Today, I lost my guru. And today, along with her, the world lost a deivam.
Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan was more than a guru to me. She was a caretaker and a soldier, a giver and a fighter, a pillar in the fortress of Carnatic music.
As a disciple of the legendary Karaikkudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer, her name stood tall. But as a musician herself? Her name remained cloaked, known to a select few. A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. What happened?
She would lovingly tell me stories of how she first started learning veena. As a particularly rambunctious child, she was constantly getting into trouble. Her parents, exasperated and not knowing what to do, took her to the legend himself, Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer. He lived nearby, and they believed he would give her something to focus her energies on besides causing trouble.
Ranganayaki Paatti’s eyes sparkled as the not-so-fond memory came back to her. The first meeting with him was nothing short of disaster. Sambasiva Iyer, in a deep depression after the death of his brother, Subbarama Iyer, apparently did not want to teach anyone music. After much coaxing, however, from “Veena Periamma” (as Ranganayaki Paatti referred to Sambasiva Iyer’s wife), Sambasiva Iyer agreed to let the little girl try learning from him.
Shortly after teaching her the saralivarisai, he asked her to sing it back. She was a three year old at the time. She stared blankly for a minute, then attempted something. Finding her maiden attempt not to his satisfaction, he promptly took the little girl and angrily dumped her in a freezing-cold tub of water at the back of the house. Veena Periamma fished her out and dried her off.
Apparently, this traumatic experience, which she recollected even 80+ years after the fact with stunning detail, didn’t stop little Ranganayaki Paatti from doing more veshamam (trouble). Her parents were so desperate that they tried again with Sambasiva Iyer – this time, he was slightly less moody. With much coaxing, he said “yes” to becoming her guru.
This did not come without a price, for all parties concerned. This was full-on gurukulavasam, with no loose ends. Little Ranganayaki would not be able to see her parents again; even when they came to check on her progress, he would shut her away from them. She needed to believe that Sambasiva Iyer was her family, and indeed, he did eventually become family – her own “Veena Periappa.” But, as with all family members, duty came first, and in this case, that duty was the role of a guru. I would listen in rapt attention as Paatti described the years of intense training with Sambasiva Iyer in exquisite detail:
For the first few years, they didn’t even touch the instrument. Everything was done through vocal music, since Paatti was so tiny. She learned her saralivarisai, jantavarisai, alankArams and other basic exercises in an unusual manner. Sambasiva Iyer would use his angavastram (upper waist cloth) to tether Ranganayaki paatti to his own waist, making sure she didn’t run away. He would even take her into the bathroom, closing the curtain and tying the angavastram to a nearby pole. This system was implemented with great discipline, since she had escaped bolting down the road laughing after the first time he attempted to teach her.
He would also do things like sing alapana phrases for her to decode into swarams (from behind the bathroom curtain, sometimes), and teach her to put two taalams simultaneously. She didn’t understand what the fuss was all about when people came over and marveled at the six year old putting simultaneous taalams nonchalantly – at least, not until she was much older.
Then came the initiation onto the veena itself. This was the most intense part – she would wake up at four and practice till seven, bathe and eat some idlis, then practice for another three hours until 1 in the afternoon, when lunch would happen. A four-hour nightly learning session would also take place, after which she would go to bed. There was no time for learning anything else – she lived and breathed music.
Sambasiva Iyer would make her practice each line of everything 100 times, even when she was learning the sarali varisai. If on the 99th time she made a mistake, he would make her start again, maybe even involve a perambu (bamboo stick) to do the talking! She told me, her eyes winking, that she would purposefully make mistakes on the 99th time just to anger him. What a woman! She would also have to put thoppukaranam (ukki) in three speeds, chanting “nAn thappu paNNa mATTEn” (“I will not make mistakes”). I like to think that this drilled layam (sense of rhythm) into her body. Not once in any of her concerts or classes did I ever see her lift her head to look at where she was in the taalam cycle. At this pace, she learned over 400 songs from him, with songs taking as long as a month each to complete.
He even taught her all of his chittaswarams. These contain extremely fast gamakas and are notoriously difficult to play, composed seemingly with the goal to mess vainikas up! Before she taught me the chittaswaram in Kalyani raagam, she chuckled and said, “you know how many times I got sharp raps on the fingers for making mistakes in this chittaswaram?” Needless to say, we spent a lot of time together that day.
