R. Vedavalli on houses with spacious backyards, munificent patrons of music and the taste of just-picked vegetables. The author takes a nostalgic stroll down lanes which echo memories of the city itself.
I was 10 when we shifted from Mannargudi to Madras, to live in Ramar Koil Street, Old Mambalam, named after the old temple. Our family was responsible for supplying oil to the flares at the temple's festival processions.
The neighbourhood had houses snuggling in leafy compounds, their spacious backyards accommodating wells and cattle sheds. I loved to play with the calf in my aunt's house close by. If she called, “Lakshmi!” her cow responded with a loving bellow! The birth of a female calf was celebrated with puja and payasam!
Violinist T.K. Jayarama Iyer, a frequent visitor to his daughter's house next door, would pull me by the neck with the curved handle of his walking stick, and make me sing whatever he played! .
A half-hour short cut through Erikkarai Street bordering the lake behind our house, took us walking through fields and palm groves, to the Vadapalani temple!
Every home had pictures of gods and goddesses, from the large Vinolia Soap advertisements in calendars, framed and affixed aslant on a wooden bar nailed to the wall. From the swing, I watched sparrows cheep in and out, building cosy nests behind these pictures, feeding their chicks!
I loved acting in plays at my school, Sarada Vidyalaya. The Hindu carried a rave review of our play on the Buddha, praising my acting and singing as Yasodhara! Guess what I sang to put little Rahula to sleep? “Pahi srigirirajasute”! In those days, people didn't bother about connecting song and theme!
Summer saw me climbing every mango tree in the neighbourhood. What a thrill to sit on a swaying branch, and bite into a fresh-plucked, sap-oozing raw mango! I was happiest reading serials and stories. I knew Kalki's Sivakamiyin Sapatham and Ponniyin Selvan by rote. I think I lived more among characters than people.
We moved to other houses in the same area. There were few shops and fewer customers. Usman Road housed jewellers in Ramachandra & Co, the famous Nathan's Café. I bought heart-shaped, red-stemmed Kumbakonam vetrilai from Rajaji or Nehru Seeval Stores.
I walked to the vegetable gardens in adjacent Nallanthoppu. The owner would take four annas and let me pick my fill of vendaikkai, kathirikkai, pirkangai and pudalangai! No weighing-counting! The war years meant blackouts, and endless queues for rice. But, imagine the taste of just-picked vegetables!
Father took me to concerts — once we sat cross-legged on chairs, because Vani Mahal was flooded with ankle-deep rain water. At Panagal Park, radio concerts were relayed through giant speakers. On Marina beach, we heard Carnatic kritis by clarionet player Nathamuni's Band.
Mambalam was home to actor Kannamba. I also remember seeing a young girl walking back and forth, book in hand, studying on the terrace of actress Sandhya's home — my first glimpse of future chief minister Jayalalithaa.
Among musician-residents, mridangam vidwan Pazhani Subramania Pillai greeted me as he walked past our home. “Enna kutti!” was Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer's call. After hearing my radio recital, Dandapani Desigar sent for me, blessed me, and gave me excellent advice — along with bags of fruit from his village farm!
Among connoisseurs was Mrs. Sastri, who rattled past in an ancient car, often with her Andhra musician guests. Uyyur Zamindar on Burkitt Road (nicknamed Naladiyar for being short) remained a munificent patron until his wealth was exhausted. Settur Zamindar on Lloyds Road accompanied musicians on the kanjira in chamber concerts. At the end, he brought out a tray full of gem-encrusted rings of every size, for musicians to pick what fitted them best. Simpson Venkatrama Iyer's annual festival on Griffith Road playground showcased stalwarts, each with a defined, identifiable style.
I shifted to Sullivan Garden Road to live close to my guru. Alangudi Ramachandran lived in the opposite house. He set out, making a tryptich of his huge ghatam, an equally huge pot of water, and his own paunch!
Many things have changed — Cathedral and Mowbrays Roads are no longer lonely, to be shunned after sundown. A concrete Music Academy stands where magizhambu trees spread their heady fragrance. Where are the spotless beaches and parks? And, Moore Market, where I got so many out-of-print books? Gone with the simple joys and the sense of space and time, forgotten in the modern world…
I REMEMBER: As a child I saw how, an hour before Gandhiji was scheduled to give a talk at the Hindi Prachar Sabha, the street and open maidan in front overflowed with ecstatic crowds. Every tree packed men on its branches. Staff in hand, Gandhiji arrived, mounted the platform briskly. I was too young to understand his speech. But I remember the exciting appearance of M.S.Subbulakshmi, who sang bhajans for the Mahatma. Her signature jasmine crescent, streaked with green marikozhundu and orange kanakambaram, curved above the high “bichoda kondai”, creating an aura above her head. She too commanded reverence!
BIODATA: Born in 1935, R. Vedavalli is one of the most respected Carnatic musicians of the old school, noted for her theoretical knowledge, performance skills and impeccable diction. Her voice never wavers from classicism, absorbed from first guru Madurai Srirangam Iyengar, and Mudicondan Venkatrama Iyer, an expert in the pallavi tradition. Under T. Mukta's guidance, she specialised in padams and javalis. Vedavalli has given concerts and lecdems in many countries. She has taught at the Madras Music Academy's Teacher's College of Music, and the Government College of Music, Chennai. She has received many awards and honours, including the Music Academy's coveted Sangita Kalanidhi.