Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

SRUTI FICTION

TRIPLICANE MANI

(Part II of a short novel by MV Swaroop)

(Continued from blogpost dated 31 July 2012)

It was only when the bus left that Ajith knew he had got down one stop too early – his head was still swimming in Mani’s stories, the veils the vidwan hid behind and the walls he had constructed around himself.

Looking around, Ajith realised that he had to walk to the next stop. This realisation coincided with another message from Nethra, ‘Fifteen minutes late!’ His brisk walk graduated to a trot and soon turned into a sprint. He crossed a set of shopping complexes—typical Pondy Bazaar complexes with lots of small shops that sold fake mobile phone accessories (selling Noika, Panasoanic, Philiphs and other misleading brands), computer parts, cheap clothes, expensive clothes, cheap glasses, expensive glasses, housed a watch mechanic or a photo-framer (‘God Pictures and All Other Kinds of Framing’), a ‘mens only’ barber (with a/c and ‘style cutting and cropping’), and a dry cleaner (‘Devi Dry Cleaners - Clean as White’). At the next intersection, he stopped at a potti kadai and asked for directions to Big Bazaar. The man, his mouth filled with paan, pointed in a general direction without saying anything. Ajith ran past a petrol bunk, crossed what seemed like a small intersection that couldn’t handle the traffic and spotted the rather aptly named Big Bazaar on his left. Nethra had given him only vague directions, “It’s a juice shop. I don’t know what it’s called – either before or after Big Bazaar. I’m not sure. Oh wait. I think it is after. Because I usually walk along the flower market to get there... No. Wait... I think it is before. I’m confusing it with the flower market image... Actually, I have no clue. Just get to the Big Bazaar and find the nearest juice shop.”

As it turned out, the shop was behind the flower market, after Big Bazaar.

Nethra was there, her juice nearly finished. She pointed to the clock on her phone as soon as he reached. He muttered an apology to which she said, “Every time.”

“Hey,” Ajith protested, “I have an excuse today. These musicians talk too much.”

Nethra smiled. She was about to say something when the waiter arrived at their table. “Watermelon juice,” Ajith declared.

“Watermelon not there, saar.

Ajith peered into the menu and spotted a ‘5-fruits cocktail’ and promptly ordered it. The waiter replied, “Only four fruits today. Watermelon not there.”

Nethra laughed, “So drink four fruits cocktail...”

They looked at the waiter, who, after consideration, said, “Saar, billing will still be for five fruits cocktail.”

Ajith said, “What a place you’ve picked!”

“Heh. They let you sit here for as long as you want.”

Ajith took a sip of her juice.

“So,” Nethra asked, “How’d the interview go?”

“Oh, awesome. He’s the strangest person I’ve ever met.”

“How?”

“Generally. He’s mysterious, but makes it clear to you that he is mysterious. He wants you to know that there are secrets, but he will not tell you what they are.”

“Like what?”

“So, I asked him about his early gurus. Wait. Let me play you the recording of his answer...”

“Gurus!” Mani’s voice crackled through the little recorder, “There were so many. I used to sing with a drama company, you know. Two or three men there knew a lot of Tyagaraja kritis. They were Saurashtra people from Salem, and claimed to be somehow related to the Venkataramana Bhagavatar family. I learnt from them.”

“Their names?” Ajith asked.

“I don’t even remember. I only called them ‘Mama’.”

“What was the name of the drama company?”

“Seetapati Drama Company.”

Ajith paused the recording, “That is wrong. He was in the Sri Karthikeya Nataka Sangam. I got two references for that, including an article in a coffee table book that reproduced an old handbill. That’s what I’m telling you. He’s being cagey about really random things.”

“He might have been in more than one drama company.”

“I checked with people who knew him. He wasn’t.”

“He may have forgotten – he’s really old, isn’t he?”

“He’s old; he can barely sit. He’s completely bedridden. Yes. But he’s fully aware and alert. Absolutely sane. There’s nothing wrong with his mind.”

Nethra paused for a moment before asking, “He might have learnt from someone really big. But he thinks this ‘self-taught’ myth makes him cooler.”

“That’s a likely theory!” Ajith scoffed, “Listen on.”

“It was strange, you know,” Mani continued, “these teachers didn’t know any theory in music. They didn’t even know basic things like which swaras came in what ragas! But they sang the kritis perfectly. They would never, for instance, sing a Kedaragowlai gamakam in Yadukulakambhoji, or Manji gamakam in Bhairavi.”

“But how did you learn the, um... swara-structure of those ragas then?”

“By listening to concerts! It was all subconscious. I don’t think I understood what I sang back then. I just sang. I must’ve made many mistakes, but people never told me anything... Except Musiri.”

“What about Musiri?”

“He heard my private concert at a lawyer’s house, and asked me to visit him the next day. I went, early in the morning, and found him waiting for me. He asked me to sing two kritis I sang the previous evening. He stopped me at almost each line and pointed out something wrong –the raga lakshana, lyrics, or gamaka. I was humbled. He said to me, still smiling, ‘I know you have not finished school, and you are too old to go back now. But I can make an exception for you at the Central College of Carnatic Music.’”

“He even found a patron to pay fees, and give me a monthly stipend. I was overjoyed. I spent a few great months immersed in music, not worrying about earning a living, travelling or dealing with my father’s constant threats. I spent my days reading theory and history, and my evenings singing till my throat went hoarse. My world was filled with only young musicians discovering their art.

