Reminiscences by Lalgudi Jayaraman’s grand daughter-disciple

“Lalgudi Thatha. That’s how I addressed this Colossus of music at home. He was my grandfather, but first and foremost, he was my Guru. Nearly every second spent with him was a ‘music moment’. This is because his all-consuming love for his art made him play, sing, discuss and breathe music. In my short life, I can confidently say I have never seen a person so passionate and single-minded about his first and last love - music.

When he was teaching us, he was not Lalgudi Jayaraman, the celebrated violin virtuoso. He was like a six-year-old with an incredible toy in his hands that fascinated him no end and obeyed his every command.

One of his greatest qualities as a guru was he extended the same sincerity and seriousness to a young student that he did to a senior musician who sought his expertise and guidance.

No printed sarali varisai or varnam books for us. Each swara and syllable he imparted, he would personally write out in his flowing, beautiful script for every single student. When he began teaching me arohanam and avarohanam of ragas when I was five, he would draw ascending and descending steps, placing each swara firmly on successive steps. This vivid visual imagery was indelibly imprinted in my mind. To focus my attention on the music book, he would enliven it with colourful sketches of peacocks, elephants and deer. Which guru would go to such lengths to hold a child’s interest?

At the same time, discipline and keen attention on the student’s part were not negotiable from start to finish. He held the reins of his class, knowing when to draw them tighter and when to loosen them. If the pupil’s focus wavered even for a second, strong admonishment was on the cards. There have been days when I have wept during class and so have several other students, at our inability to get a particular kanakku or phrase right. But his presence only spurred us on harder to keep trying till we succeeded. He would also lighten the mood with jokes and puzzles.

He instilled in us a feeling of responsibility and accountability for our music. This was because he regarded the failure or success of his disciples as his own. He constantly strived to up the ante for the student, similar to how his father would attend his concerts and not utter a word of praise if he performed well but would only point out the flaws. This didn’t mean our guru didn’t express appreciation for a pupil absorbing the saramsam of what he was trying to teach. Then, his laughter, childlike and joyous would ring out and you would earn an affectionate pat that made your day.

The manner in which he deconstructed a complex fingering technique, playing it numerous times so that even the slowest could grasp it, displayed remarkable patience. “How does he do it?” He could have just kept us guessing and awe-struck at the unattainable. But he wanted to share with us the secrets of his long, hard years of discovery and innovation - a quality that set him apart.

I have always believed that once I have learnt a varnam or thillana composed by him, from him, I would know all there was to know about that raga. The gamakas, jarus and embellishments - it was as if the essence of the raga had been distilled and encapsulated into his composition. He would explain to us why and how he composed the melody to signify the emotion conveyed by the lyrics and we would listen, mesmerised.

Once you entered the ‘music room,’ you stopped being family. You were like any other student. No partiality, no concessions. A healthy competition was encouraged. If anything, he was easier on other students!

His burning desire to play the violin even when physically unwell speaks for the complete surrender of self, soul and lifetime to music. Thatha lived and loved music. In the end, he became the music."