Remembering Paattu Maami (and my musical journey)

Today is Maami’s birthday. I vividly remember the rain washed morning that we went for our first class (It was navarathri time — probably, Vijayadasami day). We met her before the first class one evening — three of four of us, who wanted to start music lessons. All of us were in our mid-twenties, and we wanted her to start from Sarali and teach. Not surprisingly, she wanted each of us tell her why we wanted to learn, how we developed a taste for and interest in Carnatic, and, if there were other members of our family who can sing. All these questions were tough for me to answer. Unlike others, whose mothers, sisters, fathers, uncles and aunts have learnt Carnatic, I had no family member who had learnt music. And, unlike others I did not have any lessons in all my life of any music instrument or have seen anybody else have theirs. So, when it was my turn, I said my interest stemmed from listening to AIR, and reading about music in some of the writings of Tamil fiction writers, but I did not have any family member who knew/learnt Carnatic. She then asked me probably, I sometimes hummed movie songs? The answer was no. But, Maami decided to go ahead and teach me too anyway, along with the others.

I was born and brought up in an identified backward district; it was backward not only in socio-economic terms, but its artists, musicians, and artisans (if there were any) had also moved away. Four or five decades back, during my father’s and aunts’ time, it was not all that bad. In fact, apparently, some of my aunts did have music lessons. The harmonium that they used to practice was still at home when we were kids; and, I also remember the day when my grandmother sold it off to a theruk-koothu player called “Cycle Shop Manickam”: my father was not happy. But, then, my grandmother said “What is the use of this piece rotting here? He, at least can make use of it”. But Cycle Shop Manickam’s days as theruk-koothu player was over probably a decade back or so; that is why he has become “Cycle Shop” Manickam. Even in his hey days, my father said, he was a drunkard anyway. And, then he described how in one theruk-koothu, Manickam was so drunk that he entered the arena, looked at the guy who was playing Sakuni, said “Mama” and fell down in a drunken stupor. The Sakuni-guy, picked him up from the ground, and said “Duryodhana” and slapped him hard in the back; Manickam woke up, again said “Mama” and fell down; apparently, this paying obeisance continued for well over fifteen minutes before they poured buckets of cold water on his head, and, brought him back to his senses so that they can continue with Arjunan-thavasu, or whatever koothu they were playing on that day. My father said, “He is going to sell it to somebody for a good price and is going to drink away the money, anyway”. In any case, there was no denying that the harmonium would find some use in some theruk-koothu group. By the way, I did not realise the socio-anthropological importance of using harmonium as an accompaniment to Carnatic music singing lessons till I read Bharathiar’s devastating critique on the use of that instrument in Carnatic circles. But, I am digressing.

So, all the exposure I had to music came from AIR. Everyday in the morning, at 5:45, like clock work, my grandfather tuned to AIR, Madras for Vandemataram and Nadaswaram (Mangala Isai, as they termed it). At 5:55 it became AIR, Bangalore. And, it continued till 6:35 (with Day’s programme, English News Bulletin, and Bhajans — they called it Deeparadhana, I think, where, you could listen to lots of Dasara padagalu, mostly sung in Hindustani style). So, I grew up listening to them, and the movie songs in AIR, Bangalore, AIR, Trichy, AIR, Coimbatore, and Radio Ceylon (in the evenings), that my mother used to tune in during the day.

As I became a bit older, reading lots of ThiJa and LaSaRa made me very curious about Carnatic. ThiJa was trained to be a musician; but, his music teacher passed away on the day of his first performance. So, he became a writer instead; but his writings were suffused with music, and contained plenty of references to musical jargon (like when one of his characters explains away her extra-marital affair by referring to the bashanga ragas which misappropriate notes that do not belong to them). And, a particular story that LaSaRa wrote in which he interspersed the Mridangam practice sessions with dialogues to give an aural feel to the written word impressed me a lot too. So, I started listening to more and more of AIR concerts.

Sheila Dhar, in her books makes a perceptive comparison of music to cooking. Listening to masters like MS or Mansur, and trying to learn to sing is like seeing the final product of a very talented chef, and then trying to reproduce the dish at home. It is a well-nigh impossible task, especially, for ordinary mortals like me. An appreciation of music is gained much more easily if you see somebody go through the grind. But, as I said, I never had the chance. Moreover, I also started feeling as an outsider if and when the topic of music came up with my more musically trained friends. I knew that they knew about the nuts and bolts of music than I ever hoped to learn.

And, then, I came to Madras. I had the fortune to meet some friends who were also musically inclined. I attended the first music concert in Mylapore (Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan?). It was the veena concert of my friend Ram’s music teacher. Pretty soon, I was listening to Sowmya (on the stairs of Biotech building), MS (thanks to my friend Raji), Pattamma (thanks to Ram, again), Unni (I cut classes to attend that one on Gandhi Jayanthi day at Gandhi Mantapam), and so on.