“But this happiness didn’t last. The same company I enjoyed began getting on my nerves. People were always telling me what to do and what not to do. This is allowed. That is not. This is correct. That is wrong. They never enjoyed the music for what it was. Is it music or a bureaucratic procedure? How can anything be disallowed? They always judged everything. I couldn’t handle it. Those discussions... On what is tradition and what is lakshana and lakshya and all that. Mostly, people didn’t know what they were talking about, but they would talk and argue incessantly.

“I went back to Musiri and said I wanted to leave. He laughed and told me to concentrate on my exams.”

(There was a pause when Shankar walked in with two tumblers of steaming coffee and a few Marie biscuits on a plate).

“I didn’t really appreciate the value of theory back then. Which was a bit of a setback as far as my music was concerned. But it allowed me to explore, you know...”

“Not be bound by what books say,” Shankar helped him.

“Yeah,” Mani agreed, “I hated books. I used to think, ‘What can a book teach you about Bhairavi ragam that listening to good music can’t teach you?’”

Ajith was curious. “I heard from someone that you stole many books from the library when you ran away.”

Mani laughed, “Books were being stolen from that library all the time. I was just a convenient person to pin it down on! Because I was the rebel. I was the crazy one. And I disappeared!”

“But where did you go?”

“Nowhere in particular. I just wandered around.”

Shankar looked on curiously, and Ajith was still formulating his next question to prod Mani along when the doorbell rang. Shankar got up and went to the door.

“Can you elaborate a little more?”

Mani laughed again, “You’re asking questions like a policeman!” Ajith smiled wryly. Mani said, “I wandered all over South India. I sang a song or two in return for a meal. I used to get into trains, and when I found a place that took my fancy, I got off. I went to that village and spent time with people there. Sometimes a week, sometimes two. I sang for them at night, taught them small songs, learnt their music from them. Then I took another train in another direction.”

Ajith wasn’t convinced of this revenue model, but he didn’t ask Mani about it. Ajith ignored them and asked, “You must’ve met very interesting people.”

“Musicians! I met such wonderful musicians all over the place. So unlike today when everyone gravitates towards Madras. For instance, I spent six months in a small village near Kundapur, in what is Karnataka today. There was an ashram of sorts by the sea. Lovely place to practise. And no one there knew me. I sourced a tambura from a musician nearby who took a fancy for my music. He hadn’t even heard of me. He was an odd Tulu man, Raghavendra or something, who had learnt music from all sorts of sources - from books people brought him when they came back from Madras or Mysore, from musicians who were visiting his part of the world for concerts, from people he called ‘wanderers’ who knew lots of songs. There was a doctor in Udupi who studied medicine in Madras, who knew a lot of music. This man would go there to learn kritis from him. He knew so many compositions that the Madras scene had no idea of – in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and even Malayalam.

“I think he understood music by just sitting with his tambura and singing, you know. He used to tell me that he would take a raga and sing it for weeks. Because he had so little guidance, his ideas were often quirky, but it’s surprising how often he reached the same traditional melodic structures and gamakas. I understood then that there was an intuitive logic to every little aspect of Carnatic music. No raga was a random collection of phrases, each aspect of it had a deeper meaning than I earlier suspected. You have no idea how many doors this revelation unlocked. It convinced me of the infinite potential of my art. At twenty-three, it gave my life new meaning.”

Just then, Ajith’s phone rang. His grandmother was calling. He paused the recording, and said, “Paati!”

“Are you coming home for dinner?”

His grandmother was only concerned about one aspect of his life – where, when and what Ajith would eat. “I’m leaving now. I will see you in twenty minutes.”

“Okay. Tell me, what did they make you do at the magazine today?” she asked.

“What?” Ajith was surprised by the question.

“What did you do today at work?” she said, slightly louder this time.

“The usual, Paati. Some editing and this and that.”

“I’m asking, because someone called on the landline. Some student of N. V. Mani said you left your notebook in his house.” Her tone changed when she asked, “You’ve been visiting N. V. Mani?”

Ajith became a little nervous, “No, Paati! That must’ve been some wrong number.”

“But he asked for Ajith Ramachandran.”

Now Ajith was trapped. He said, “No, no. There’s some confusion. My, my… colleague was using my notebook.”

She was not convinced, “I hope you aren’t going looking for dead stories.”

“Paati. No.”

Ajith disconnected the call and stared blankly into the mid-distance. Nethra asked, “What was that about?”

“Nothing. Listen to this part of the recording.”

“When did you decide to come back?” Ajith’s voice said, through the little speaker.

“I didn’t decide,” Mani replied, “The decision was made for me.”

“Your marriage was fixed?” Shankar asked.

“Shhh. That was much later. This is a long story, and it involves a woman.” Mani’s eyes grew larger as he spoke about her, “She was wonderful. Almost as tall as me, slightly dark, with black eyes lined with kohl, long hair, her body fuller than her age... I saw her on the Madurai railway station platform. She was sitting on a large suitcase and eating something from a tiffin box. I usually avoided towns, preferred getting off when the train stopped for a signal between stations, but I made an exception for her and got down at Madurai.”

“She was that beautiful?” Ajith asked this time.

“She was extremely beautiful. And her feet were tapping a beat on the platform – in perfect Khandachapu talam! Taka-takita, taka-takita…”

“Did you speak to her?” Shankar asked.

Mani didn’t reply.

Shankar asked him the same question again. This time, Mani said, with a twinkle, “I did a lot more!”


Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction, with fictional characters. The names of real persons or institutions including those of musicians, e.g., Musiri, and Sruti magazine appearing in it are purely the figment of the author’s imagination included for verisimilitude and have no basis in fact. © MV Swaroop 2012

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