Last evening, I received my first ever award for my work in heritage. The Vedavalli Memorial Award was given to me by Ramu Endowments, the same institution that conducts the South India Heritage Series Lectures in which I speak each year in December on two music related subjects.
Having received the award from Mr S Muthiah, I then gave my speech. I said I dedicated the award to the memory of my paternal grandmother. And then a whole host of memories came flooding in. For the first 15 years of my life, she was my closest friend, and guide, poet and philosopher. We shared the same room. It was she who taught me to celebrate being Indian – our culture, our history, our music, our festivals, our way of life. She was a story-teller par excellence.
Grandmother came from an upper class stock. Her father was what was called a village banker (a thoroughly evil piece of goods someone else told me). And my grandfather, after his marriage to her, rose rapidly in the South Indian Railway and became a very senior man. It was more or less a full life of living in big houses, having several servants and travelling in style. Later she adjusted with grace to living in our flat in Calcutta, but the old imperiousness and dignity never left her.
She had a sharp tongue (which several of us grandchildren inherited in varying degrees of corrosiveness). She loved works of art (ivory, wooden furniture, silks, jewellery) and left behind something for each grandchild. She was a prolific letter-writer and expected the same from all of us. I benefited most from my association with her because she taught me to sing, read & write Tamil, and inculcated in me a love for public speaking (with a degree of theatricality which she also possessed). In daily conversation, she loved the parry and thrust of repartee and appreciated punch lines. In the afternoons, I had to read Marina’s dramas to her, with the same inflexions as the original characters would have used. (Dont read it like a corpse would. If I wanted that I could have read it myself was a common comment).
At the age of 75, in 1981, grandmother prepared herself for her departure. She finished reading the Bhagavatam in full and on a day when both her sons and their families were with her, performed the final puja. All of us sang throughout the day and she most of all. At midnight she woke my dad up and said she was uneasy. She wanted a doctor. Then a great dignity came over her. “I am leaving,” she announced. “All of you will do well in life.” And that was that. It was a dramatic exit, just the way she would have liked it.
Yesterday, all these memories came clouding around me and for the first five minutes of my speech I dithered and babbled quite freely. Then I got a hold over myself. She would not have liked it. (the first time I got on stage was in LKG and I cried and cried out of stage fright. She made such fun of me on the way home!)I then got on with the rest of my speech. Thankfully, none bar a few friends noticed all this.