The Unsung Heroine

Yuva Sangeetha Lahari

Guhan Venkataraman

The Unsung Heroine

The old Sanskrit prayer goes: Matha, Pitha, Guru, Deivam.

One day, I will lose my guru. And that day, along with her, the world will lose some Deivam.

Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan is more than a guru to me. She is a caretaker and a soldier, a giver and a fighter, a true Veteran of style, and a pillar in the fortress of Carnatic music.

As a disciple of the legendary Karaikkudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer, her name stands tall. But as a musician herself? Her name remains cloaked, known by only a select few. No memorable students to speak of, no true disciple to call her own. A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless, as only I succeed her now.

What happened? How could such an incredible story, such an incredible human being, become lost to oblivion?

Here I attempt to share that story, along with some of my own.

She would lovingly tell me stories of how she first started learning veena. As a particularly mischievous child, she would get into trouble a lot. Her parents, exasperated and not knowing what to do, took her to the legend himself, Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer – a doyen of veena in his time hailing from a family of seven generations of Vainikas and one of the earliest Sangeetha Kalanidhi recipients ever. He lived nearby. Ranganayaki Patti’s parents believed he would give her the gift of music (or, rather, something to focus her energies on besides causing trouble).

Ranganayaki Paatti’s eyes sparkled as the not-so-fond memory came back to her. The first meeting with him was nothing short of a disaster. Sambasiva Iyer, in a deep depression after the death of his brother, Subbarama Iyer, apparently shut the door on the family’s face. After much coaxing from “veena periamma” (as Ranganayaki paatti referred to Sambasiva Iyer’s wife), Sambasiva Iyer agreed to let the girl’s family inside the house.

Abruptly, he pointed to a veena nearby and asked paatti to play the sarali varisai.

She was a two year old at the time. He just…handed it to her, and asked her to play it. She stared blankly for a minute, then attempted something.

Sambasiva Iyer grimaced.

He promptly took the little girl and angrily dumped her in a freezing-cold tub of water out back. Veena Periamma fished her out and dried her off.

Apparently, this traumatic experience (which she recollected 80 years after the fact with stunning detail), didn’t stop little Ranganayaki paatti from doing more veshamam (mischievousness). Her parents were so desperate that they tried again with Sambasiva Iyer (which REALLY makes me wonder how mischievous she was) – this time, he was slightly less moody, and more receptive. With much coaxing, he said yes to becoming her guru.

This did not come without a price, for all parties. This was full-on gurukulavasam (basically, a guru-sishya’s night out… for years on end). Little Ranganayaki paatti would not be able to see her parents again; even when they came to check on her progress, he would shut her away from them. She needed to believe that Sambasiva Iyer was her family, and indeed, he did eventually become family – her own “veena periappa.”

But, as with all family members, duty came first, and in this case, that duty was the role of guru. I would listen in rapt attention as paatti described the years of intense training with Sambasiva Iyer in exquisite detail:

For the first few years, they didn’t even touch the instrument. Everything was done vocally since Patti was so tiny. She learned her sarali varisai, jantas, alankArms and other basic exercises, which didn’t seem too intimidating to me at first.

Boy, was I in for a surprise when I learned the manner in which these were taught.

Sambasiva Iyer would use an extra angavastram to tie Ranganayaki paatti to his own waist, tethering her and making sure she didn’t run away (!?!). He even took her into the bathroom, closing the curtain but keeping an eye on the angavastram tied to a pole there. This seemingly absurd system was implemented after the first time he attempted to teach her, when she escaped, bolting down the road laughing. He didn’t like that. No, sirree.

He would also do things like sing alapana phrases for her to decode into swaras, and teach her to put two thalams simultaneously. She didn’t understand what the fuss was about when people came over and marveled at the two year old putting simultaneous thalams nonchalantly – at least, not until she was much older.

Then came the initiation onto the veena itself, at the young age of six. This was the most intense part – she would wake up at four and practice till nine, bathe and eat something, then practice for another five hours until three, when the daily puja would happen. A five-hour nightly session would also happen, after which she would sleep. There was no time for anything else – she lived, breathed, and imbibed music.

