Last year on the eve of Teacher’s Day, I had dedicated a post to my math teachers, right from primary school to high school and how the poor teachers had to put up with a numerophobe like me. (Read about it here) This year I am dedicating one to another beleaguered species of teachers who had to endure me – my vocal music teachers. It is not that I couldn’t carry a tune in a bag, but I was not exactly M.S.Subbulakshmi or Lata Mangeshkar, you see.
During my childhood years in Nagpur, it was mandatory for a girl from a Tamilian middle class home to learn Carnatic classical music. Boys did too but it was not compulsory and if they did, they did it out of interest. The reasons for girls having to learn vocal music were many – to be able to sing on festive occasions or social functions like weddings and such, and of course to sing when one was being ‘viewed’ before marriage!
Given that I belonged to the said community, I couldn’t escape the practice either but was I a reluctant student! There were a couple of professional singers who were also music teachers and were much in demand. Mother decided against them and chose a teacher who taught music as a pastime. He worked in a government office and was a good singer though an unassuming one. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to learn alone but with my elder sister who was really keen on learning to sing.
I would not only keep dawdling before coming to the class but also would not spread the mat or set out the harmonium for the teacher. My poor sister was left to do all this and on top of it all, I would make excuses not to practice the day’s lesson. He taught us well, didn’t intimidate or push us to become concert singers! It was a good thing that we sang together. I couldn’t hold the upper octaves and was always hurrying through the songs, much to the chagrin of the teacher and my sister. But we did take part in local music competitions and even won prizes, if I remember right. Wonder if the other competitors were worse or if the judges were kind!
It was not just carnatic classical music but also classes where shlokas were set to tune and taught. No doubt this is one of the best ways to memorise shlokas, but I just didn’t want to learn! However what with mothers competing to show off the talents of their children, my mother didn’t want to be left behind in the race. I must admit that I managed to learn all the 100 verses of the Soundarya Lahari and several others too which I remember till date! My sister must have breathed a sigh of relief because there were different batches for young girls, teenagers and older women.
My next music teacher a couple of years later was a young woman in her late 20s. Father had been transferred to Tiruchi and my sister had got married and left home so I had to learn alone. I resisted big time but gave in eventually with poor grace as mother was sweetly adamant and coaxed me to give it a try saying that the teacher was highly recommended by many neighbours.
When I remember it now, I think I gave in mainly I found out that my teacher was the sole earning member of her family, having lost her father some years earlier. The meager pension her mother got and her earnings as a music teacher saw the family scrape through. She had two younger sisters and a mother to take care of, with no possibility of marriage in the near future. What I still remember about her was that she was a pleasant person despite her circumstances, who tolerated my disinterest and was very patient with me as she tried her best to teach me to sing. She even wrote the notes and songs for me!
I would come and sit reluctantly but start singing with earnestness when I saw the seriousness with which she strove to make me learn. I never failed to feel a pang when I saw her – she must have left home very early to commute by bus to finish my class before I left for school at 9. I must confess that I did try my best. But without my sister to help camouflage my mistakes, it was tough. My voice still couldn’t roll like a gurgling stream and couldn’t stretch enough to reach the higher octaves. Sigh!
My mother insisted that I sang very well. Have you ever seen a mother who thought anything but the best about her child? As they say in Tamil, ‘To a crow, its fledgling is the golden one.’ I wracked my brains to find a way to get out of the music lessons and suddenly hit upon a brainwave!
‘I will never master vocal music. If you buy me a veena I will learn music,’ I told mother one day. I loved the instrument and felt it was the most graceful one ever invented. I felt sure that my parents could not afford to buy me one so that meant I could stop my vocal music lessons! But before that, we would have to get another couple of students for my teacher, as I couldn’t bear to be responsible for her loss of income. Mother saw that I really meant it this time.
But I had reckoned without her resolute nature and my elder brothers. Mother must have written to the second oldest brother who promptly sent the money for buying the veena. For the first time I was excited about learning music and when my mother tapped her network of friends in Thanjavur, a place renowned for the said instrument and placed an order for one, I began dreaming of one day becoming a great veena player.
The veena was beautiful. The strings, the large kudam or resonator, the smaller one made of hollowed out gourd, the frets, the bridge, the yaali (a mythical creature with a lion face) at the end of the bridge…I could have looked at it all day long.
My first veena teacher was an old musician — a wonderful person with a toothless smile and inexhaustible patience. I learnt fast and played reasonably well. But I wouldn’t sing along as he wanted me to. Nothing in the world would make me sing! I was happy strumming the strings and playing the notes. He taught me for a year before father was transferred back to Nagpur. Here my veena teacher was an old lady, simply called Veena mami. She refined my playing. I still wouldn’t sing. She did!
There is nothing like playing a musical instrument to soothe away tensions, calm frayed nerves and lift your mood. It is completely therapeutic as it takes over mind and body and your entire concentration. After half an hour, you will feel fully refreshed, ready to face the world.
Over the years I stopped playing, rushed as I had been between home, work and kids. It is over three decades since I strummed a veena. Wonder if I would be able to take it up again if I wanted to. Is it like driving which you never forget no matter how many years pass without your sitting behind a steering wheel? I mean isn’t it too long a break? Will I be able to do it?
What do you think?