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January 20, 1998


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I began to read and write before I was sent to school. This happened in a very strange manner. As a child I would get up very early and stand outside the doorway, watching women cleaning the doorstep. They would sprinkle water on the patch of the street in front
M S Subbulakshmi with grandchild
M S Subbulakshmi with grandchild
of their homes, smear cowdung over it and begin to draw the most beautiful designs with rice flour. These were called kolams.

One day an old man walked down the street and passed me by. He wore a saffron dhoti (sarong tied around the waist) and ash marks on forehead and arms, a rudraksha round his neck. He carried a bronze jug, the kamandala. I don't know why, but I liked him on sight. He looked pious and kind-hearted. I continued to see him everyday after that -- fresh from his bath, with the same sweet smile for me.

One day he stopped. "Child, I want to teach you. Will you learn?" he asked. I nodded happily. He promptly sat down on the doorstep. He closed his eyes, folded his hands (I did the same) and began with a shloka (short poetic prayer), "Ghrita guda payasam…"

What do you think he taught me? Not Sanskrit, the language of the scriptures. Not Tamil, my mother tongue. He taught me a script called Grantha -- so old that nobody uses it anymore. You can find it only in old books, and on the walls of temples. Or on copper plates which were used in olden days to keep accounts and records!

My family watched these 'classes' with astonishment. Perhaps they were amused by this white-haired man teaching a tiny tot like me. But no one stopped us. In those days, old and learned persons were respected, even if they were poor wandering souls. But Vadiva and Sakti found it impossible not to laugh when they saw him. They teased me dreadfully. Sakti started referring to him as Old dhritakula payasam, after the funny sounding prayer he recited each day. But we continued our classes till the old man went back to Benares, from where he had come south on a pilgrimage. That is how an old man whose name I never knew, became my first guru, and Grantha the first script I learnt!

After this I was sent to a proper school where I studied up to class five. I might have continued but for a severe beating I got from a teacher, for no reason I could understand. The fright made my whooping cough so much worse, that my elders at home decided to stop my schooling.

Did I miss school? Not really. I was scared of my teachers and classmates. Staying at home was a relief.

But you must not think my education was over. There was so much to learn from my own mother. Actually, though I always think of her as my first guru, she never sat down and taught me music. It was more a matter of picking up as she practised and taught students, and singing with her as she played the veena.

My mother chose a music teacher for me. This was Srinivasa Iyengar who gave concerts with his brother. On an auspicious day and hour, a small puja was done at home, a coconut was cracked and offered in worship. I prostrated myself before my guru and my mother. Then I sat down on the mat for my first lesson. My guru checked the tambura strings. They were correctly tuned. He began to pluck them. He sang out loud and clear: 'Sa ri ga ma pa dha ni sa…'

M S Subbulakshmi I repeated the notes after him in three speeds. I must have done well because he taught me with great interest. He laid a proper foundation by going through the beginner's exercises --sarali varisai, alankaram and gitam. Sadly, he did not live to guide me for long. He went out of town on some work. Soon after, we heard that he had passed way.

This was unfortunate. But it did not end my fascination for music. I practised for long hours and with great involvement. I made up a sort of game for myself. I would tune the tambura carefully. As I plucked the strings, the resonance would cast a spell over me. Eyes closed, I would be lost in another world. Then I would stop, sing without it, and pluck the strings again to check if I had stayed in tune. Throughout the day, in between household jobs, I would return to the tambura several times to see if I could recall that pitch steadily and accurately.

Singing on stage happened so naturally that it seemed to be the only thing for me. You will laugh when you hear how I 'appeared before the public' for the first time.

My mother gave a concert at the Setupati school near our home. I was building mud palaces in the backyard when somebody, perhaps my uncle, picked me up, dusted my skirt, washed my hands, and carried me straight to the stage. There were some fifty listeners in the hall. In those days, it was quite a large gathering! But I was used to seeing my mother play before people. I was put down next to her. My mother asked me to sing. At once, without the least hesitation, I sang one or two songs. I was too young for the smiles and applause to mean much. In fact, I was wondering how soon I could get back to making mud pies!

My love of music was fanned by the atmosphere in our house. My mother didn't take me to too many concerts by other musicians. But they often came to our house. Great musicians like Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, Mazhavarayanendal Subbarama Bhagavatar and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar would drop in. Their names may sound difficult to you, but their music was like mountain honey. Pure and sweet.

These artists would sit down, drink coffee, roll paan (a mixture of betel leaf, nut and lime) and tuck it into their cheek, or take a pinch of snuff, and talk endlessly about great music and musicians. One story I heard at that time left its mark on me.

Once a famous musician was scheduled to sing, after a talented youngster. The young man gave a superb performance. With tears in his eyes, the senior musician got up and blessed him. To the organisers he said, "The young man's music has rained sugar and honey today. I am deeply moved. I can't sing now. Let me come back and sing for everyone tomorrow." Do you see the large-heartedness of the man? Do you see how humble he was? His love of music went beyond thoughts of himself.

The musicians who visited us would often sing or play their instruments. A nod from my mother was like loud applause to them. Sometimes she would pluck the strings and play, and they would listen eagerly. Sometimes these maestros would ask me to sing. They would teach me a song or two. In those days, praise was not scattered easily. A nod meant tremendous approval. "You must do well" meant we had reached a high standard.

Local musicians too would come home to pay their respects to mother. Whenever the temple deity was taken out in procession through the main streets, the nadaswaram players at the head of the line would stop where our little street branched off. Then they would play their best for mother. I would run out and watch. I would be entranced by the sights and sounds. The Gods were gorgeously bedecked in silks and jewels and flowers. There was chanting. And the majestic melody of the nadaswaram pipes rose with the big tavil drums. That kind of music is perhaps gone forever.


Excerpted from Past Forward, as told to Gowri Ramnarayan, Oxford University Press, 1997, Rs 275, with the publisher's permission.

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