We’ve all been through it – the compulsory education in a centuries old art form. Dance, an instrument or the (s)training of one’s vocal cords with the noble aim of producing sweet music. In addition to this we are encouraged to take up a sport of some kind, so that we are capable of executing Bhairavi and a breast stroke with equal ease.
As a child I tried my hand at gymnastics – a failure because I was scared that headstands and cartwheels would leave me suspended upside down forever. Netball proved futile, as my immediate reaction to an approaching ball was to duck. I enjoyed swimming but only after I agreed not to press charges against the instructor for trying to kill me (he wanted me to keep my head under the water for a minute. Murderous surely?)
I wanted to learn to sing like my elder sister and proved my enthusiasm by keeping taalam with such vigour I had red welts on my thighs and singing so loudly, our teacher’s neighbours complained. That was when I was about 6.
After moving about a great deal we finally settled down in Madras. The years in between had seen my try my hand at choir (I was relegated to the last row) and playing the flute (which I was surprisingly good at).
Back in Madras, my never-say-die Mother was sure her daughter had the voice of an angel and began to search in earnest for teacher who would draw out my (very) latent talents. The search ended when my former teacher’s Mother agreed to take up where her daughter had left off. So thrice a week after school I would walk to her house with a frayed copy of A.S.Panchapakeshva Iyer’s Ganamrutha Bodini that both my mother and sister had used.
Rukmini Paati lived in an old, crumbling house that stayed blissfully cool in the summer months. She taught about 6 of us at the same time, boys and girls, ages varying from 4 to 14. Her enormous body draped in a Rangachari sari ould be perched precariously on the edge of a rusty, metal-framed bed, her harmonium box resting on her lap and keeping taalam with a broken, metre long ruler. She was mildly myopic, and would peer at us, trying to decipher who was singing off key and who was just going through the motions of singing – lip-synching in a time before Britney.
Her efforts were seriously hampered by the fact that she was pretty deaf. Which meant most of us were singing our own versions of Mayamalavagowlai and Mohanam. Adding plenty of Sondha sarakku as a favourite blogger of mine says.
After a few months of Rukmini Paati’s unique teaching methods, my mother on hearing me sing realised that it would just not do. The Paati’s services were terminated and the search continued for a guru.
This time two teachers were found – a carnatic vocalist and a flautist.
They were talented in their own right. Excellent teachers. And very strict. Countless tears stung my eyes from class 7 till class 10. But it was not in vain. For once I was decent at something – managing to claw my way up to keerthanams. But I was never that good, never practiced as much as I should have and frankly, never really my heart in it.
So when I finished my 10th board exams I stopped. Both teachers were saddened by my decision, because despite my shortcomings as a student, they had grown quite attached to me.
After that I lost touch with singing – apart from the occasional and humiliating ‘group light music’ events I was forced to participate in during inter-department culturals. (oh the horror of having to sing Words accompanied by a wan guitar that was held ‘like you’re used to playing the sitar’ as the judge said.)
My last brush with singing (not including a few tipsy renditions of Dancing Queen and You’re Still the One at Not Just Jazz by the Bay) was after I got married.
As is tradition, the newly weds must visit the homes of all the ageing aunts and uncles of the family. Since the entire family, village and neighbouring village are no longer invited to ‘see the girl’, it is the first time a family gets to inspect the new daughter-in-law. Discreetly check if she has all fingers and toes. That she can hear (cunningly tested by speaking in very low voices). And of course how talented she is. As culinary skills can only be tested on visiting the bride at her own home, the obvious substitute is to ask her to sing.
Fortunate is the girl who skilled in dance – the more exotic the better – after all who keeps a stock of Kathakali make-up at home? Those who are amateur Veena artists are in no such luck. Most ageing harridans often played the instrument themselves and will probably have one languishing in the corner of their bedroom. But woe betide she who has learnt to sing. She has no choice but to agree.
Unless she is willing to put up a spirited half hour argument on why she can not sing (a good idea - it will give way to gossip that you are strong willed and don't listen to elders.) My secret reasoning was that a squeaky rendition of Kanchi Kamakshi would not be a good first impression, so I firmly and repeatedly stated that I could not remember a single word of a single song. Which in retrospect was probably not wise, because now they all think that I have an undiagnosed memory problem.
My excuse that day was not entirely untrue. I have forgotten much of what I learnt as a child. The odd line here and there and some humming in between is all I can manage really. But I’ll always remember Rukmani Paati’s cool room and droning harmonium, my music Sir’s woeful sigh as I hit those higher notes and my flute teacher’s spirited renditions of movie songs when we took a short break for coffee.
Some memories just don’t fade.