August 14, 2003

thank you for the music…

are you looking for theeratha velayudhan pillai?

i almost fell off my chair laughing when i saw this question on the monitor. of the 3,083,324,652 web pages that google combs through, i was wondering why it could not find me the tamil song i typed in, until praveen pointed out that i’d spelt it all wrong (thanks to my teetering tamil vocabulary).

for those (non-tamilians) who are still wondering what was so funny, vilayattu pillai is old tamil for a mischievious little boy, while velayudhan pillai can be anyone living just down your street (or next door, if you’re in kerala)!

i’m not deeply religious, but this poem, by south india’s noted poet and patroit subramaniam bharati, makes me go back to it again and again. it paints a very affectionate picture of how the ceaseless mischief and tricks of kannan, or little krishna are creating havoc among all the girls in his village: he plays pranks, bites into the fruit that he’s initially offered them (in southern india, sharing food from the same dish is taboo, even now), snatches the flowers that adorn their hair and says its for his flute, and so on…

perhaps it brings back memories — of reading dozens of amar chitra katha in the school library, at home and anywhere i could lay my hands on one. the endless legends and the mythology figures in the magazine, not to forget the illustrations, formed for me the perfect escape from the world of geography (ugh!), math homework and other (real) classroom bullies.

i had wanted to share the song with my mother and chitti, who were waiting miles away in front of another computer screen, excited, blessing the technologies (yahoo chat and webcam) that compensated for the physical distance between us. i was also trying to explain to my mother not to be so surprised about my newly-acquired seriousness for carnatic or south-indian music…

“what is the soul of music?”

it all began when my in-laws visited us two months ago, and then went back home to proudly narrate (perhaps a little too generously, in an attempt perhaps to make my parents feel good) how well their mattponnu took care of them; how fast she’s learning from praveen and can identify some of the ragas herself! “AHA! and you chose not to continue the music lessons *we* sent you to, just because it irritated you and made you sleepy?!!

at home, i grew up listening to my father’s favourites from his ‘lp records’…western instrumental classics (though i perhaps wouldn’t be able to point out the tchaikovskys or the schuberts from one another), indian carnatic classics – m s subbalakshmi, yesudas and the like; and, my favourite-est among his…the golden english oldies. perhaps since i enjoy and can just lose myself in the panchavadyam, i also developed a taste for folk music from other middle and northern states in india…and could appreciate russian music too when my father took us to a ballet (on ice) in bombay years ago.

at work, mp3s occupied most of the space on our pcs and i watched as colleagues sometimes even related to each other according to their musical preferences …here i was introduced to the carpenters, the haunting loreena mckennitt and hindi and tamil hits from the movies. if someone asked me what my kind of music would be, i could never pick ‘one’ favourite, since my list only seemed to be growing!

i have tried (twice) unsuccessfully to learn to play the violin, thanks to impractical geographical distances between home and violin-classes. sigh… someday, i hope to complete the training (carnatic again) and play at a concert, even if i’m seated at a corner behind the others on the stage!

marriage however, is bringing in a strange change (or direction?) in my so far-diverse music tastes… with praveen belonging to a whole generation (i’ll leave the family history to him) of indian carnatic music lovers and singers themselves, for the past 18 months it is as if i have been thrown into a pool of pure traditional music, through live performances recorded on tapes and cds, and of course, online.

having been away from his home for almost over eight years, it is only now that praveen too, has been trying to re-establish his connection with ‘his’ music. it was not easy, since we could not find him a suitable teacher here (in the uk) who taught just the ragas and how to play the harmonium — what he really wants to learn.

so well… we turned to the internet!

besides the fact that its free, its really been worthwhile. unlike praveen though, i’m a slow learner when it comes to grasping a melody or ‘raga’ and understanding the lyrics in a song, but its been steady progress. these days, i even get a great thrill out of ‘matching’ some of the songs i hear!

anyone can do it, and its just a matter of ‘tuning’ your ears. here’s an example:
take a hindi favourite say, “tere mere beech mein…” from the movie ek duje ke liye; then listen to “jane kahan gaye voh din…” from raj kapoor’s mera naam joker, and r d burman’s classic “mere naina saawan bhadon…” from mehbooba, sung by kishore kumar. you’ll find a similarity among the songs, and that’s just because they all originate from one simple raga: shivaranjini.

sometimes praveen and i even play guess-the-raga-from-the-song-games and i can perhaps tell about seven or eight ragas from each other by now. i’m still learning though, and i find that understanding the lyrics of a song helps me learn faster. it’s been a very interesting journey, and with each song, especially the old carnatic ones, i get a glimpse of how rich indian culture is, and how much more is yet waiting to be discovered.

reminds me of one of my english literature professors at college, a young keralite.

he believed in the absurd theatre and other existentialist theories. he was also a very silent philosopher (i still suspect he is also a poet), and i would not be surprised if, in his student days or later, he had ever been involved in one of the communist/trade union-strikes that so much form the essence of kerala.

one day, he threw a vague question at the class even as he entered, and the suddenness of that question was perhaps not as surprising as the equally quick (and correct!) response that came flying from the far left corner of the classroom. mine.

the soul of music, is silence.

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