I was few months short of turning 5 years old when my father decided that it was time for my initiation into the world of Hindustani Music via learning to play the harmonium. My father had learnt to sing in the classical Hindustani style and play the harmonium too. He bought me a child-size harmonium and the basic notes (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni) were written out on little pieces of paper and stuck on the black keys. Music lessons were weekly once on Saturdays. I simply could not get myself to enjoy the lessons. I would never practice and Saturdays were spent crying in front of the harmonium and the music teacher. When I did not make any progress, better sense prevailed and the classes were called off.
But the relief lasted only 5 years. When I turned 10 my father once again decided that I was ready for music lessons, but this time, instead of learning to play the harmonium, I would learn to sing while all along I wanted to learn to dance the Bharatanatyam. My parents did not pay too much attention to my plea and when they did, there was only ONE reason why they thought singing was better than dancing – you can sing till your dying day, but your old age might prevent you from dancing as long! Ugh!
This time I went to a centre where music was being taught and my father would ferry me after school. I was among the smallest in a class that had older kids and adults at various levels of expertise. Studying Hindustani Classical Music was divided into the Junior level and the Senior level. At each level we had to learn ten ragas each. To learn at the Senior level you were required to pass the Junior level exam. An older student, (a young lady who sang very well, I remember) hand wrote the entire Junior level syllabus for me because I was too small to write; and importantly write without errors!
Honestly, I did not have a good voice, it had to be trained to sing. The poor music teacher (an ever-smiling and patient man), never gave me the impression that I was not good. He encouraged me as he did all the other students. I went to these classes for my father’s sake and never practised at home. There were some in the class who sang beautifully and with so much passion. Even that did not impress upon me to show any interest. To make matters worse, I did not understand the words of the songs. The songs were in Hindi, but very rustic to my unfamiliar ear. Growing up in Karnataka State, studying in a school where the medium of instruction was English, I naturally leaned towards learning the state language Kannada as the second language over the other option, Hindi. Eventually we learnt some Hindi as a third language, but it was insufficient to understand and appreciate the songs of Hindustani Music. (In school from grades 6-10, we learnt three languages at various proficiency levels ).
The lessons went on for a year or two and suddenly one day the music teacher said he could no longer continue teaching due to his other commitments which took priority over teaching at the centre. On my father’s request the teacher agreed to come home and teach every Saturday afternoon. After a few classes he backed out of this arrangement. By now my sister was also attending music classes with me. To keep the lessons going, we now had a new teacher who insisted we sang from the pit of our navel and as loud as we could. So the loud aalaap not only hurt our jaws but my sister and I were very worried that all our neighbours were having a good laugh on hearing our loud quivering voices go ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa’! We hated Saturdays and this teacher too!
After a few months, this terrible teacher disappeared from the scene and the previous teacher was back, thank God!
Having been at it for about 4-5 years now, my mother decided that it was time to give the Junior level exam a shot. While it was my father who pushed me to music, I don’t remember how or why my mother joined forces with him. Oh lord no! I panicked. Using the good old harmonium as an accompaniment I practised a bit – enough to complete the exam with flying colours, much to my own surprise 🙂 Just as I thought I would be relieved off this trauma, mom said, you have done well so far, now you should continue with your lessons for the Senior level. Yikes! There was nothing in my arsenal to counter her. So I was reluctantly back at the centre attending weekly classes.
By the time I finished grade 10 I told mom that I had to focus on my studies since the next two years were crucial to land admission in a good college. Finally lady luck was on my side and I received permission to discontinue! I may have, for a change, shed tears of joy that Saturday!
The ‘side effects’ of this episode from my childhood:
1) I do not sing in front or even hum a tune when others are around. But my children will tell you that’s not true. When they were little, I sang to them every night before they went to bed. It used to be a mix of bhajans and songs I learnt at the music school. I sing along when I hear songs that are familiar to me, sometimes so loud that off-late they ask me to please shut up 🙂
2) I can to some extent catch when people sing off tune and again to some extent carry a tune without going off.
3) I enjoy good music.
4) Two ragas that I learnt in Senior level (Malkauns and Yaman) were actually nice and I liked them though I have never admitted to this before 🙂
5) I still have my music books. And my father’s too.
Above: Music book for Harmonium lessons. Written by the teacher and my mother
Below: Junior level music book
Below: My father’s book
Note: For those of you unfamiliar with the words ‘raga’, ‘harmonium’, ‘aalaap’ ‘Malkauns’ and ‘Yaman’ please google ‘Hindustani Classical Music’.