By Shreya Adiraju
Remembering Suguna Purushothaman. Salt is the key to everything, it brings to life the structure of the rasam. Add it too early, and the rasam gets too salty; add it too late, and it just floats around and doesn’t really get absorbed in the liquid. Suguna Mami’s rasam was always perfect – bright, smooth, energising, and both sweet and spicy at times. She would stand at the stove, deftly swirling in ingredients with one hand, the other gripping the edge of the counter for balance. I would shadow her, quickly reaching into cabinets to be ready as she called out for certain ingredients, but also on guard as she drilled me with raga and gamaka questions or even delved into an explanation of some raga that just popped into her head.
Cooking sessions and many other similar instances with Mami were almost as important to me as class. As her student, sishya, and most often, granddaughter, I saw Mami in many forms and in each instance my respect and love for her grew. A devotee of music itself, Mami was also one of Carnatic music’s greatest muses and facilitators, much like the salt in her rasam. The intensity but delicate grace with which she sang, composed, and taught was unparalleled and unmatched.
Mami often spoke of her father, a lawyer and “her first guru”. She once fondly recalled how her father would walk her to Panagal Park – the most popular park in Chennai at the time, just to hear the evening radio station play classical music. They would listen to the late greats together, Tiger Varadachariar, M.S. Subbulakshmi, and other icons such as her own main gurus, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
In the spring of 2014, I left my job in Chicago, U.S.A. to spend time with Mami. As a remote student shuttling back and forth for about ten years, I was growing more frustrated about getting to spend time with Mami in bite-sized portions. Then, 2014 hit and the urgent itch of wanting to go to India grew month by month, the odd feeling soon taking over my daily thoughts. So, I finally took the risk, quit my professional life and moved alone to Chennai to be with her.
Living in Chennai was a struggle, with few contacts, no knowledge of the language, and the pains of adjusting alone to a foreign place. I was far from home, friends, finances in some sense, and everything I knew as comfort. Every day I would shuttle to Mami’s house in the morning and stay as long as it was safe to do so without worrying about taking an auto home in the dark. I would complain of my transportation and living woes and Mami would patiently listen. She would tell me stories of how she jumped from bus to train to walk, juggling her jam-packed schedule of teaching music, going to school, and somehow fitting in her own training – all from the age of 16 or so. I would sit cross-legged on the floor, laughing with her, recorder in hand for the random bursts of music wisdom she would mention mid-conversation. Sometimes we would break for tea and rusk biscuits, sipping and enjoying the silence of each other’s presence.
And of course, there was the music. No class or teaching of a new song went by without some diversion into a unique story or detailed explanation of the colour, flavour, and the magnitude of bhava that sit within the body of the kriti and pulse through the veins of the raga, while the tala, like the muscular system flexed and held strong to support the entire effort. Mami eloquently and elegantly explained and directed my musical development, always pushing me to reach beyond what I thought I could handle. She was a traditionalist but never married herself or her teachings to structure and form, and mostly focused on the feeling above all. As she was a descendent of the great saint-composer Tyagaraja’s sishya parampara, bhakti almost came before the output of music itself. That being said, she held a tight standard for sruti and technical perfection and did not let even a single gamaka go untouched. Also a student of mridangam master Thinniam Venkatarama Iyer, Mami was a genius of beats and the display of them, notably her ‘Dvi-tala avadhana’ (putting two different but parallel beat sequences on each hand).
On top of this, Mami would every so often delve modestly into her own compositions and the creative bursts leading to them. Whether it was on a train or visiting a remote temple down South or in an endless bout of musical thought-ridden insomnia (that I quickly started developing from her), her own compositions were as beautiful and personal as everything else about her. She would reminisce about how Prof. Sambamoorthy, the famed head of the Music College at Madras University and her professor/mentor, encouraged her even as a young college student to continue composing and let her thoughts flow.
With all this, I would leave Mami’s house in a fog, my head about to burst. The knowledge, anecdotes, music, and the love and affection overwhelmed me on almost a daily basis. As many instances like this can be, the intensity also lent itself to difficult times. As Mami’s health deteriorated, I struggled to fight my emotions about the situation. Having left everything to be with her heightened the emotional attachment. Seeing and being with her was painful for me, especially knowing that she was in a drastically more compromised state mentally and physically. But, the grace she held throughout her last year was unlike anything else. It motivated me to also find it in myself to hold my composure and see beyond the physical limitations of the human body and the fate it sometimes must endure. Her music served as her pacemaker, her religious nature as her eyesight into the beyond. It was inspiring.
Mami’s last days invigorated my faith in the beauty of art, the power of music, and the truth in spirituality. She was and will always be the illuminated path that set me on a journey through the art form of classical vocal music and her voice will continue to guide me. Every time I sing a lyric, hold a note, or just switch on my sruti box, my mind moves directly to her voice, affectionate, silly, serious, and pensive at times. As Mami staunchly adhered to her bani and always stressed sincerity and originality in musical thought, it is now my duty to get the salt right and master my own rasam to perfection.