The Ebb and Flow of My Musical Childhood
By Sreevidhya Chandramouli
Edited by Sushruta Chandramouli
As a tenth generation member of the Karaikudi Veena tradition, my journey into the world of music began long before I was able to understand the demarcation between language and music. By the time I was born, my parents had moved from the quiet environment of Kalakshetra to a bustling neighborhood of Madras (later named as Chennai) to accommodate a growing family. Due to the change, my mother began to expand her pursuit with her faith in, and support from my father and his family.
The daily routines of a Chennai city dweller began with hawking vegetable vendors walking the streets and loud speakers which broadcast a plethora of popular movie music. This conglomeration of noise combined with the subtle nature of the traditional music within the family. Each day began with my mother waking up to prepare breakfast in the kitchen. The clamoring and ringing of vessels gave a hint of the sruti (pitch) that we would sing in. In tandem with the musical vessels, the rhythmic beat of the maid servant washing clothes would regulate the tempo of a composition that my mother sang gently. Thus began the continuation of Gurukulam in a city far from the tradition’s place of origination.
The musical journey with my mother Rajeswari Padmanabhan was a gentle and euphoric experience with days of music, but sparse conversation. The sweetness of her voice gave comfort to the daily demands at school and work. Because of the intense engagement at home, we didn’t feel the necessity for entertainment or activities. We were always surrounded by other students throughout the day. This provided opportunities for me to sit with students of different ages to learn (and grab my mother’s attention).
Every conversation seemed to soak in better with some music around it. As much as I learned the call and response mode through music, there were times I was reprimanded through music for being mischievous. As an example, I had to sing a line of the pallavi, “innimel chonna padi kekkaren kekkaran” (Hereafter I will listen, I will listen) in three speeds with the rhythm in my hand. As much as these phrases left indelible reminders of the right conduct, they were also fun. Many times my brothers and I fell asleep with our ears close to the resonator of the Veena as our mother was teaching. It transported us to a distant land that was sheer magic. By constant observation and self-correction that came with learning an art, I was able to develop my musical and physical character. As much as I was told the importance of discipline in practice and its place in our tradition, I was never forced to practice on a daily basis. If I embarked on practice, it was through self-propulsion, experimentation, and perseverance, similar to my forefathers’ extensive practice, which depended on their personalities and circumstances. My mother did not insist on performance; however, when I was five years old, I took the initiative to play the Veena in my school annual day. This experience, I believe, foreshadowed my pursuit in the arts. There was never a moment that was dull or overactive as the engagement was constant and exciting. At times, later in the evening, I could hear the sounds of music even after the students had long gone and there was silence.
During vacations to my grandmother’s town of Madurai or her visit to Chennai, I would accompany her ephemeral voice on the Veena as she would lie for an afternoon nap or under candlelight after dinner. From the age of nine, I began playing Veena with my mother at times, and sometimes on the Tambura. During these breaks, I accompanied my mother to Kalakshetra to experience traditional music and dance in the quiet setting by the sea. The rustling leaves and the constant drone of the beach waves were serene, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. This rich exposure to a plethora of arts and tradition began to shape and guide me in pursuing art degrees later in my life.
Apart from learning from my mother, during my early thirties, I pursued learning vocal under Sri Vairamangalam Lakshmi Narayanan and water color painting under Sri S. Rajam. The many afternoon conversations with these luminaries brought subtle experiences which challenged my skills and reinforced the tremendous power of oral traditions. The intensity of these experiences unveiled so many unspoken words and emotions I bequeathed and still cherish.
My mother taught a wide caliber of students based on their interest and commitment. The wide socioeconomic backgrounds of the students never mattered once my mother sat down to teach. The incredible patience to teach any student was a hallmark of both my mother and grandmother Lakshmi Ammal. The city life and the influence of institutional teaching and schooling brought different dynamics than my mother’s training under Sri Sambasiva Iyer, challenging the Gurukulam teaching system that once thrived under the pre-colonial era. However, the responsibility to preserve and transmit the tradition to the next generation necessitated evolution and adaptation.
Paving the way for the continuation of the tradition into the eleventh generation caused the family to accommodate and embrace the evolving technologies; the launderer’s rhythmic scrubbing was replaced by the pulsating humming of the washing machine, and the pitch of the ‘sruti box’ replaced the Tambura.
As the tradition makes its way into the 21st century and in the Western Hemisphere, I strive to incorporate the rich experiences of my childhood into my classrooms. I am fortunate to carry the honor of continuing a tradition beyond the Indian subcontinent through my endeavors. I believe that integrating art into our daily lives inculcates peace and stability within the self and community.