Briefly, very briefly, I enrolled for optional music classes in school. They were taught by a lady in her mid-thirties who was too sweet and gentle to handle 13-year olds. There were six of us in her class, which took place twice a week for an hour and a half.
At that time, school was small place – parents and teachers made friends, sometimes we grew to know their families and they ours. One Navaratri, Music Ma’am as she was called, invited our class home to see the golu and eat sundal. There was also something about singing a kriti she had taught us, but we paid no attention to that part.
Dressed in shiny pavadai chattais, four of the six of us arrived at the address she’d given us. Even before we had opened the gate, we could hear music. Inside, there were about ten girls and women of all ages, including Ma’am, singing Devi Neeye Thunai. At the back was an elderly lady in a rust-coloured saree, joining the rendition only occasionally, but smiling at everyone who came in, nodding happily when the higher notes turned out without apaswaram. She looked familiar, but I made no attempt to recall where I might have seen her.
After Devi…another kriti began (the one we had been taught!) and when this one ended, Ma’am got up to see to the guests. There were others who had arrived after us and those who were among the singers. A dozen conversations, swishing silks, someone humming, coffee tumblers clanging against davaras, the gecko-call doorbell, myriad sounds of a south Indian household in celebration swirled around the four of us who sat talking among ourselves, hoping for channa sundal, rather than payaru. Neat paper potlams appeared, we couldn’t see what kind of sundal it was. They were distributed and vettalai paaku was handed to everyone.
The namaskarams began as people started to leave – all of them for the elderly lady, who we assumed was Ma’am’s mother-in-law. A quick consultation among ourselves and we decided to would be safer to do a namaskaram as well, than stand out by not doing it!
Just as we were about to rise and say polite things before leaving, K grabbed my arm and hissed something in my ear. I could hear nothing of what she was saying, so she dragged me to a corner and said, “I know why that maami looks familiar! She is Pattammal!”
I could have fainted. DK Pattammal was a legend in our family. My grandfather thought her music vastly superior to MS’ and declared that she was the only woman he could bear to listen to. A perfect imitation of her rendition of Poonguyil Koovum was mandatory at bride ‘viewing’ events, and the first song my grandmother asked a new daughter-in-law to sing was Eppadi Paadinaro. My father had an old recording of a concert by DKP at Mylapore Fine Arts, which he made copies of and distributed to cousins who hoped to become musicians, with strict instructions to listen to it each morning and learn from it!
And she was here! I was in her house! And my music teacher was her daughter-in-law! I was practically her student! My head buzzed. I thought of the things my family would ask – they would want to know the exact colour of her saree, what sort of bangles and necklace she wore, if I actually heard her singing in her own house, if the sundal had enough salt, if other celebrity musicians had been there, oh, the grilling would be endless!
We did our namaskarams, with great respect and care. Pattammal said something about studying with shraddhai and doing well in life. Then it was time to say our poitu varens and leave. The family didn’t go as overboard as I had expected them to, but all Navaratri visitors that week were told that I had been to DKP’s house for vettalai paaku.
It turned out that Music ma’am was DK Jayaraman’s daughter-in-law, not Pattamal’s. For a few weeks afterwards, I actually practised and tried to sing reasonably in class. But even blessings from Pattammal herself couldn’t help with that.