No matter how demanding the household matters were, no matter what else she had to take care of, my mother made sure that nothing stood in between me and my music lessons. Though I never learned formally from my mother, I consider her my first guru for a number of reasons.
Her veena practice was a constant backdrop of my childhood, during my study, play, or mealtimes. At other times, she turned the radio on for good concerts, the music she insisted I must listen to, thus initiating me to the music of many great artists. She taught me the basic exercises and took me to concerts happening in town. She accompanied me to every single paattu class (lesson), as she would also have a separate veena lesson with the same guru after my lesson time. The scorching heat of Palakkad summers, or the lack of transportation facilities did not deter her. During my daily practices, she would play the tambura and sit with me, making sure I am well prepared for my next lesson. She accompanied me to every single competition in and out of town, supporting me emotionally, physically, and musically.
To this day, her high expectations for musical standards continue to push me, even if she does not verbalize it. She still practices her veena a few times a week, at age 87.
Sri. Venugopal belonged to a rich musical lineage. His brother M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar was one of the foremost exponents of the veena, who taught at the Swati Tirunal College of Music in Tiruvanantapuram, and later at Wesleyan University for a brief period. His sister Parvathy Ammal was a talented vocalist and teacher. Sri Venugopal studied with his brother Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar, Sri. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and other gurus at the music college in Trivandrum. During his time as a professor at the Chembai Music College at Palakkad in the seventies, Sri Venugopal taught a number of students at his home privately, along with his wife Smt. Janaki Venugopal. I was one of these fortunate students.
Sri Venugopal’s trademark style was to teach the purest of patanthara (lesson tradition) with the utmost clarity. He had the uncanny ability to make me work until I got things perfectly right, in the gentlest of ways.
I am yet to meet a guru to this day of his caliber, who is as selfless, generous and gentle. He knew exactly when to give me a break, as I was not even ten.He would let me pet his cat in the middle of a lesson. Whenever my mother found it difficult to travel and take me to lessons, Venu Mama (as we affectionately called him) would ride his bicycle and come home to teach. He imparted strong foundational musical values in me that continue to be my guiding light. I learned several kritis from Venu Mama and from Janaki Mami, who also taught with utmost sincerity and affection.
I continued learning for four years with Sri Venugopal, until he had to relocate to Chennai. At this time, he was generous enough to entrust my education with none other than one of his own gurus, Sri C.S. Krishna Iyer.
When I commenced learning with Sri C.S. Krishna Iyer at age 11, I was his youngest student. I was not cognizant of the stature and seniority of this erudite musician and scholar then, and perhaps even much later into my teens. I now recall those days of intense learning with gratitude and nostalgia. At Annamalai University in Chidambaram where Sri Krishna Iyer studied, his gurus were among the luminaries of Carnatic music, Ponniah Pillai, T.S. Sabhesa Iyer, and Tiger Varadachariar. He had imbibed the very best in the Carnatic tradition from gurus whose lineage can be traced back to the great composer Tyagaraja. Sri Krishna Iyer was among a group of eminent musicians who set a number of Swati Tirunal’s lyrics to music. CSK Mama, as I affectionately refer to him, composed several kritis in Malayalam, of which just a few are in circulation now. The renowned vocalist K.V. Narayanaswamy was Sri Krishna Iyer’s student for a brief time.
My time with CSK Mama was a time of building a solid repertoire. In my teens, I learned numerous Tyagaraja, Shyama Sastri and Dikshitar kritis from him. He had a preference for teaching Tyagaraja kritis, and he taught me a variety of those, small and large. Mama always lost track of time while teaching and the lessons would extend way beyond planned times. Often, I would have to tell him that I needed to go do my homework, and I did feel bad when I had to! I used to park my bicycle at his house and take a bus to college.
When I returned, Mami would always make sure I that eat some of her delicious adai or dosai.
CSK Mama offered wholesome, traditional music, with sincerity, not particularly caring about his students chasing competition prizes or concert opportunities. If I had to make a decision about an opportunity, I was usually slightly concerned whether I should bring it up, as I did not want Mama to think that I was after the wrong things. Nevertheless, he was always supportive. CSK Mama believed in freedom of expression, and always encouraged me to slightly modify or embellish the sangatis he taught.
One of the best times I spent with him is when he shared his insights on various aspects of music, or chapters from his own vast experience interacting with great musicians. Often, musicians would come visit him. I recall Sri S. Ramanathan and Sri K.V. Narayanaswamy and Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer visiting him at his house. Unfortunately, the young and inexperienced student I was, I did not get to stick around when the senior musicians had their discussions.
Interacting with CSK Mama taught me to think, be original, and inquire deeper into anything I do with music. He guided me through the journey of manodharma, not by structured preparation, but organically, gently pushing me to explore a little further each time. The fifteen years of discipleship with CSK Mama are central to my musical life.
Photo Courtesy: Akshay Padmanabhan
A chance introduction in London in 2003 brought me in touch with Sri P.S. Narayanaswamy, one of the foremost gurus currently known in Carnatic music. He came to London on a brief assignment to teach at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan the same summer I had moved there. As Sri P.S. Narayanaswamy and Sri M.A. Venugopal (my first guru), were close pals and classmates under the tutelage of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, (“namma school”, as he remarked), he was only too happy to take me under his wings.
Sri PSN (PSN Mama or Pichai Mama as students affectionately call him) filled the vacuum I had been experiencing after the passing of my first two gurus. I continued learning whenever I visited India, and over the phone with PSN Mama, until very recently. I had the privilege of learning some of the most wonderful compositions in his repertory. PSN Mama’s teaching style and expectations were in perfect alignment with what my prior gurus had instilled in me, and I relished every single minute of my time with him. A perfectionist, he always expected a nuanced rendition of the sangatis he taught, with the tiniest of detail intact. It meant a great deal to get a ‘besh’, or a nod of approval from him. I am fortunate to have had Sri PSN Mama’s guidance for thirteen years.