Song of Surrender

Monday, 11 March 2013


Sruti fiction
By Sharan Mamidipudi

He sang in the morning, sang to the dying stars; he sang to his whitewashed walls, his own voice bouncing off them; he sang for his morning coffee, one-and-a-half tea-spoons of sugar; he sang for spring, for leaves that twirled and girls who flowered with the blooming chrysanthemums; second-most-of-all, he sang because he could unite, even if only in short, elevating bursts, music’s sacred triumvirate: shruti, laya and raga; but most-of-all, he reflected, he sang to communicate joy.

He sang for free. It cheapens your music, they warned him, those Sabha owners, his ‘well-wishers’. People will tire of you, they cried. In response, he let loose four typical phrases in Todi. They shook their heads in appreciation, clicking their tongues, beckoning imaginary birds. ‘People have sung the same phrases for centuries’, he then said, ‘have you tired of them yet?’ Most of them made as if they understood, but he knew from the looks on their faces that they didn’t—their eyes seemed to humour him, like he was an old man lecturing them on the benefits of walking barefoot.

For twenty-two years, he had sung across the peninsula, often travelling six-hours second-class between successive performances, changing into a fresh veshti backstage, powdering his neck and smearing, in haste, a handful of vibhuti over his forehead. He sang for his audience, picking ragas and songs based on the demographics of his crowd. Kanakadasa stormed into a concert in Shimoga and, when in Thoothukudi, if a Dikshitar kriti was the Sun—the centre around which the rest of the concert pivoted—then a song each by Bharatiyar and Umaru Pulavar were twin moons, one resplendent, the other an inspired apparition.

His grandfather was close to the Wodeyar kings, a minister of some sort. His father ran the family trust with the tremendous wealth his grandfather had amassed, feeding the poor and funding the education of the children of the neglected. His father encouraged him to sing, to see music as an entity in itself, beyond the maya of existence. Until he was twelve, his father pushed him to sing and learn, and he did, sometimes grudgingly. Then, one morning, he instinctively shut his eyes as he practised and sang Mayatita swaroopini.
He opened his eyes to see his father and mother sitting in front of him, watching him intently; his mother’s face mingled contentment and tears, brimming with unspoken pride, his father smiled like he knew. Three full hours had dissolved in one raga, the passing of time had never tasted so sweet. There is Maya, he declared to his father, beyond the Malavagowla.
Ever since, music was the language he thought in, the force that allowed him to navigate the prosaic and scale the pristine. Sometimes, music let him blur the boundaries between the mundane and the magnificent.

And within him, unknown and unacknowledged, rested a quiet pride, not so much in his art as his philanthropy. He threw his doors open to the public. Anyone, beggar or businessman, rasika or novice, could walk in when he practised. Wherever he sang, even at the Academy, no tickets were sold. One year, the Academy, citing rules, disallowed him from performing—this created a storm of gargantuan proportions in his microscopic music circles and the suspension was revoked. As the years rolled on, he lived off his grandfather’s dwindling wealth and his fans’ goodwill.

Within him, he felt, was something that transcended price-tags, to put a value on it would be to de-value it; and to share it without restrictions was service. Award citations extolled his selfless heart, a newspaper dubbed him ‘the voice for the voiceless’; in an interview once, he called himself the ‘servant of God and of the people’.

That morning, he wanted water. Sixteen minutes into Abheri, his throat itched. He called out to his wife who didn’t respond, but vessels clanged in the kitchen, water gushed from an open tap. Water. He vented his frustration on Abheri, letting out a volcanic burst of swaras, but Abheri wouldn’t get angry, it wasn’t in her nature. This caused him more agitation, he slapped his thigh and broke into another volley of frenetic phrases, introducing the Shuddha dhaivata—Abheri swung from calm to melancholy and tended dangerously towards violence. One manic phrase landed furiously on the tarasthayi shadja. Water, it demanded.

His wife appeared finally, a steel tumbler in hand, and said, softly: Don’t be so harsh.

‘Harsh?’, he said, working himself into a rage, Abheri fled from his system, music hid in a corner, as he hissed, in a whisper that evoked the sharp edge of a knife: ‘People are sitting here listening’

There were six people in his spacious, sparse music room, one that his grandfather built and where his father conducted his weekly meetings with the directors of his now-dead trust; they were all dressed in crisply ironed shirts in varying shades of white, and veshtis, regulars at his morning practice sessions. Taking them in in one sweeping glance, he returned to look at his wife, who still clasped the tumbler in her hand, and said:

‘You owe it to them to make sure I have my water on time, not to me’

His usually patient wife, perhaps stung by Abheri’s travails, flung the water at his face.

‘To them?’, she asked, laughing angrily, ‘You do not sing for them, they can live without your music. As can everyone else. When you sit on your pedestal and demand that entry be free and open, how many poor walk in? Can a shirtless man wearing only torn pants, dark as the night and smelling of the sweat of toil, walk into the hallowed air-conditioned chambers of your Academy? Two streets away from this house and this hall with its chandeliers and windows the size of elephants, in tents lit only by kerosene lamps, lives are birthed, lived and ended: none of those lives are touched by you or your music’

‘You do not even know of their existence’, she spat, ‘yet you pass by them every second day’

You sing because you can’, she said finally, ’and that is all there is to it’

1 comment:

  1. just linked this article on my facebook account. it’s a very interesting article for all...

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