Veteran veena artiste Vidya Shankar (90), daughter of the Late V.S. Ayyar, passed away following a brief illness at her Mylapore residence at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, 29 June 2010. A well known veena vidushi and musicologist, she was also a member of The Music Academy Experts Committee.
The following article on Vidya Shankar by writer Gowri Ramnarayan was published in The Hindu on 21July 2006.
Maths and music went hand in hand
“Though I was very good in Mathematics, my father thought it was too strenuous a subject in college for a girl. He made me take up music instead,” says Vidya Shankar. The veena artiste is over 80 today, but the disappointment still shows on her face. Belonging to a family of extraordinary achievers (uncle C.V.Raman and brother S. Chandrasekhar were Nobel laureates; brother Purasu Balakrishnan a writer), Vidya grew up among nine siblings, all taught by the parents at home until high school. Music was part of this schedule.
Hot-tempered mother Sitalakshmi was a role model. She studied Sanskrit at dawn, read voraciously, wrote, translated Ibsen's `The Doll's House,' sang, played the veena, sewed, crocheted, and told emotionally charged stories. Chief auditor in the Railways, gentle father Subramania Iyer prioritised learning. A violinist himself, Iyer took lessons from veteran Sabesa Iyer, a frequent guest. But he would not send Vidya for a five-year music course under the vidwan's guidance in the Chidambaram College. He believed in all round education.
However, little Vidya got 12 years of training from the master. "He would sing, I'd follow on the veena. He had a scientific mind, he analysed ragas with confident precision.'' Once Musiri Subramania Iyer happened to be present in the class. The next day he brought a tambura for young Vidya's Begada.
Sabesa Iyer did not fail to arrange regular tuitions for the girl with Madras Sabapati Iyer. Musicologist T. L. Venkatrama Iyer too taught a few advanced learners in her home. The guru noted that the girl corrected on her veena even those phrases, which the voice sometimes sang imprecisely. "If you have doubts, ask Vidya!'' he would say happily.
No wonder Vidya Shankar herself became a redoubtable musicologist, acclaimed for her lec-dems, and writings (`Biography of Syama Sastri,' `Art and Science of Carnatic Music') which united depth with clarity. A stranger once exclaimed, "You speak such chaste English!'' She replied, "No, my thoughts are chaste."
She taught beginners with the same involvement as when she discoursed on the mela ragamalika at the Music Academy (where she has long been on the Experts' Committee), or delivered 15 lectures analysing Carnatic music at the Atomic Energy Centre, Kalpakkam. Her English translations of the Syama Krishna compositions reflect her linguistic skills, and her empathy for their luminous bhava.
The veena artiste's uniqueness stems from her having imbibed classicism from a profound source. Syama Sastri, great grandson of the composer, gave her treasures from his family wealth. Absorption was not easy. "His speech was unclear, he coughed all the time." For days Sastri would not go beyond a single line. Another day had him pouring out 10 compositions. The guru refused to allow any writing down of song or notation, saying, "You're studying Milton. Do you need to write down `Amba Kamakshi?' " The girl had to record her lessons surreptitiously.
Sastri talked about his ancestors of three generations, extraordinary composers all. "When Muthuswami Dikshitar heard Syama Sastri's `Devi Minanetri' sung by his son, he exclaimed that he had never known a more masterly handling of the slow tempo as in its charanam." Another day the guru would tell her that when Syama Sastri sang `Mayamma' at the Bangaru Kamakshi Amman temple, a frenzied listener grabbed the shawl on the idol and draped it around Sastri , seeing the goddess and her devotee as one.
Vidya also learnt `Devi Brova' (Chintamani) in the original setting where the phrases skip and leap in zigzag patterns, reflecting the disturbance in the composer's mind during its creation. "All have smoothed down in modern patanthara," she sighs.
As a teacher
"At 18, I was too young to appreciate the value of such stories," Vidya Shankar admits. She did learn and practise for hours, but her thoughts were on the games field where she played tennicoit in inter school and inter college tournaments.
Completing the teacher's training course enabled her find an outlet for her love of maths in teaching it at Kalanilayam, Children's Garden School and at Kalakshetra, Chennai. She taught Sanskrit too, as well as musicology at the Central College of Carnatic Music. Marriage plunged her into a huge joint family. "Three cradles would hang in a row... Nobody knew which child belonged to which set of parents," she laughs.
When Vidya created the time for practice she found a listener in her mother-in-law, who also encouraged her to teach. After all, she was reformist and educationist Sister Subbulakshmi's sibling. Scientist brother Chandrasekhar was amazed by Vidya's concentration in the midst of chaos. "Music has that capacity to make you forget everything," she remarks. She continues to be a busy researcher.
"Come to my demonstration next week,'' she invites you. Finally, she pulls out a review of her recital in 1945. It lists depth, gamaka fluidity, clarity and poignancy as her major strengths. If you say her style bears the same traits in the ripe years too, would Vidya Shankar's reply be, "That's because my thoughts are clear, my feelings deep?"