A Multi-faceted Genius

Paraphrasing what Lata Mangeshkar said about Kishore Kumar in the Album Shradanjali “Kya nahi the?” meaning What was he not?, I would like to start with the question “What was she not?”, the she referring to amma, my maternal grandmother Thiruvengadavalli alias Jayalakshmi Sudarsan who was born this day, 5th October in 1923.

Jayalakshmi Sudarsan

She was
a composer (aasu kavi) having composed hundreds of songs on many deities with the tune and the tala
a violinist,
a vocalist,
a person with a phenomenal memory for dates, names, events, slokas, paasurams and the like,
an excellent cook,
a brilliant administrator and organizer,
a stickler for discipline as well as an embodiment of love and affection,
a willing teacher and even more intense student,
a store house of knowledge about traditions,
a wizard in money management,
an engaging conversationalist,
an avid reader,
a genius critic of movies,
a tireless worker,
a shrewd assessor of people,
a person with a high threshold for pain and a penchant for subtle humour, skilled in card games like literature,
a person capable of forgiving those who had wronged her,
someone who wouldn’t think twice before extending a helping hand to others ….. I can go on and on but let me start with a few examples of some of the few qualities as above.

My earliest recollection of her in late 1960s was her attending classes in cookery including jams and squashes and doll making. Very quickly, her stuffed dolls of different shapes, nationalities and hues were adorning the walls and the huge glass case in the hall. I particularly remember the Japanese ladies that she made. I have relished her various dishes that she had learnt including the juices. In fact, she used to make grape juices and sold them in the neighbourhood as well. When she was in her mid sixties, she would walk to Triplicane in the late afternoons to learn a composition or two from Dr S Ramanathan and quickly teach me the same. A paralytic stroke that struck her put paid to her efforts to continue to learn.

This is just a beginning and I will attempt to bring to light the genius I was privileged to call “Amma”.

Acknowledging My Teachers on Teachers Day – 1

Today is Teachers’ Day honouring the wishes of our past President Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, himself an iconic teacher!!

On this occasion, I want to start a series of posts to acknowledge my many teachers, in no particular order.

I have read that “A great teacher is one who makes himself/herself progressively unnecessary” and I have had the privilege of learning from many such great teachers.

This post is dedicated to my first teacher and grandmother,Tiruvengadavalli @ Jayalakshmi Sudarsan.  Born on 5th October 1923 in a famous Vaishnavite divya desam called Tirukurungudi, she was multiple giants rolled in one.  Her thirst for learning even she was 70 + and her willingness to share that with others made her a great student and an excellent teacher.

She was a great composer and most of her compositions were spontaneous with the raaga and the thala embedded.  A few of her songs have been brought to the public domain through the voices of Smt Sudha Raghunathan, Shri OS Thiagarajan, my uncle Prakash and mine.

Jayalakshmi Sudarsan

Since this post is on Teachers, I shall restrict my post to my interactions with her as a student.  Teaching me music wasn’t easy because  I did not show the patience or the dedication to get it right.  Whatever little knowledge of the carnatic ragas that I can claim to have is purely on account of my patti’s compositions and most of them I got by listening rather than learning formally.

The basics of music like the sarali varisai, geethams and varnams were all learnt from my grandmother (I used to call her “Amma”) in a very casual way and quite informally.

I can still remember her going to Triplicane by walk or a cycle rickshaw to attend Sangeetha Kalanidhi Dr Ramanathan’s classes in the hot afternoons and teaching me what she learnt when I would be home in the evening.  I learnt some rare varnams in the ragams Behag and Ritigowlai apart from some krithis in these ragas.  I also learnt “Bhavanutha” in Mohanam in this fashion.  She would learn the Pallavi, Anupallavi and the Charanam and teach them together knowing my lack of patience to wait for days to learn these different pieces.

I also believe that a great teacher is one who considers learning as an ongoing process and in that way Amma was an extraordinary person.  She heard the Violin Maestro play the ragam Mohana Kalyani and immediately took on composing a song in that raaga.

Amma did not suffer from the “Composer syndrome” of focussing only on her compositions.  At the request of a family friend, she took on setting the tune for a few kritis of Sadasiva Brimhendrar in some really exotic ragas.  Chetha Sriramam in Brindavana saranga is one such piece that really comes to mind quickly.

Likewise, when I went to a music competition as a school student, she took a Bharathiyar song “Veera thiruvizhi parvaiyum” and made it into a beautiful raga maligai in a very short time.  It is so vivid that even 30+ years later, I can render it without any hesitation or preparation.  And how can I forget her setting Bharathiyar’s “Kaani nilam vendum” in Desh!! The list is endless.

More than a grandson, she was proud of me as her student and would often goad me to take to music seriously.

On this Teachers Day, I remember you Amma for being such an excellent teacher to me and I acknowledge you for your contribution to my life as a Teacher.

Amma passed away on 30th January 2007 but she lives through her compositions.

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