Sambasiva Iyer would make her practice each line of everything 100 times, even when she was learning the sarali varisai. If on the 99th time she made a mistake, he would make her start again, maybe even hit her with a perambu (bamboo stick). She told me, her eyes winking, that she would purposefully make mistakes on the 99th time just to piss him off.

What a woman.

If mistakes were made, she would also have to put thOppukaranam (ukki) chanting “nAn thappu paNNa mATTen” (“I will not mistakes”)… in three speeds!!!

At this pace, she learned over four hundred songs from him, with songs taking as long as a month each to complete.

He even taught her all of his chittaswarams. These are blazingly fast, notoriously difficult, and oftentimes schizophrenically composed with the goal in mind to screw the vainika up. Most commonly known today are the chittaswarams in Sobillu and Seetamma (although the one in Seetamma was actually meant for Ramachandram bhavayami), but he also composed them for Srivaralakshmi (in ragam Shri), a Padam in Kalyani called azhaithu va pOdi, Namoraala kinchithe (Dhanyasi), Shri mathurapuri (Sahana), ezhunthAL paradEvi (Kambodhi), and many more.

Before she taught me the Kalyani one, she recounted: “you know how many times I got hit with perambu for this chittaswaram?” She chuckled. I gulped.

Interestingly, the late Mandolin U. Srinivas revered these chittaswarams, and in a weird twist of fate, when he asked Paatti to teach some of them, she had me play them for him. I sent them his way, and sure enough, in the next concert that I attended of his, he played the chittaswaram for Shrivaralakshmi. As a 14 year old, that felt awesome.

The interaction between Mandolin Srinivas and paatti dates back further. She had avidly listened to him since he started performing, and was a big fan of his. In the 1990s, on one of Paatti’s only tours, she stopped in Cleveland, where Mandolin Srinivas, 22 at the time, was in the audience. When she got off the stage, he fell at her feet and conveyed his respects, humbly asking for her blessings and well-wishes while handing her a couple of his recordings. My guru, astonished that this prodigy even knew who she was, was in tears. Even to this day, she listens to the CD’s he gave her that day. After learning of his passing, she listens ever more. May He rest in peace.

Paatti’s first performance was shortly after her sixth birthday. Scared to death, she ran off stage, only to be greeted by hits from the ever-present perambu. He must have had a guilty conscience or something, because, apparently, after every time he hit her, he’d lift her up and say to her, “you know why I hit you, right? I want you to play well, that’s all.”

This performance was followed by many more, with her performing alongside him everywhere he went, with nothing but rave reviews coming her way.

But, by the time she was thirteen, she was married. Thus started the madness that was to come, and that was when her name faded into oblivion for all but the most knowledgeable of musicians.

With seven children and grandchildren by the time she was 32, and with the death of Sambasiva Iyer, my guru was so busy with family business that she was never able to teach anyone properly. She taught for the money – to keep her family afloat, to survive, to live the day, the week, but never for the sake of music itself. And that was where she was unable to succeed. Where Rajeshwari Padmanabhan, Subbarama Iyer’s granddaughter and Sambasiva Iyer’s adopted daughter, was able to make quite a name for herself, Paatti never had that luxury. She went on a few tours and did numerous recordings for AIR, but other than that, her name faded. She lost touch, and for almost twenty years before I came to her, she had all but stopped playing.

I am so very thankful that my mother learned from this stalwart, because if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the bhagyam of doing so myself.

I had started veena in 2004 and had learned everything my mother had had to teach me. By this point, my mom had decided that I should go to Paatti to learn.

When my mother initially approached Paatti, she was reluctant to teach, and said no – she was out of touch, and more pressingly, very sick. My mother was not one to give up, however. She called my grandfather, and asked him for advice. Thatha said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

My grandfather apparently drove to Paatti’s house in West Mambalam and played a recording of my first concert (which Amma had sent to him) to her, after which she said something that I will remember forever:

She said, “Wait, is this me?”

