The woman from Karaikudi
Rukmini teacher touched her life briefly, but enriched it with music forever. The writer remembers.
When I was six, my mother decided to hire a music teacher for her three daughters. She belonged to a generation that believed girls should be trained in music, study in a convent school and learn English. The oldest was already 12 and should have embarked on her Sa-Re-Ga-Ma journey long ago. But, music teachers were hard to come by in that remote mining town. This one landed on our doorstep quite unexpectedly.
Her husband had come to the Gold Fields in search of a job. Someone had told him there was an Iyengar gentleman who was “close” to his white employers and could easily fix him up in one of the four gold mines. So, this stranger came to meet my father with his wife, who was a music teacher. He had made discreet enquiries and knew that there were three girls in the house.
Natarajan was a brawny Kumbakonam man. Dressed in a white shirt and veshti with a Malabar towel flung on his shoulder, he accosted my mild-mannered father in the garden with the bravado of a person interviewing a candidate rather than the other way around. All the while, his wife cowered behind him.
“This is my missus; she also needs a job,” he began. He proudly added that she had learnt the art from no less a vidwan than the great Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar himself. Her parents were from Karaikudi and they had moved to the great musician’s hometown. My parents employed her immediately. Rukmini was my first and last music teacher.
She arrived punctually at six o’clock every evening and tuned the big, black harmonium with deft fingers. She then played some introductory notes on it with one hand, while she operated the bellows with the other. I sat cross-legged in front of her on the living room carpet, hating every moment of this daily imposition. It was the last thing I wanted after spending a whole day in a convent classroom where the French nuns mercilessly rammed lessons in history, geography, nature study and religion, in addition to the tortures of mathematics, down our throats.
I wanted to spend my evenings with my favourite authors. Instead, they were filled with interminable sarali varisais, janta varisais and alamkaarams sung to the loud accompaniment of that harmonium, with Rukmini teacher bawling on top of all this cacophony “ Vaayi tharandhe thonde pirichi kathe (open your mouth and throat wide, and scream).” However, she painstakingly wrote down all the notations in a long hard-bound notebook meant to last for posterity.
This practice continued for years, even after I graduated to varnams and keerthanas. Dipping the quill pen with a thick nib into an inkwell, she would write scores of compositions from Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, Swati Tirunal, Arunachala Kavi — you name it. Rukmini teacher was a walking encyclopaedia of music. I can still see her sitting on our living room carpet, head bent over the long tome, swishing the quill pen from time to time until our carpet assumed a bright blue glow on one side.
She would also talk about her teacher, Ariyakudi. How proud he would have felt to hear me, she would add. Unfortunately, these tactics did not inspire me. I started devising ways of dodging them. There was a swing in the garden where I would go up and down, higher and higher until I could see Rukmini teacher trudging up the steep incline to our house. Warned in time, I would do the vanishing act.
Looking back at the pranks we played on our poor music teacher brings a lump to my throat. She was so dedicated to her vocation. And she needed the money badly with her husband always “trying for an opening” somewhere.
All this happened many years ago. The brave founder of the chit fund company vanished from the gold mines as abruptly as he arrived. Rukmini teacher also disappeared from our lives. I often wonder if I would have been able to savour the nuances of a kutcheri today, but for those painful lessons with her. Whenever I listen to an artist exploring the subtleties of a Thodi or a Kamboji, I say a silent prayer of gratitude to the little woman from Karaikudi who touched our childhood briefly to teach us how to appreciate music. But, for her, our lives would undoubtedly have been poorer.