It was one such harsh Madras summer. In the shade of the rich canopy on Venkatnarayana Road, a friend and I, both a little over 10 at that time, stood in eager anticipation. With us was Lalgudi sir, clad in a sparkling white dhoti folded up to his knee and a white half-sleeve khadi shirt. He was carefully choosing mangoes ripe enough to eat the very same day. With him was his wife Rajalakshmi.
This was after music class, which usually went on for at least three hours. He had asked us if we had begun having mangoes that summer. We said yes. But much to his shock, neither of us had tasted the Imampasanth that he believed was the king of all mangoes. He immediately stood up, gesturing to us to come along, and called his wife. “Can you believe it? These children have never tasted Imampasanth. Let’s go now and buy some for them,” he told her, and we went walking along Ramanujam Street, in the hot noonday sun, to the pavement stall on the other side of Venkatnarayana Road. A few hours later, the phone rings at home. It was him calling to check if I had tasted it and liked it.
To refer to ‘Sir’ — as we disciples called our guru Lalgudi G. Jayaraman — as “music teacher” would not capture even a fraction of what he meant to us.
It is often said that a highly successful artiste is seldom a good teacher. Lalgudi sir proved that theory incorrect. As an artiste, he was a trendsetter, remarkably successful as an accompanist, solo artiste and composer. As a teacher, he was a taskmaster. Teaching was to him serious business.
In the twenty years I spent with him learning, I was often overwhelmed by his teacher persona. Not only because he was a strict disciplinarian who emphasised rigour in every aspect of music, but because in being a teacher, he transformed into a passionate student of music, who was in complete awe of the art form.
“Listen to how the ‘ma’ [note] in Shankarabharanam sounds when oscillated this way,” he would demonstrate. “Isn’t it beautiful!” he would marvel, making us repeat the phrase as many times as it took to get it right. And when we got the particular nuance, his childlike excitement was hard to miss. It was more like “Great, now that you have also seen how beautiful it is, we can appreciate it together.” And to him, a beautiful note or phrase was not just in Carnatic music. He would get equally high on an Asha Bhosle song or a Mehdi Hasan ghazal, which he would play for us during class from time to time. As much as he looked up to his seniors such as GNB and Madurai Mani, he would eagerly listen to musicians half his age, and compliment them with specific and precise observations.
Many of Lalgudi sir’s fans and friends thought he was a hard-core romantic — who loved admiring a Bougainvillea tree in bloom, listening to the koel in his backyard, reading Bharathi or spending hours at the beach. As if it weren’t enough that he got so excited, he would tell us all to pay attention to the silence punctuating the roar of the waves, or contemplate the particular shade of the rose. Yes, we did beach trips with him. He has taken me to the circus too. As students, we looked forward to travelling with him, because it was not just about performing somewhere, but doing a whole lot of “fun things” with him.
When he went abroad, we had no holiday. He usually made sure his son G.J.R. Krishnan, daughter Vijayalakshmi or senior disciple S.P. Ramh took classes in his absence. He would call us from wherever he was to check if we were practising. As part of my most-cherished personal belongings are two picture postcards he sent me from the U.S. — with images of Disneyland on one side and his lovely, cursive handwriting on the other. In addition to describing in detail where he stayed and what he was doing, he also enquired if I sang every day. That was not all that he would check — he would ask if we ate almonds (he insisted that we all did, to ensure adequate protein intake) every day and got some good exercise (for blood circulation and breath-control). From every trip he brought back gifts for all his students — I got, among other things, a pair of binoculars in pink, a photo frame and a pretty little wooden box.
In many ways, he was indeed an “incurable romantic” — as his authorised, to-be-launched biography is titled. But to me, he was a champion of reason. While teaching us the “what” and “how” aspects of music, he was very particular that we understood “why” it was so. He encouraged us to ask questions and consciously avoided a didactic style in teaching.
Lalgudi sir was one of the most practical and progressive individuals I have met. Within the rather conservative circuit of Carnatic music, he tried challenging some notions pertaining to caste-based discrimination and differential remuneration for artistes. He reiterated those values to his students too.
His eye for detail was not just in music. If he wrote an article, he worked on multiple drafts until he was satisfied. If he gave a speech, he made sure he replaced potentially ambiguous statements with facts and specifics. If he wrote the notation for a song, he would mark every oscillation and curve with relevant notes. He was a wizard at board games, could draw very well and play several other instruments.
Lalgudi sir was mentally agile till the last. Not long ago, while in Apollo’s CCU, he was listening to me singing a phrase in raga Dhanyasi. Despite the tubes all over, including one in his nose, he asked me to stop, and corrected the manner in which I handled a particular note. Even a few weeks ago, he held his instrument — the Italian one that Yehudi Menuhin gifted him — and played a few phrases in raga Mohanam.
His ailments did take a toll on his body, but he was as high-spirited, enthusiastic and sharp as ever. Self pity did not exist in his world, and he viewed his own situation with admirable pragmatism. Just like the born winner he was. That, to us, was our beloved Lalgudi sir and that’s what he will always be.