A group of students, mostly women, have turned to Skype to learn devotionals from their teacher in Mumbai
Tamil lyrics steeped in devotion invite visitors to Jayam Krishnan’s house at the corner near West Fort, just before you turn to go to Swathi Nagar in the Fort area. As voices ranging from deep bass to clear soprano render verses in praise of deities of the Hindu pantheon, the singers are encouraged and corrected by their patient teacher. There is nothing to distinguish this music class from numerous other classes in the city that teach bhajans and devotionals. But a close look reveals what make this class different – their septuagenarian teacher Subbulakshmi Subramaniam and her husband, S.R.S. Ayyar, are in Mumbai while their students are in the city.
The ardent students and dedicated teacher interact through Skype. Every Saturday, at 4 p.m., the women, many in the fifties and above, gather at the residence of Jayam to learn Thirupugazh. Jayam’s expertise in handing the computer and Skype is evident as she unerringly logs in for the classes. After an invocatory verse, the students tune in to sing and learn.
Jayam’s desire to learn the songs in praise of Lord Murugan was fulfilled when she heard from a relative that Subbulakshmi was planning to settle in the city and was keen on teaching the Thirupugazh. “Initially, the classes were at a Murugan temple in Tippu street, Fort. But when the number of students increased, we shifted to our teacher’s flat in Swathi Nagar. Teacher taught us the songs and we also rendered the devotionals in many temples in the city. We never take money for our recitals,” explains Jaya.
However, when ill health forced the couple to shift to Mumbai, their disciples were heartbroken. Eventually Jaya and Subbulakshmi hit upon the idea of interacting through Skype. The classes resumed in full swing after a year and the students flocked to the classes with renewed fervour. Recently, for their teacher’s 70th birthday, the students tuned in and sang 70 Thirupugazh as a gift.
Subbulakshmi says fervently that she considers it a blessing that she was able to continue the classes and keep interacting with her students. “The songs are set in various Carnatic ragas. I have been teaching students in Mumbai for the last 25 years,” she adds.
Vidya Balasubramanian, one of the students, points out that their teacher is a versatile singer, a gold medallist of the Swati Tirunal College of Music and a graded artiste on the veena. “For many years now she has devoted herself to teaching the Thirupugazh and other devotionals in praise of Murugan and that too without taking a fee. The students are part of an association called Thirumurugha Bhaktha Jana Sangam.”
It was word of mouth publicity and the desire to immerse themselves in matters of the soul that attracted many of the students. Leela Subramoni and Vidya came to know about the music lessons from relatives and other students.
Leela says even though learning through Skype is not the same as learning at the feet of the teacher, she emphasises that Subbulakshmi pays the same attention to music and diction. While Subbulakshmi takes care of the music, her husband teaches them the meaning, linguistic and philosophical, of the verses. “Many of the verses use a mixture of languages. It is like Manipravalam. So I explain the verses and teach them where to split the words to render the lines correctly.”
Every year, the students go on a pilgrimage to Kumara Kovil in Nagercoil. Three times in a month they sing bhajans at Ayodhya Mandapam, Tippu street Murugan temple and Kallampalli Sastha temple. In June-July, they celebrate a six-day festival called ‘Thirumurugan Music Lecture Dance & Art Festival’, in which leading vocalists perform. The tenth edition of the festival will be organised this year.
Arunagirinathar, a Tamil poet who lived during the 15th century, composed the Thirupugazh, poems in praise of Lord Murugan. He is believed to have composed 16,000 songs, of which only about 1,365 have been traced. In Chennai, about two decades ago, guru A. S. Raghavan started a movement for expounding the cause of Thirupugazh through songs. The devotees are called Thirupugazh Anbargal.