Smriti Dakshina: Thank you, Mami!

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So I was one of those reluctant, ungrateful wretches who sat down for paattu class sullenly, fidgeted all the way through, never practised and had giggling fits when she heard unfamiliar words (which was all the time, considering the state of my Tamil and Telugu, then and now). And I am classic example of one who now feels deep remorse for having been such an awful student.

Thankfully, I could sing. I take solace from the fact that on top of my dreadful attitude, my teachers did not have to put up with zero musicality. It may have blunted their frustration.

Like all good projects, this one was born out of my own sense of guilt and remorse. The fact that I think women’s work should be documented just made it all the more important to do it, however simply and quietly. I have been talking about this for a few years to anyone who will listen, but it was a recent conversation with my friend Dr. Sudha Raja, herself a prominent music educator, that has got this going. Thank you, Sudha, for agreeing to work with me on this.

So here is my tribute to my many paattu teachers.

Picture the Bombay monsoon of thirty-forty years ago: blinding sheets of rain cascading for three months; flooded roads, crowded buses; damp flats with clothes drying everywhere. And in the middle of this mess, a lady in a nylon saree, carrying a flimsy umbrella, more wet than dry, ringing the doorbell to cause my heart to sink: “She’s come!” One hour with the reluctant student, one hot cup of coffee, and she leaves, often on her way to the next reluctant brat.

Lakshmi Mani: My first “Paattu Mami” and maybe the sweetest of them all. I was eight, I think, and she was already teaching my cousins music. She was warm and friendly and affectionate, not just towards me but also my sister, who was just two then. With this Mami, I went through the drill of all the early exercises, geetam, the two swarajathis I still can sing and a couple of varnams. She was endlessly patient, I remember, and indulged my preference for ‘theory’ over ‘singing.’ My mother and visiting grandmother worried that they never heard my voice–she sang along with me all the time, and my singing then constituted the musical version of mumbling along.

My sister who loved Mami’s little red purse with a picture on it, would claim it as soon as Mami entered and then sit outside through my entire class, play with the purse and sing all the songs with us. So Lakshmi Mani Mami was also, unintentionally, her first music teacher.

At some point, the mumbling became an issue, perhaps. I cannot recall why but my classes with Mami ceased. Even today, I can recall her smile and the twinkle in her eyes vividly.

In the meanwhile, the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute had opened in GD Somani school near our home, and they started a Kala Vibhag that offered all manner of classes. Shakuntala Ramaseshan was the next teacher I remember. A very young woman with a little child and a very sweet voice, she was “Shakuntala” to us 12-13 year olds and never “Mami.” My sister was part of this class. The one song I remember learning from her is the Dashavatara poem by Jayadava. This was to be performed at the Guru Purnima programme of the Institute. I am ashamed to say all the “big girls” bunked the programme and only my sister–about 6 or 7 then–performed. All by herself.

Shakuntala moved back to Chennai (where are you now?), and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Subramaniam, also a very good singer, took over the classes. As I write this, I remember her with great affection. Again, it’s strange but I cannot remember what I learnt from her, just that I did, and that I really liked her.

In between, at some point, I learnt from a lady called Shyamala Parameswaran, also at Ananthacharya. She also taught veena, but this cannot have lasted very long. I don’t remember much of what I learnt with her, but I do remember her face.

The very, very little veenai I remember comes from my first and last real veena teacher–Padma Varadan. Padma Aunty had gone to school with my mother, and when she played, the veena sang. I would go to her house to learn and I would actually practice veena more than my vocal lessons, but she shrewdly saw that I would never have the discipline her teaching required. My classes ended abruptly but I never found (or sought) as good a veena teacher as her. And yes, Padma Aunty, if you can read this from where you now are, I can still slowly play the seven notes you made me master before I stopped!

My last female teacher, Annapoorna Bhaskaran, traveled a very long distance to come teach us. A very serious young woman (as she must have been though we did not think so then), she would rarely smile. And do you blame her? If all her students were like us, there couldn’t have been much to smile about in her line of work.

It was the oddest thing. We would stand in our balcony and watch for her bus. We never saw her alight or walk the short distance that would have brought her to the road median, but there we would suddenly spot her, about to cross over.

For all the years that I learnt music, and all the teachers who struggled with me, it is the songs Annapoorna Bhaskaran taught me that have instant recall. She taught each song the same way each time, and that is harder than you can imagine. The training in our system is to keep improvising and to discipline that to suit the grasp of your student must be a gift. By virtue of those identical repetitions, she ensured that all our lives, those would be the songs we remembered.

Annapoorna Bhaskaran was also the most meticulous about writing down the sahityam and other details. It’s another matter entirely that the transliteration of Tamil and Telugu words into Roman-script syllables (scarcely words) would set off uncontrollable giggling during class time. The notebook we had for her class is now in tatters; it has traveled the world with me and we have gone back to it time and again.

Many, many years later, when I was teaching in Michigan, I took a few lessons from my friend’s visiting mother, Mrs. Ananthakrishnan. I learnt a few songs from her, and this time, I really enjoyed the lessons a great deal. I also learnt a couple of songs during a visit to my aunt, Kamala Kumar, who has been teaching music in Calgary for decades. By this time, I had learned to value the opportunity.

My years as a music student also included two male teachers, but this story is not about them. It is about these dedicated women who made it possible for me to appreciate good music. I hope they are all well. Thank you so much, wherever you are, for the gift of music! May it stay with you forever, too!

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