of the future for her only daughter.
She organized the kitchen so she didn't miss a beat as far as her work was concerned. She would wake me up at 5:30 in the morning, so I would have time to shower and get ready. At this point in the game I was a little older and wiser and knew all about the squeaky wheel getting the grease, so I complained loudly at being roused at this ungodly hour, but sad to say, my complaints fell on deaf ears.
Of course, once I was out of bed and ready to go, I enjoyed the morning walk to my music teacher's home. The city was just beginning to come to life, with the stray milkman on his bicycle, his milk cans loudly clattering against each other, and a few crazy people who liked to take early morning walks - this was before fitness became fashionable.
The trees by the corner of my street would be bursting with red blooms. Further down, there was a tree with jasmine whose fragrance was so heady, I had to pause and smell them, before I happily skipped on and caught up with my mother. Actually by the time I reached my teacher's home I would be in a good mood, but I never let on - I didn't want either of them to think I was enjoying any of this.
My music teacher wholeheartedly shared my mother's philosophy. A perfectionist, she would demand that we memorize the entire Ganamritha Varna Malika, including the introduction, the glossary of ragas with their Arohanams and Avarohanams, and everything in between, or else. The 'or else' meant we had to stand in the corner for the entire duration of the one hour period.
We were a dozen girls of various ages subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment. At different stages of our musical evolution, some of us regrettably not as talented as the others, we would sing loudly and lustily at the highest pitch - thankfully, the room we were in was noise proofed; our teacher resorted to this desperate measure because the neighbors could not take it any more. I am convinced that Shelley, had he heard us, would have cringed and thought twice before he wrote his ode to the skylark.
Back in those days, in a lot of South Indian households, girls were routinely corralled and shipped out to music classes. Once safely there, the teacher had the daunting task of attempting to imbue them with some love of classical music. Knowing as I do now, how resistant I was to being thus imbued, the music teacher had one demoralizing job.
But my teacher, quite the original, delivered, and I fell in love with classical music in a big way. To my utter surprise, the music actually grew on me; pretty soon I was going for my lessons willingly, even going so far as to read and write in Tamil, much to my mother's astonishment, so I could gain a better feel for the music.
I delved deep into the world of Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Purandaradasa and others with a degree of enthusiasm I could never have anticipated that fateful day when I had my first lesson and was taught the Sa Pa Sa.
In retrospect, I think I may have been just a little uncharitable to my mother. Perhaps I should have told her how much I loved those early morning walks with her. Perhaps I should have even go so far as to admit how grateful I was, but then again perhaps not – after all why state the obvious?