She's a familiar figure at almost every cultural event in the city. Korean play, jazz concert, Carnatic kutcheri, fusion performance, Hindustani jugalbandi, historical theatre… you name it, you're likely to find Dr. Rajalakshmi Parthasarathy — better known as ‘Mrs. YGP' — in the first row, feet up on her trusty little footstool, enjoying the performance thoroughly.
At the grand old age of 86, the well-known educationist, and dean and director of the Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (PSBB) group of schools, displays a zest for life that would be the envy of those half her age. “I try to enjoy all that's happening around me, to appreciate the best in everything,” she says about what keeps her going (and going and going…).
Ask about the roots of her deep appreciation of all arts, and you get a glimpse into a fascinating life spent in the midst of great artistes from across disciplines.
For instance, weddings at Veda Vilas, the 30-room home of her grandfather Diwan Bahadur T. Rangachari, were five-day affairs. Legendary musicians such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and upanyasam exponents such as Saraswati Bai stayed with them and gave performances. Her uncle R. Venkatachari was the founder of the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha, and the sabha's performances were conducted in Veda Vilas.
“I was born at 4.30 one evening in that very house, when Banni Bai, the Harikatha exponent, was giving a musical discourse just a few rooms away,” says Mrs. YGP with a smile.
Exposure to culture
A childhood spent going to the plays of M. R. Radha and Nawab Rajamanickam on Wall Tax Road with her father led to a life surrounded by theatre. She married Y.G. Parthasarathy in 1948. A pioneer of modern Tamil theatre, Parthasarathy founded United Amateur Artists (UAA) in 1952.
“I used to travel with him all over Tamil Nadu for his plays,” she recalls. “And my house became a centre for arts like my grandfather's house was, with rehearsals at all times, and artistes staying with us.”
Her in-laws were just as immersed in the arts, with great artistes from the North such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi and Hariprasad Chaurasia performing in their house. “I hadn't had much exposure to Hindustani music before that,” she says, “but there, kutcheris would sometimes go on until one or 2 a.m., with my mother-in-law serving coffee and snacks!”
All those experiences stayed with her, and the girl who once had to be forced by her mother to learn the Carnatic violin (“I was more interested in reading in those days, and would keep a storybook open on the side while pretending to practise!”) developed an abiding love for the Indian arts as an adult.
“That's why I started PSBB in 1958,” says Mrs. YGP. “I introduced music, dance, theatre, the Vedas and shlokas as part of the curriculum because I found that our children were becoming increasingly Anglicised, and losing touch with our culture.”
But you'd be wrong to think her interest stopped with Indian arts. After all, this is the woman who interviewed legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin for The Hindu's Sport & Pastime magazine, and travelled alone to Russia for the World Youth Festival in 1962, absorbing all the culture she could.
“Czech music, Finnish dancers, Chinese mime… there were so many incredible performances, and we had tickets to them all,” she says. “Others made a fuss, saying they needed company to go around, but I would just leave my room by 7 a.m. everyday and not return till night!”
She's always believed in seizing opportunities that come her way. “And I never take anything lying down,” she says firmly.
She was the first woman to go to college in her family, joining a course in journalism at Madras University in the teeth of opposition from elders. She was the first, again, to have a love marriage. And when people told her she couldn't be the principal of a co-ed school, she took the fight all the way to the top.
“I went out of my way to qualify myself, doing my B. Ed at the age of 40, then completing my M. Ed and M.A. History,” she says. “But they still said a woman couldn't be the principal of a school with boys.” So she went to Kashmir, where the All India Women's Conference was in progress, and took the matter up with Indira Gandhi herself. “‘Isn't this discrimination?' I asked her, and she agreed,” she recalls. A letter from Mrs. Gandhi settled the matter in favour of Mrs. YGP.
Age hasn't stopped her from taking up new causes. A recent pilgrimage of Vaishnavite temples in Tamil Nadu alerted her to their poor condition, and she started a trust that supports 50 of these temples today. Oh, and she completed her PhD in Vaishnavism at the age of 75.
“As long as God gives me the strength, I'll keep going,” she says with a smile. “I've started using a wheelchair nowadays because my knees trouble me, and I don't want to depend on people to help me walk. But I don't let it hold me back.”