This fortnight is some kind of Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan or Malarum Ninaivugal, kicked off by that two part story on my maternal grandfather. That brought to mind the other jolly soul I was lucky to spend my childhood with – my father’s younger brother, Ramamurthi. There was never a dull moment with this humorist and when it came to music he was probably the most gifted in our family. His voice was identical to Balamuralikrishna’s and like the latter, he could sing just about anything – film songs, Western or Carnatic. Mind you, there was a lot of competition in our household when it came to music. Second aunt (Amritha Murali’s grandmother) was equally gifted and could compose, and others were no walkovers either.
Like something out of an Italian opera, everyone sang, and sang a lot – Grandmother setting things off by rendering the Lalitha PrAtahsmaraNiya stotram in ragamalika at 4 am each morning. Thereafter, it was like a relay – aunts sang, cousins sang, and uncle sang of course. I sang too. Even the postman sang – he was a Carnatic music aficionado and strummed the tambura in DK Jayaraman’s concerts. When we were not singing we shouted quite a bit – this was a highly affectionate but intense and argumentative family. The topics were usually Sringeri vs Kanchi, Advaita vs Visishtadvaita vs Dvaita or the multiple explanations of the line Kshud VyAdischa chikitsatAm. Some of these arguments would result in great sulks and silences too. I don’t think we were very practical but then that is how we were. All that shouting kept our vocal chords in top form and so we could sing at anytime, on demand and even not on demand. There was even a family song – Dikshitar’s pAmarajanapAlini – I bet even the neighbours knew this one.
Someday I must write a blog post on my paternal grandmother. She and my maternal grandfather did not exactly approve of each other and now that I have elevated him with a couple of posts she must be glaring from up there. But she will have to wait. Suffice it to say that there was a lot of pomp and circumstance about this lady. I was her favourite grandchild but even I knew that beneath that loving exterior was a tough disciplinarian who could if roused unleash verbal thunderbolts. The daughter of a village moneylender, on whom an entire book needs to be written, she was a dominant personality. Combine this with the fact that she was the wife of a senior railwayman of the Raj era and you had a very classy person – always neatly turned out in silks and with an eye for the exquisite in everything – music, sarees, jewels, silver and brass, flowers and kolams. When she sang she spoke to the Gods. When she shouted, well.. well.. let me leave that aside. But when she told stories, she was unbeatable. In a class mono act she would be Ravana, Sita, Rama, Hanuman… you name it. She could even summon tears on the tap. And the stories had plenty of songs.
Uncle was the last of my grandparents’ children. He was named in typical Tirunelveli fashion, Harihararamasubramaniam at birth and hated every letter in it. This was Patti’s father’s name and so it was mandatory to name the younger son that way. Later, Uncle shortened it to RH Subramaniam and much later when he settled in the US, he became Hari. To add to the confusion, he was called Ramamurthi at home. He was Murthi to friends.
We were all assessed by grandmother for our musical skills by the time we were five. If we were weak voiced, we were trained on instruments. If we could shout others down, we became singers. In Thatha’s heyday as a railway official, the best of teachers had taught his elder children – Rajalakshmi Ammal, the daughter of Veena Dhanam had taught the vAra kritis for instance. In the 1950s the family moved to Madras when uncle joined AC College of Technology. For his music lessons, grandmother engaged DK Jayaraman. By the time I came along in 1966, DKJ was like a family member.
He was then not yet the star he became. He lived on Veeraperumal Koil Street not far from Bangaru Ammal Street where we lived and would come home by cycle to teach Uncle. Our house, unofficially named Buffalo View, was in a cul-de-sac on one side of which were houses and on the other a settlement of cowherds. It was uncle who gave the house its name, based on what we saw each morning. There was never a dull moment among the cowherds. In the morning the buffaloes provided all the fun by bellowing and sometimes running amok. In the evening the cowherds became ‘spirited’ and therefore highly spiritual. One man would recite sections of the Lalitha Sahasranamam when illuminated from within. God knows where he picked that up.
But the highpoint in the life of the street was Uncle’s music lessons under DKJ. They would sing in the main hall inside but such being the silence of that era, the songs would carry quite a bit. Many of the neighbours would drop in to listen and I have seen the cowherds stopping at the gate to catch some of it too. I can still mentally hear SomasundarEsvaram (Shuddha Vasanta) – there were so many more.
Both being fun -loving personalities it was a wonder that music was taught and learnt. But under grandmother’s watchful eye lessons progressed very well. Uncle even gave vocal support in some of DKJ’s performances and one of these had a hilarious outcome. The concert was in Kanchipuram and dinner that night was at Prativadi Bhayankaram Annangarachriyar’s residence. The lady of the house was not too happy at two smArthas coming home to eat. Dinner concluded, DKJ and uncle took their leave of the Vaishnavite scholar and stepped out. DKJ told uncle that if they stood nearby and watched the house their vigil would be well rewarded. They did and sure enough it was worth every moment. Annangarachariar’s wife emerged wielding a stick. Impaled on it were the banana leaves on which DKJ and uncle had eaten. This was flung out and then the whole hallway was ceremonially washed with cowdung.
This was duly recounted to us among gales of laughter. “They may have even had a bath,” speculated DKJ. I must add here that I was less than six years of age when all this happened and so much of what I write is compiled from what others told me, for DKJ was part of family legend and lore.
I was more or less uncle’s shadow and so I warbled some of the songs he was taught. I did it my own way and it amused DKJ and uncle quite a bit that in Ramachandram bhAvayAmi I sang bhUmija as gUmija and upEndram as upEnDam.
It was then that this duo of Guru and Sishya decided that some greater fun could be had at my expense…