Every so often, you come across individuals who leave a lasting impact on you. They hold within them the wisdom of life experience – which cannot compare with academic laurels or material worth. Their stories can be likened to a well aged wine of a full-bodied flavor, enriched by many layers of emotions and experiences. But one common trait they share is a spirit of gratitude and humility.
If you met Seetha Ramakrishnan on the street, you’d see at first glance, an Indian woman of mature years, walking along briskly with her two ‘grandkids’, Zook and Miki – her daughter Radhika’s pets. She will greet you with a smile and walk on.
It is only when you spend time with her, that you realize her remarkable attributes. She has the ability to understand the subtleties and nuances of people across age groups. And she possesses a sense of humor that belies the hardships she has faced along her life’s journey. Of course, she will make light of these revelations saying “that was then… this is NOW”. A person could spend their entire lifetime learning this ability to live in the moment.
The youngest of 10 children, born into a family of modest means, Seetha learned to ‘make do’ from an early age. Her story reads like a movie script, when she speaks of long walks to the bus stop to get to school in Kuruvayur, a small Kerala village of her birth. She remembers those times, with a matter-of-fact attitude. Her sisters married early, as was the norm, but Seetha managed to complete her SSLC – 10th grade. When the family moved to Mumbai, Seetha lived with her brother’s family. Learning to live with people of varying personalities and dispositions were part of her early learning experience, and has served her well throughout her life.
Music was a familiar backdrop in her early years. Her sisters could sing, but did not receive formal training. At her brother’s home in Mumbai, Seetha began learning music formally after completing her 10th grade education. Her brother was a respected dance teacher. And in that environment, Seetha received initial training on the violin by Shri. A. Narayana Iyer and his daughter, N.Rajam – who is one of the most renowned violinists of our time. She relates how difficult it was to start training at the age of 17. But she persisted. And so began a musical journey that zigzagged its path from Mumbai, to Coimbatore, and back again. Her teachers – Smt. Meenakshi Vishwanathan, and the famous Kovai Kannan brothers – helped further her musical growth.
Along the way, music transformed into a teaching career, quite by chance, when a neighbor requested that she teach her kids. And then came the dawning awareness of wanting to be financially independent in order to be able to continue her own musical education. Completing a Stenographers course which led to a paying job, aided the process. Teaching music also enhanced her own learning. Whether it was necessity that created opportunity, or passion that gave shape to it, she found herself beginning to enjoy teaching.
Marriage at the age of 26, brought with it another change of role. And with it came limitations of a different sort. A joint family meant more adjustments, and a need to find her place within its framework. But her passion for music and teaching never waned. They shaped her identity. Later in life came hardships in the form of her husband’s ill heath. Seetha found herself in the position of being the sole earner, providing for the family both emotionally and financially. The forward-facing attitude inculcated through her early life, and a deep abiding faith in her music, got her through those trying times.
Balancing family life and teaching, Seetha managed to accompany many eminent vocalists on stage. And she was also an ‘AIR’, All India Radio artist for 25 years. Despite the recognition and growing fame, she considers her influence on her children as the greatest feather in her cap. Her children grew up around music, learning by listening while she taught. And then beginning their training under her care. Her son, Kumar, preferred the Mridangam. While her daughters, Radhika and Ranjani took up the violin and went on to win accolades, perform and teach – a testament to their mother’s passion, resonating with their own.
Radhika Iyer, is a prolific California based musician. She balances her job as a Finance Strategist, with her musical journey, which has taken her down interesting roads. Radhika plays Western and Indian Classical music on a seven-string fretted violin called the ‘viper’. She is also an author, songwriter, session musician and record producer.
Ranjani Ramakrishnan divides her time between Chennai and the U.S, playing on the Carnatic concert circuit, and teaching the violin. She has performed extensively including the most revered World Festival of Sacred Music at the James Armstrong theatre and the Cleveland festival. The musician visits the US in March-April before the Cleveland Aradhana Festival, to train kids who participate in the events. The sisters have collaborated on albums and play duets occasionally.
As for Seetha, at age 78, the enduring love affair with her violin continues. She now considers her music as a service to humanity. While it brought with it financial help and support when the need arose, she firmly believes that it is a form of the Divine – enriching her life, and those of many she has managed to touch through the ages. She is known by many labels – Daughter, Sister, Wife, Amma, Aunty, Musician, Teacher and Thaati (grandmother). She gives of herself without hesitation, with loving kindness.
Her parting comment to me was profound – “My learning never ends. It has taken a different route – inwards”. Hers is a life, shaped by circumstance, as much as by her passion for her violin.
A full life – a synergetic union between the bow and the string.
This is a tribute in words during Women’s History Month for a woman I am proud to know.