If you had grown up as a young girl in Madras in a South Indian household in the 60s and 70s, you would probably have been initiated into the arts such as vocal or instrumental Carnatic music or traditional dances such as Bharatnatyam or Kuchipudi. I was no exception to this rule.
But I was too involved with pop music and have had bitter arguments with my brothers as to whether Elvis, Beatles or Cliff Richard was the most popular. I have three brothers who are wonderful guys but were such a pain in our younger days. Being a second born I was sandwiched between two of them and had to fend for myself. My mother never interfered in our fights …in fact when I asked her why she was not helping her only daughter she wisely remarked “you will have to learn to survive on your own when you go out into the world so it is better to start now”. It’s funny how those fights with them which seemed so real at that time are so trivial now and actually invoke laughter when we recall those incidents. My siblings played the guitars and the drums. They were not asked to learn classical music but to be fair they too showed no inclination to learn either.
I was very resentful that I was chosen to carry forward the tradition of music in which I had no interest. But since I had no choice I quietly acquiesced I would have preferred to learn dance but I was considered a weak child and that was ruled out. They also had an explanation that the active life of a dancer was limited while vocal and instrumental had a much longer life span. My parents in their eagerness to get me started then discussed which instrument I should learn … vocal was anyway a must. They felt the violin was jarring on the ears in the initial years of learning, flute was out as I was a weak kid and then their choice fell on the glorious veena ! I guess they thought that being the niece of veena mastero Chitti Babu (his mother and my paternal grandmother were own sisters) surely some talent would be rubbed off on me.
Thus began my foray into the world of classical music. I used to walk every morning to my music class which was a couple of kilometers away. My first teacher was Mrs. Gomathi ammal. A beautiful, gentle and kind lady who was an expert in her field. Sometimes I would have to wait my turn at class which suited me fine as she had an amazing collection of books which I would read while I waited.
As I learnt the basics of music, I guess Mrs. G noticed my lack of interest and after many attempts to inspire me about the beauty of classical music she realised it was a futile exercise and informed my parents. Then I went through a host of other teachers. They would start all again from the basics and the result would always be the same. I was then sent to a disciple of CB (Chitti Babu) who was terrified about teaching me, or correcting me lest I get annoyed and complain to her guru. Poor dear … I took full advantage of her situation and cut short my classes quite often citing homework etc.
My mother an astute lady, soon concluded that I was playing truant and took law into her hands and got a teacher to come home and tutor me. She would get on with her chores at home but kept an eye on me and her ears open to see if I was following the teacher’s instructions.
Chitti Babu, heard me play the veena a couple of times and told me I had the talent but lacked the discipline to practice. He was a genius and we were all so proud of him. He was a very handsome man too and a lot of kids especially girls were quite envious that I had a direct access to him. CB took the trouble of choosing a veena for me. He also advised me to grow my right hand finger nails as he felt that the quality of the sound was much better than playing the veena with the metal nails that were used in those days. CB was at his peak in those years and in tremendous demand. He was the first one to experiment with English tunes (today we very fashionably call it fusion music). His rendition of the famous Come September tune took the teenage crowd by storm and bowled them over. Of course many purists were critical of this but CB felt that music is universal and one needs to cater to all sections of the audience. This does not mean that CB was a rebel. He would not resort to these experiments at a serious katcheri but more at times when the crowd was in a light hearted mood.
My love for pop music had not diminished over the years and when I realised that I could play these tunes on the veena I began to enjoy it. The last teacher Ms. Satyavathi tried valiantly to wean me away from pop music and gave up the battle when I showed no signs of succumbing. She gave my mother to understand that they were wasting their hard earned money on me and that she felt guilty accepting her renumeration as I had shown no progress or willingness to change.
But these experiences had some benefits too. My mother learnt music just by listening to the teacher… so somebody did benefit after all! After I stopped I grew the nails on my left hand too and even modeled my finger nails many years later for a couple of ads!! I started to sing along with my brothers (but never could play the guitar) and we gave programmes at family functions where we were sure we would be indulged and not looked down upon or criticized. CB was the most supportive as he felt that love for music, any music, was great and there was no need to be apologetic about it. He took us to every Beatles or any musical movie that was released during that period. When I got married I was very insistent that CB plays at the reception (which was the trend in those days). CB attained unrivalled excellence not only because he was superly talented or at the topmost rung of his chosen profession but more because of his attitude in encompassing and embracing the world of music in the truest sense.
One would assume that this is an “all’s well that ends well” story …. not quite ! I got married into a family (the Alladi’s) that was steeped in Carnatic music. They would attend every katcheri possible. They could and would compete in naming the raga as soon as the musician started the first note …..something I cannot do even to this day . This scared the daylights out of me .I felt pretty inadequate when they discussed the different ragas in Carnatic music and would relate it to the ones in Hindustani music. I never went beyond the “Geetham” stage while learning as every new teacher would insist on starting from the basics and by the time I reached the next stage they were ready to let me go. But since I had no pressure to learn now I slowly but surely began to enjoy Carnatic music … this does not mean that I can listen to it every hour of the day. I definitely now had no aversion to listen and sit through a programme. My mother- in -law loved Carnatic music so much that when she lived with us my husband and I would organize chamber music regularly by some of the stalwarts . Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Sanjay Subramanian, the Hyderabad brothers, the Hyderabad sisters, Santana Gopalpan to name a few.
All these wonderful artistes would indulge me by singing at least one of my favourite compositions. It was a treat to interact with these stalwarts. Simple but hugely talented group of people. Of course I lost no opportunity in telling them I was related to CB thereby firmly entrenching myself as part of the classical music world.
Do I regret that I did not take my music lessons as seriously as I should have? Sure I do … it would have been wonderful to be able to play an instrument or sing during these stressful Covid times. I also feel pangs of guilt that I did not make any effort to please my parents. But I must confess they were pretty cool about us singing English songs once realization dawned on them …the old adage comes to mind … “you can take the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink”
Today both my sons, my nephews, my grandson and my grandnieces all have a keen ear for music, but not necessarily classical. I am grateful that they all have a deep love for music. So much so that whenever we all get together it’s music time anytime!