Her first performance was shortly after her sixth birthday. Scared to death, she ran off stage, only to be greeted by an irate Sambasiva Iyer who scooped her up and put her back onto the stage. He must have had a guilty conscience, because after every time he berated her, he’d lift her up and say to her, “You know why I did that, right? I want you to play well, that’s all.” And then he’d pamper her with balloons, chocolates, lush silk skirts, and everything else a child could want. This performance was followed by many more, with her performing alongside him everywhere he went, with nothing but rave reviews coming her way.
By the time she was thirteen, she was married and moved off to Chennai, but that didn’t stop Sambasiva Iyer from traveling to her home every time she had All India Radio solo concerts. She’d come back home and he used to shower her with praise and gifts. He was so proud of her.
Family duties, however, took over as the years progressed. And thus started a slow fade into oblivion for all but the most knowledgable of musicians. With children and grandchildren by the time she was in her early thirties, and with the death of Sambasiva Iyer, my guru was so busy with family duties, that music became less of a focus for her. She went on a few tours and played numerous recordings for All India Radio, but other than that, her name faded. Eventually, health issues took over, and before I came to her, she had all but stopped playing.
Again, I am so very thankful that my mother learned from this stalwart, because if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the bhagyam (good fortune) of doing so myself. I had learned from my mother, who was a student of hers, for around 4 years. When we approached Ranganayaki Paatti for classes, she declined initially, citing her various ailments. My grandfather eventually played a recording of my first concert to her, and she said “Wait, is this me? It sounds like me, but it’s not me. Who is this?” That’s the highest praise I could have gotten from her. And she agreed to teach me that day!
And what a condition – at that point, she was on a walker, barely getting up from her bed. As the years passed, she was eventually bedridden. The Parkinson’s took its toll, as her jaw and hands wavered uncontrollably even when sitting idly. Even then, despite the difficulties of her everyday life, she agreed to teach me. The pure joy I felt when she agreed to teach me, and the pure joy I got every day with her afterward, is bittersweet now.
On the first day, we went, lifted her up to a sitting position and then handed her a veena from her closet, untouched for years on end. She assigned one veena for me too. After cleaning the two, I started learning my first song from her – Padavini. But in the middle, she stopped, and asked to try again the next day. The first year was hard, as she was unsure if she could continue to teach me. But by the end of that summer, in 2007, she told me to come back from America the following year.
From then on, it seemed that I would be fated to have a completely different training style from her – where she had taken months to master a song, I would learn a couple of songs every day. And, of course, I made mistakes, Whereas she had received physical reinforcement in the form of raps on her wrist when she made mistakes, I received a “Mm?” And a sweet, toothless smile. How I miss that smile today.
None of us spoke about it openly, but every year was a race against time, to soak up everything she had before the inevitable happened. In between those intense summers of lessons in Chennai, I listened to her old recordings, trying to imbibe her style. Some things struck me
Every note and every line of every song in every recording rings true – that’s her mark. Purity of sound, “Gundu” (fat) notes in every strum, pure music. A bani focused on quality over everything, even at the highest of speeds; veena at its finest. And the thanam – oh, what a thanam! At 86, with Parkinson’s, tumors in her stomach, bedridden, with stiff legs, uncontrollably shaking hands, her fingers would still dish out the most amazing thanam! Pure magic!
I miss everything about her. I remember the stiffness of her legs, her quivering mouth, her shaking hands, her long, bony, beautiful, yet uncontrolled finger movements, her every sigh, and her quiet chuckle. I owe her so much and it’s impossible to put into words what I have received from her.
This is but a sliver of the story I have crafted with her, and it’s sad that the story could not have been longer. Had I started earlier, had she continued playing, this story could have been much different. But stories are written in Indian ink, not pencil. They are as permanent as the inevitable itself, and I have to live with that.
As her student, and as a student of her student, I hold a responsibility to her – my guru – and her bani to see to it that the slow decline of the veena is turned around; to make it my life’s work to be a torchbearer for the incredible blessing that is my musical training, the instillation of the Karaikkudi bani in me.
I will do it for her – she who gave me everything when her body and mind didn’t cooperate, she who affectionately made a student into a musician, a mere boy into something more. I am indebted to her, as is the world for her music. I will always remember her as the kindest, gentlest soul to have graced the earth with her presence.
I love you, Ranganayaki paatti. I always will.
Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (3 May 1932-20 September 2018).
Guhan Venkataraman, a second year Ph.D. student at Stanford University, USA, is a vainika of the Karaikudi parampara. He started learning veena from his mother Smt. Lakshmi Venkataraman at age 8, and continued his discipleship under Kalaimamani Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (herself a direct disciple of the legendary Karaikudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer). He continues to enlarge and refine his scholarship and repertoire under the tutelage of Sri R. K. Shriramkumar and Delhi Sri P. Sunder Rajan.