The Music Teacher — Memories of HS Gururajachar
The bicycle bell tinkled. Paattu Vadiyar Mama, the music teacher, had arrived. Mala and Chitra, sleeping (or pretending to) under their blankets were woken up, despite their protestations, and hauled into the hall for their music lesson. Gururajachar, all smiles and good spirits, made himself comfortable. It had been a long day, and at 10 pm, he was both tired and hungry, but he enjoyed coming to this house to teach, gossip with his friends, and tuck into the tiffin he would be offered after the lesson.
Swara exercises began, followed by geetams, and then kritis from a practice list he had prepared painstakingly. Mala, much older than her sister, would try to hoodwink her teacher and proceed to pick out something that she liked. She didn’t like Daarini telusukonti or Abhimanamennadu galgura; off they went, in favour of Nagumomu or Amba Vaani (they sang this so often at Navaratri that one of the hosts asked them if Gururajachar didn’t know any other kritis).
Chitra followed meekly as Mala’s metallic voice rang out, allowing herself to lag where the gamakas were to be pronounced clearly, her reticence preventing her from trying to match steps with her sister. However, as most of Chitra’s learning came from sitting by Mala while all the focus was on the latter, she emerged unscathed. The sisters half-slumbered through their lessons, and scrambled away in relief as soon as they were finished. The duration of the lesson depended on Mama’s mood; if he was teaching them a new raga, it went on for a couple of hours.
In the meantime, the girls’ mother prepared some dosas or idlis or upma for Mama, and poured some piping hot Bournvita into a tumbler, because it was too late for coffee. The girls’ father sat down for a good chat with Gururajachar, who chose to come here at the end of the day so that he wouldn’t have to hurry away for another lesson. He was like family and was invited home for festival feasts; his sons played Holi with the large brood in the courtyard of the Amberpet house. His son, Krishna, often accompanied the sisters when they gave small concerts.
Mama was the source of a lot of affection and mirth. As young people are wont to do, Mala, Chitra, and their brothers laughed at his eccentricities. They rolled their eyes when he sang the Hamsadhwani swarajati, which contains the phrase “Ni Pa Ni Sa Sa”, and roared with laughter at his own wit as he said in Telugu, “Nee Pani, Naa Pani, Andari Pani” (your work, my work, everyone’s work).
When he taught the girls Anuragamu Leni in Saraswati, he made it a point to emphasise the words “ manasuna sujnaanamu raadu” (implying that there is no enlightenment in the absence of faith) with gestures. On days when the girls were particularly difficult, he ranted at them in his Kannada-inflected Tamil. Despite their inclination to shirk work, he taught them with great interest; his songs resounded around the house, and the girls’ brothers picked them up, too, and can recollect lines to this day.
Mala had started learning from Gururajachar before Chitra was born. He visited the house in the morning, three times a week, and dropped her at the bus stop on his cycle after her lesson, as there was an inevitable rush to get off when they were done. When Chitra grew old enough to start learning, she was asked to play catch-up and plunged straight into the kritis. This, coupled with being told by various people that her voice just wasn’t as good as Mala’s, made her withdraw and keep from practising seriously.
Years passed. Mala and Chitra grew up, got married, and left Hyderabad. Of Mala’s later musical inclinations, I can’t really tell you much; but I can let you into my mother Chitra’s secrets. Everything I write of Gururajachar here comes from her memories.
Living in distant towns where Carnatic music was almost unknown, Chitra sang only occasionally as the years passed. Then, when I came along, she put the kritis to use as lullabies; my earliest favourite, according to her, was Rangapura Vihara. But she barely practised for a long time, until we moved to Vizag and inspiration arrived in the form of Bhavanarayana, a priest at our local Venkateshwara temple. He encouraged her to sing at the temple, and wanting to do this properly, she began spending time on her music again and updating her knowledge through cassettes. She hasn’t looked back since then and now learns off YouTube.
I started learning Carnatic music from my mother at the ripe old age of sixteen, progressing directly to the kritis, because I had just heard Kurai Ondrum Illai and all I wanted was to be able to sing some ragas that gave me goosebumps and relieved the stress of entrance exam preparation. In a fit of rightly-placed enthusiasm, my mother thought it would be good for me to learn the basics as well, and so we did that, too. However, the less said about how well I practised, the better. I continued to pick out songs that I had heard her sing at random, purely going by the sound of a raga or the ease with which I absorbed the words, and pestered her to teach me those pieces.
It was only natural, then, that I grew curious about her music teacher. A visit to his house was usually on the agenda whenever we visited Hyderabad for a vacation, but I always did my best to get out of it — until finally, in 2009, I went along of my own volition. Sadly, I remember very little of that visit, but I know that I was fortunate to have met him. I think we sang something that day, but I am not sure.
My mother went back to visit her ageing teacher on subsequent trips to Hyderabad. One of these visits was on a Thursday. Gururajachar was an ardent devotee of Raghavendra Swami and conducted a puja at home every Thursday. When my mother and my aunt dropped in, he had just finished his worship, and my aunt prompted my mother to sing. She responded with Tunga Teera Virajam in Yamuna Kalyani, immediately gladdening her teacher’s heart.
“Where did you learn this?” he asked, excited. “It is such a beautiful song.” My mother told him that she had learnt it from a Bombay Jayashri cassette, and he was happy that his old disciple had continued to learn and would do so, even when he didn’t ask her to.
Gururajachar passed away in 2013. I met him only a few times and didn’t really have any conversations with him, but he is a constant part of our lives. In the kritis we burst into at home, or in our conversations with Paati, his name continues to come up. We say his jokes to each other and laugh. We try to decipher the lyrics of some songs the girls understood incorrectly. We are still trying to find a song that he taught them but which doesn’t seem to be in existence at all (we are convinced that he didn’t write it, because it is in Tamil). Paattu Vadiyar Mama was a warm, generous person, and I am very glad that he moved to Hyderabad just around the time my grandparents did, and taught their daughters. We owe our interest in and knowledge of music to him. “Most beginners of my time were trained by him,” my mother says. “He ensured that he gave his students a strong foundation.”
And as I finish typing this, I have just realised that today is a Thursday, a fitting time to say thank you to my mother’s teacher.