In one of the concerts at TTD information centre in Venkatanarayana road, we heard Shashank; and, boy, were we impressed! It so happened that the person who was sitting next to us lived in Kotturpuram (just behind out university — walkable distance of a mile); he was a flautist too, and he can actually teach us if we were interested. We went and met him later; but the fees that he charged was unaffordable for us at that point of time. We agreed that his lessons are probably worth more than that; but, no we cannot afford. And, he would either teach us for that fee, or for free; but there was no middle ground. Thus, I came pretty close to having some music lessons in my life at last, only to see it slip away from me.

Dear readers, all this preamble is to tell you how much it meant for me to have been accepted as a music student. And, what a wonderful teacher Maami turned out to be. Maami was an AIR artist herself (so, my saying AIR should have resonated with her); she had also travelled widely and spent most of her time in North India (since her husband happened to be an officer in Indian Air Force); and, after retirement, she was living in Malleshwaram teaching Veena and vocal. She did her degree from Annamalai university where she learnt from such stalwarts as Tiger, Thanjavur Ponnaiah Pillai, Madurai Somu, and others; MDR was there too, apparently when she was doing her studies; she also did some summer school in Madras under Prof. Sambamoorthy where she also came to meet Pattamma. So, suddenly, I was admitted into that privileged club where the hallowed names in the annals of Carnatic music became household names. Of course, we learnt a lot about musical politics too (Yes, there exists such a thing).

Maami was also a composer of several varnams; she also added chittaswarams of her own to several songs; she had a very rare collection of Carnatic music books; her repertoire was very large, wide and varied; in all the time I spent learning from her, the only thing she refused to teach us was Javalis since she felt that they are not fit to be taught to youngsters like us; apart from that, we only had to mention something for her to start us teaching. Her memory was colossal. On more than one occasion, when we asked some Kriti which has fallen out of fashion (but which we have heard in some cassette or CD by some stalwart of the bygone era), though in the first few classes she struggled to remember the sahityam, within a couple of weeks, we had the song with notation, ready to be copied onto our notebooks.

Maami was also a very pleasant person to be with; she was an excellent mimic; but, if you ruffled her feathers the wrong way, she could be devastating in her sharp comments too. She was in her eighties; she lived alone, and occupied herself with her music lessons and her meditations. And, at least once in a year made some excellent chocolates and ice-cream for us. And, like many tamilians I have known, though she lived in other parts of the country and spent most of her time outside of Tamilnadu, the only thing that excited her was Tam-land politics. And, her political loyalties were strictly caste based too.

By the time, I was about to leave Bangalore, Maami had already decided to move to Madras to be with her daughter; the move was a result of Bangalore becoming more and more unsafe for elderly people living alone, which made her paranoid, and some personal tragedies. And, after her move, unfortunately, I lost all the contact information.

As with my other teachers, I always feel that I could have learnt much more from Maami if I had put more effort; I was the most reckless of our group, who overslept and missed lots of classes, to her chagrin. But, I believe she knew what my being her student meant for me, and was always indulgent. And, in the process, she has opened some doors for me that help me appreciate music, especially Carnatic, at a much deeper level, which, but for her, I would never have learnt. I have always been luckier with my teachers; and, Smt. Gnanambal Balakrishnan would remain one of those special teachers, the memories of my association with whom always brings me so much of pleasure.

6 Responses to “Remembering Paattu Maami (and my musical journey)”

  1. Singing Blog Feeds » Blog Archive » Remembering Paattu Maami (and my musical journey) Says:

    […] You can read the rest of this blog post by going to the original source, here […]

  2. raj Says:

    Guru, that was a lovely piece and tribute to an old teacher.

    It is amazing how you mix your scientific training with a love for traditional music, and keep both sides of the brain stimulated. Conan doyle used to describe how Holmes would immerse himself in music, after closing an exhausting case.

  3. Guru Says:


    Thank you very much. It is not me, but the people with whom I am associated who make sure that all parts of my brain are stimulated. And, music is indeed the best means to relax. Apparently, in his latest book (Musicophilia) Oliver Sacks argues that music can have therapeutic values; I am looking forward to getting that book.

  4. Paattu Maami | DesiPundit Says:

    […] has a wonderful post about his music teacher (aka Paattu Maami): As with my other teachers, I always feel that I could […]

  5. Making dance respectable! « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] a mere seventy, eighty years ago banning dance was considered as a measure for cleansing society. As I note elsewhere in this blog, evan a decade back, our music teacher, who was trained in 1930s and 1940s, refused to teach us […]

  6. Latha Says:

    Hi Guru,

    This is a lovely tribute to mami…….I was also a student of hers and so were my children. Just wanted to let you know that she is back in Bangalore and lives on 10th Cross. Do look her up if you are in Bangalore.

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