07 Jan 2017 16:14 IST

Music is a bond of love

Never mind if you cannot hold a note nor remember the words of a single song

Like a lot of women-when-they-were-girls, I too was forced to learn music. We lived in a small town called Durgapur in West Bengal, as I think have mentioned before in these columns. Everybody knows the presiding deity of all things cultural in that part of the country is Rabindranath Tagore, or Robi-da as he is fondly called. Of course, there’s also the Nazrul faction — Nazrul Islam is the national poet of Bangladesh. But where I lived when I was young, Robi-da ruled.

Once a week, our master would come, and my friends Runu and Jhunu, lovely twins, and I, would arrange ourselves in a suitably musical mode on the other side of the harmonium. They sang beautifully. I sang loudly. I think we enjoyed ourselves — it was a long time ago — but what counts is that 50 years on, I can still belt out many of the songs we learned back then.

Significantly, over 50 years on, Runu, Jhunu and I remain close friends across time and distance. It’s another matter that we used to spend almost all the other hours of the day of the music lesson and the rest of the week in each others’ company, at school and at play. But those music lessons were certainly part of the bond of our friendship. Incidentally, I’ve just finished reading the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, and although her story is vastly, vastly, vastly different, I can’t help but notice how the memory of childhood in the novel pulls at the threads in my own childhood.

Other teachers, other efforts: Kathak, Bharatanatyam, the v eena, the piano, Carnatic vocal, the guitar. The spirit was very willing, but the ability simply would not take. And frankly, the talent was missing altogether. Only Robi-da has entered my musical DNA and that, I suspect, was due to the genius of the poet and the skills of our music master working together.

Which leads me to think that a good teacher always connects. Good teaching never goes waste, however unwilling, unable, or uninterested the student. Something sticks.

And that leads to a further observation: that something sticking can have magical consequences. Something sticking gave me the opportunity, many years later, to spend precious hours with the incomparable DK Pattammal. She, along with MS Subbulakshmi and the much younger ML Vasanthakumari, were the golden trinity of singers at one time.

Family lore has it that MLV sang at my aunt’s wedding reception, back in 1955. She must have been around 26 or 27 then, beautiful and in the fullness of her prime. The concert was in full swing, and those in attendance were spellbound.

So, too, it seems, three little boys sitting in the first row, sipping endless glasses of rose milk and enthusiastically imitating every nod of her head, every flight of her fingers. At first, MLV didn’t notice them. But then she did and once that happened, she found her eyes constantly seeking them out. Finally, it got too much and at the end of a song, she pleaded with one of the family to please, please, please get the boys away from there. The boys obliged: they had had their fill of rose milk.

These last few weeks, through wind and rain and a fast-advancing dry spell, Chennai’s been dancing to the sound of music. Many old, familiar, loved faces and voices have passed on, the most recent being M Balamuralikrishna. To speak of his music would be impertinent. He was genius personified. From all accounts, he sang to the beat of his own mridangam — literally, too, because he could play numerous instruments. Genius spawns stories and anecdotes about him abound. Here is one handed down from my mother.

For many years, owing to a controversy, Balamurali was not invited to perform at the Music Academy, popularly considered the most hallowed of hallowed performing venues in Chennai, particularly during the ‘season’. Eventually, when hatchets were buried and peace was declared — this was some 35-40 years ago — he took the stage with a smile on his face and a book in his hand. A few songs later, he launched into an unstoppable rendering of all that he had composed in ragas he himself had created, flipping page after page of his notebook. To this day, my mother laughs when she remembers that evening. “He simply wouldn’t stop. He went on and on, song after song. People began to leave, but he wouldn’t finish!”

DK Pattammal was very different. She was the quintessential grandmother, soft-hearted, compassionate, loving. On the afternoon my friend Raghavendra Rao and I went to meet her, she spoke of many things, many experiences, but every incident she recounted was emotionally charged.

She spoke of how she wept whenever she had to travel out of town to perform and she couldn’t take her children along. She spoke about a teacher whose name she didn’t know but whose face she never forgot. She sang playback for films. “But no love songs,” she said. “Only devotional songs, and patriotic songs.” Indeed, she was the one who made the poems and songs of the incomparable Subramanya Bharati famous with her pioneering renderings and recordings. As we reluctantly readied to take leave of her, she pulled my child close and thrust a mango into his hand. “Eat, it’s sweet. Be happy,” she said. That was music, that was love.

My mother has many stories: another she loves to recount is about T Balasaraswati, again at the Music Academy. Bala, along with Rukmini Devi Arundale, was a pioneering personality in the field of Bharatanatyam. She had been a devadasi and had later been teaching at the Music Academy. This event at the Academy was special because she was no longer actively performing.

The programme started and Bala was into her repertoire when she indicated, without calling the dance to a halt, that she was unhappy with the accompanist — my mother doesn’t quite remember whether it was the singer or the percussionist. Bala tried to correct him, but was clearly not happy with his effort. So she indicated with her eyes that she wanted some other accompanist to be brought to the stage. She never stopped dancing all this while. She continued describing the spotted deer — pulli maan — all through these goings-on and all the time it took to go get a replacement accompanist. He finally arrived and she took the story forward. All the while, the audience stayed with her. No one left. Only the deer was released.

Why do we adore the stars — the singers, the dancers, the actors…?