Friday, July 14, 2006

Sing Shoefiend! Sing!

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.


Nee said...

LOL! Some much needed humor after the events of the past week.

Filmiholic said...


I LOVE these pieces of yours; they give those of us who haven't grown up in Madras, glimpses into day-to-day life as you've experienced it, and they're little treasures.

Keep it up, girl!

the wannabe indian punkster said...

Isnt every mom in madras convinced that her daughter is either a little carnatic music maestro in the making or a little bharatanatyam dancer? :D


Ravages said...

'Tis easy, I declare, for the girl child. I, the spirited young boy child had to learn the blasted art, for the first 12-13 years of my life. Even though I sucked. Big time.
And it didn't help matters that my brother, almost my flesh and blood, was actually good at the thing and could render a keerthanam with as much soul as MS at her peak.

So ofcourse, a benevolent paati decided I would learn an instrument. No, not a veenai. But Violin, Flute and Mridangam came and went with much alacrity. To be fair though, I did show some promise in the Mridangam.

Falstaff said...

:-). Lovely.

Just for the record, it isn't just a South Indian phenomenon you know. We North Indians try as well, albeit less classically. I had guitar lessons. I took them because someone had bought me a guitar and I had this dream of being the next George Harrison. It didn't quite work out that way. My teacher, unfortunately, had never heard of the Beatles. In fact, his entire repertoire consisted largely of Rajesh Khanna movies from the 1970's. By the time I'd attended his classes for a year, I could make everything but the guitar weep. And not gently either. Needless to say I abandoned the classes at some point, but if the fate of the world depended on it, I'm willing to bet I could still manage to play the chords to 'Zindagi ek safar hai suhana'.

B o o said...

Beautiful post! Brought back lots of memories. When I went for the Paatu class, I slept off in the middle. Paatu Miss asked my mom to try again after I am a little bit older. I never went back! ;)

ggop said...

This is so hilarious. "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?"

I was reading the characteristics of a true Bong on couple of blogs and I think you ought to write up one on Tamilians :-)

Needless to say I was a victim especially during Navarathri kolu visits. But the moms do have a point - it sure helps in music appreciation.

Nilu said...

ellarum orre scene..

TomCruiseChellum said...

In my days they did not want to make anything out of me in terms of my "extra-curricular" capabilities.But these dare different days. Ammudus are not just satisfied with music and dance. They want their daughters to be Sania Mirzas (I havent seen anyone yet in the Mylapore Tambram neighbourhood wanting to make a Mallewsari Devi out of their daughters) and sons to be Sachin Tendulakrs. (Mahendra Dhoni phenomenon is yet to hit the cricket practise schools here)
Come summer, you will see lots of mothers ferriying thier kids to these camps.And once the schools reopen it is back to coaching classes for the entrance exams

Subbu said...

Come Varalaksmi vradham/Navaratri all the maamis would turn on the spotlight and ask me to sing. Paadu maa paadu. Chinna paatu. For a little girl, big women look like HULK hogan. Till today, the scars remain from those terrifying sessions; I shy away from singing in public (although I must say I am blessed with a divine voice :P )

DesiGirl said...

Ahhh! This brought memories of my own disastrous attempts at mastering Carnatic music. Though by the time I quit, I learnt every single thing about my guru's extended family, I cannot say the same about the music.

Great post!! Brought a huge grin to my face.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

nee :)

filmiholic - thanks!

punkster - they are! how hard mother's try to make their children the next big thing - two left feet and tone deafness be damned!

ravages - So, were you ever called upon during Navrathri to sing or play an instrument for all the Mamis?

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Falstaff - Thanks! I kept trying to get my flute master to teach me A.R Rahman songs - he agreed once and I learnt the opening lines to Chinna Chinna Aasai. :) You should put up a podcast of your rendering Zindagi...

Boo - I fell asleep in the front row of a Nithyashree concert once. My mother's embarassment was heightened by the fact that we were sitting next to her family. :D

Ggop - Thanks! I wish I could agree about the music appreciation though - I'm one of those people who clap at all the wrong bits during kutcheris!

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Nilu - if you say so!

tcc - What of the children learning chess and judo and jujitsu?

subbu - I'm sure you are ;)

desigirl - I was a great hit with my Music Sir's daughters. :D

sudha said...

though i was nowhere near pushed into music coz i took it up on my own, u brought back memories of this really hot son of my veena "maami". i wonder what he is doing now - he better be rotund and appended to a nagging wife and 3 kids now, coz he was the coolest then. *sigh

and i cannot begin to tell you how foolish i feel for the weekend acts of paranoia. sincere apologies!

anjali said...

hehehe...i was traumatised by my husband's ex-boss, in Cincinnati of all places! Hubby took the new bride (me) to meet his mentor. This Mallu lady was the president of all the local south indian associations, and when hubby dear ventured that i had learnt music, she insisted that i sing. No amount of "i don't remember any words" would work on her, and in the end, i sang a totlaly off-key version of "Aaana lekkara". ayyyyo, the trauma....

:) said...

hey, nice blog you have here.

i used to get giggling fits in my hindustani classical classes. i don't know why. and the teacher and other pupils would ignore me and carry on singing, which seemed even funnier to me. its surprising they didn't throw me out. I did 3 years and 2 exams and don't remember a word of any of the ragas i learnt. (you think television does that to you, weakens your memory?)


S said...

nice post shoes..brings back memories of my violin class at this vidhvaan's house,he used to employ his juniors to teach us children and the classes will go on as a mela....the best bit was one day maami of the vidhwaan comes out shaking her head.. says "class mudiyara varaikum kalyanam illai" and hits her forehead and "che kalyanam mudiyara varaikum class illai"...clearly showed the stress lady of the house faces when preparing for the daughter's marriage. What fun!! after the marriage, maami r'bered that bit and laughed with us!!

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Sudha - Hot sons are always a bonus - and do encourage one to attend classes regularly :)My music teacher had three daughters. That's why I was doomed as a musical genius.

Anjali - I'll trade you the husband's boss for the husband's pitbull Athai any day!

:) Yes! I blame Big Brother for the degeneration of my memory. DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER

s - Violin-a? Hey we should jam next time we meet. Preferably in a sound proof room

MumbaiGirl said...

I have tried a)Kathak b)Bharatanatyam c)the violin. Failed at all. I know that I shouldn't even try singing.

Premalatha said...

I am musically challenged! :D

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

Mumbaigirl - How can you say that? It may be your true calling in life :D

Premalatha - :D

Anonymous said...

shoefee: "Ggop - Thanks! I wish I could agree about the music appreciation though - I'm one of those people who clap at all the wrong bits during kutcheris!"

i learned a way around it - i just watch the most experienced maamees and follow her.

- s.b.

tilotamma said...

i went to veena class too

Sridevi said...

I am so very much in the same boat. But, I've discovered that too much protest doesn't work, reverse psychology does. The instant somebody asks you to sing, just pitch headlong into the latest Geetham. The audience will immediately figure out that you are 1. a beginner and 2. no good. Then, there won't be a next time. Just nod dutifully when the audience asks you to practice and learn a bigger song for next song- that's their way of saying "Thank you very much, but I don't think I want to hear you sing for a long, long time".

Anonymous said...

Where did you find it? Interesting read » » »