She agreed to teach me that day, despite her condition.

And what a condition – at that point, she was on a walker, barely getting from her bed to her bathroom. Even then, despite the difficulties of her everyday life, she agreed to teach me. The honor and the pure joy I felt when she agreed is bittersweet now, as she cannot even walk now. She is confined to her thin, twin-sized bed, and convulses in Parkinson’s-induced spasms every few seconds.

So we went for the first day, lifting her up to a sitting position (at 6’3”, she was a heavy woman) and then handing her a veena from her closet, untouched for years on end. She gave me one too. After cleaning the two, I started learning my first song from her – Padavini, in Chalakabhairavi. But, in the middle, she stopped – she couldn’t finish because her leg was paining her.

The first year was hard, with her not being sure as to whether or not she could make the effort to teach me. But by the end of that summer of 2007, she said to me that I should come back the next year.

From then on, it seemed that I would be fated to have a completely different training style from her – where she had to wake up early, I would wake up at the ungodly hour of 2 pm (hey, it was summer); where she would take months to learn a song, I would learn a couple every day. Where she would get hit with a perambu after a mistake, I would get a “Mm?” And a sweet, toothless smile. How I miss that smile.

No one said it, but every year was a race against time, to soak up everything she had before the inevitable happened. Because the funny thing about the inevitable – inevitably, you don’t know when the inevitable will happen.

In between summers, I’d listen to her old recordings, trying to imbibe her style, my style, more. Some things struck me.

Every note of every line of every song in every recording rings true – that’s her mark. Purity of sound, “Gundu” (fat) notes in every strum, and non-gimmicky, pure music. A bani focused on quality over everything, even at the highest of speeds. Veena at its finest. No contact mics, no fancy audio. Just the veena and whatever mic was placed in front of it.

And the Karaikkudi thanam – oh, what a thanam! At 83, with Parkinson’s, tumors in her stomach, bedridden, stiff legs, uncontrollably shaking hands, and a failing memory, her hands would still dish out the most amazing thanam, better than I could ever play – a hallmark of the Karaikkudi bani.

On the last day of our summer stay in India in 2013, she played one such thanam in the Ganapancharagams, (Naattai, Gowlai, Arabhi, Varali, and Shri). After it, she told me, “Guhan, I really don’t remember any more songs to teach you. I have taught you everything I can – you should continue to learn whatever you can, and you have my full blessings. Come back every year and say hi, but there’s nothing more I have to offer.”

What a moment. I was in tears, at once proud and regretful. But I knew, I knew that from then on, things would be different. And they still are. I am in a limbo, learning what I can from what I hear. They say music is a journey, but I’m stuck on a tour without a tour guide. Learning by yourself is a valuable skill to have, and it has taught me much, but I can’t help but feel the loss of paatti’s guidance all the more.

I miss everything about her every day I’m not there next to that bed. I remember the stiffness of her legs as I massaged them, her quivering mouth, her shaking hands, her long, bony, beautiful-yet-uncontrolled finger movements, her every sigh, her quiet chuckle. I owe her so much and it’s impossible to put into words what I have received from her.

This is but a sliver of the story I have crafted with her, and it’s sad that the story could not have been longer. Had I started earlier, had she continued playing, this story could have been much different. But stories are written in India ink, not pencil. They are as permanent as the inevitable itself.

As her only student, I hold a responsibility to her – to my guru, my bani, my peers – to see to it that the slow death of the veena is turned around. To make it my life’s work to be a torchbearer for the incredible blessing that is my musical training, the instillation of the Karaikkudi bani in me. I will bring back the days when veena didn’t need an amp to make sound, pure sound, divine sound. I will do it for her, she who gave me everything when her body and mind didn’t cooperate, she who affectionately made a child into a man, a student into a musician, a boy into something more. I am indebted to her, as is the world for her music. If you don’t know who she is, you know now. Always remember her as the kindest, gentlest soul to have graced the earth with her presence.

I love you, Ranganayaki paatti. I always will.

Guhan Venkataraman