Three paatu teachers compare notes on the joys of learning and teaching music.

As a child, K. Sivaramakrishnan, 73, waited impatiently for Mondays and Saturdays.

Those were the days classical Carnatic and Hindustani music poured out of the transistor. An eager audience absorbed it all.

“Live concerts were so rare. The only way we could learn a new keerthanai was by tailing the singers, and hoping they would give us notations. But today, while everything is readily available, but there is little interest,” he rues.

Born to music

P. Chandrasekara Bhagavatar, 80, grew up in Pandanallur, a village steeped in music and dance.

Children learnt music and dance in the gurukulam system. In 1990, he shifted base to Coimbatore, and has taught hundreds of students classical music.

“I started teaching when I was 20. In our time, teachers were greatly respected. If they asked us to stay back for learning, we did. Today, when I ask a student to stay back to learn a keerthanai, she declines, saying she has to go for a Hindi class,” says the veteran teacher.

Nirmala Srinivasan, 80, is happy she still gets students. The singer, who used to accompany M.L. Vasanthakumari (MLV) during her concerts, specialises in individual training. “I like one-on-one teaching. When you teach in a group, it is difficult to spot mistakes and train them well,” she says.

She started teaching in the city in 1968, when Rama Rajya Sangeetha Padasalai came up on Subramanya Road, R.S. Puram. When the institute closed down, her students followed her home. She still teaches, sitting on a chair. Her students — school students, homemakers and singers — sit on a paai and learn a style of singing steeped in bhaava.

Adapting

Sivaramakrishnan understands that teachers today have to adjust to the punishing schedule of students. “We even teach them what they want to learn. Very few willingly submit themselves to the guru.”

He was principal of the Government Music College when it was inaugurated in Coimbatore in 1993. “It’s been a long innings, but a lovely one,” he smiles.

Many of Nirmala’s students teach music abroad and they visit her when they are in town. “They were all like my children, and sometimes we would even share a meal in my house,” she says. “Teaching music soothes the soul, and it keeps me going at this age. It gives me a purpose to live.”

A guru's blessings

She has fond memories of singing with MLV. “She met me at someone’s house, and asked me if I would accompany her on stage. It was such a privilege travelling with her across the country. Luckily, my family chipped in so I managed to stay a mother and musician, all at once!”

Chandrasekara Bhagavatar still remembers how strict teachers used to be.

“My father, who was also my guru, would chew betel leaves. If I committed a mistake, he would spit on my face. That shaped me. I am not as strict, but I expect discipline in class.” The teacher, who says music is equal to meditation, still remembers his father saying: Respect every vidwan. Every vidwan is a teacher. “I still follow that advice.”