I recently met one of my relatives – a karnatic classical singer who sings for dancers. Having just spent an evening with her, I could not but help dwell on my music endeavours.
Like most other tambrahm families, I was put in a paatu class at a young age. My introduction to singing I think might have started when my mother was singing lullabies to my brother. I don’t know if she managed to put him to sleep, but I sure picked up a few songs that I would sing along with her. About that time I was 6 or 7 years old, so my mother decided that perhaps I was old enough to learn music. So she contacted a paatu teacher, who came home one day. She interviewed me (made me sing), and she was interviewed by my mother, her tuition charges and timings were discussed, and I was officially a paatu student. She would come home every few days, make me sit down, and started teaching me sarigamapadani. I moved through 3 or 4 teachers after that, every teacher would restart from sarigamapadani, because they were never satisfied with the previous teacher – or may be they were not satisified with their work until they did it from scratch.
Paatu class to me was a boring thing. I never liked to sit in one place for so long, and sing the same songs over and over again. That was until I met M, a childhood friend of mine. She was a professional – she learnt both kuchipudi and karnatic classical and she was good at both too. Around the time we met her and her family, both M and I were at the same stage. So I was instantly accepted as a student of her guru. This guy was not one of the small time paatu teachers I had learnt from all along. He was teaching at a dance & music school. The place would be full of students every evening. He would teach M and me, and because I had company I liked, I was a little more interested in going to the class. Until, one fine day, M found a better teacher, and she decided to join that teacher. Meanwhile, this paatu master started teaching me at his home – I would sit in the gap between the bed and the wall in his modest residential quarters – he would sit on the bed and teach me. My mother ceased to be impressed. Time to follow M to her teacher. This teacher was kind of different. She was a very nice lady, sang very well, her senior students were treated as part of the family, and I was edging towards senior student. However, there were 2 drawbacks – she had a dog (which I loathed), and her home was kind of out of the way. So, I had to take a bus from school to her place, walk a km or so, eat my packed evening tiffin (that amma gave me in the morning). Still worse was the fact that she believed in teaching by memory. She would sing a few lines everyday for a new song, I would memorize it as I sang, and in a week or so, I should’ve memorized the entire song. Except, my memory was really bad (which is why I could’nt learn dance in the first place – I would never know which step was after what). So I was kind of stuck in this place where I was clearly falling behind due to poor memory and lack of practice (which was my problem from day one).
Finally my mother gave up. I was in class IX and studies were getting tougher too. There ended my music class rigmarole. I was happy at the least.
Another big relief was I didn’t have to show off my talent anymore. My pati was the worst at this. Every summer holiday, we’d pack off and go to visit my grandparents. Some maami or pati or aunty would show up – somehow conversation would steer towards music – they would be informed of my music training, and they’d say – “Oh appdiya.. Oru paatu paadu paarpom”. That would make me seethe in anger. I would fuss and fume, and say my throat was bad, and I was tired and I didn’t remember anything without my book. Somehow they would all push me to a corner that would be hard to get out of – my mother would suggest that she remind me of the words if I forgot, my pati would suggest a song which she said I sang well, and so on.
When I stopped learning, I was so relieved that nobody would ask me to sing anymore. I finally got out of the karnatic music league, started listening to more of Nadeem Shravan and A.R.Rehman and sang along all the time. I finally started enjoying my own voice when I got out of my teens, and I repented for not pursuing my music or learning and practicing more. I derived great joy out of singing along with the radio, or cassettes or cds, until one fine day, I realized I was not able to sing those songs anymore. I was pregnant and my voice turned hoarse. My pitch fell flat and I was no longer able to sing along with Chitra or S. Janaki or Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhonsle. All I could sing along with was Bombay Jayshree or Vasundhara Das – not much there. I had this unconscious habit of singing along with any song I knew. Suddenly I found I couldn’t hear myself anymore. I sang deplorably. I lost my voice and I knew then I had wasted it as long as I had it.