lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Guru devobhava

"In fact the kind of music he really liked was the kind that never got played. It ruined music, in his opinion, to torment it by involving it on dried skins, bits of dead cat, and lumps of metal hammered into wires and tubes. It ought to stay written down, on the page, in rows of little dots and crotchets all neatly caught between lines. Only there it was pure. It was when people started doing things with it that the rot set in. Much better to sit quietly in a room and read the sheets, with nothing between yourself and the composer but a scribble of ink."

Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

I can recall the exact moment; it is still fresh in my memory.

It was some school project, a show. Maya brought her violin; Viji, Sreemathi and Jayashree had brought their veenas.

Listen, Viji said. 'You do this,' she plucked a string and then pulled on it with her other hand and produced a wailing ululating shivering sound. 'And you can do this,' and she did something tricky and I heard a koel calling. "That's Chittibabu," she said, reverence replacing her usual look of mischief.

I was enchanted.

It so happened sometime later that a veena, broken and needing repair, came to our house for a short while. I tried the floating between two notes trick and even on a broken and badly tuned instrument it sounded wonderful.

I started taking lessons after college, three days a week. It was difficult and I got nowhere, as I had no veena to practice with. I used to go over them mentally, memorising the exercises and singing them tunelessly to myself all the while. I can't carry a tune and have the vocal range of half an octave, so it was frustrating, let's say.

When it was clear to my mother that this was more than a whim or fleeting fancy, she arranged to borrow a friend's veena and things improved.

It wasn't just learning to play; I was totally bewitched by the world of music compositions. I was seduced. To read a composition in the notation and then to turn it into sound was magical. But I was a terrible player. I had a good if delicate touch but I had no sense of rhythm. To be honest, I knew I wasn't keeping time exactly, but it didn't matter to me; the excitement was in the conversion of notation into sound.

I think my teacher understood my interest was academic. I was driven by a thirst, a need to learn the compositions, the notation, the sounds rather than the actual music. Perhaps I knew that was beyond my capabilities, having started so late.

I raced through the Alankarams , charmed by the rhythms and the exercises but utterly disregarding the need to apply them to my own playing. I just wanted to learn them, not actually play them flawlessly or anything like that. Approximation was good enough; I wasn't going to perform, after all. I just wanted to know.

Svarajatis and varnams were a delight, too. About the time I started simple kritis, Chittibabu came visiting. My father used to play chess with him in their club. When my mother told him I was learning veena, he asked to hear me play.

I was petrified with nerves. Just tell yourself your listeners know nothing, he suggested kindly. Despite my nerves I shot him a grin. Like I could think he was an ignoramus! He smiled back, and I played a varnam in Mohana, which was my then favourite, and what I knew best.

After I finished the piece, he leaned forward and put his actual fingers on the frets, asked me to pluck the string, and showed me how to play twin notes so the stress on the second is heard clearly. I wasn't sure if I could bring myself to play again, in case it would erase his touch on my veena. I was overwhelmed. Chittibabu actually demonstrating a simple baby lesson to me, who wasn't even his student! It was unbelievable.

I went around in a daze for a few days. Starting from the Telugu New Year, he taught me.

That was the beginning of my torture. Agony. Ecstasy. And the hours of practice I put in before were nothing to what I'd put in from then on.

About five minutes into the lesson I realised, with a sinking feeling, that he wasn't just going to teach me the song, he was going to make me play it. I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

We started with 'Vaataapi Ganapatim', of course. It is an invocation for an auspicious beginning, after all.

"Vaataapi ganapatim bhaje hum," his veena would sing. "Gaa, ree ri sa sani pa ree sa ree saa," my veena would respond in a croak.

Chittibabu was a patient teacher. Goodness knows he needed it with me. He'd demonstrate endlessly, sing tirelessly, and wouldn't quit until I played a phrase exactly as he wanted. That first lesson lasted some ninety minutes and at the end of the lesson I'd learned just three embellishments to the first line of the pallavi, and was exhausted.

The exhaustion was more apprehension that I was out of my depth and a fear that I wouldn't be able to cope, or please him, I think. But there was physical exhaustion, too. I had to pluck harder than I used to, to get the sound to sustain over three beats, and I had to deflect the strings harder and with more purpose than I ever bothered with until then.

Then came the shock. I was supposed to remember the lesson and figure out the notation myself. Chittibabu never wrote down the notation like my first teacher did. He never sang the notes either, though he'd sing the phrase and he demonstrated over and over, tilting his veena forward, almost touching the floor, so I could see what he was doing.

Never mind, I thought. I can get the notation from the music books I'd started collecting. It turned out what he taught and what notation the books had didn't match. Not only did I have to figure out the differences; I also had to write down my lesson in notation myself, relying on memory.

By the time we came to the final embellishment of the pallavi, pole-vaulting an octave and descending in rapid glissando, a part of me wanted out and another, the stubborn mulish part of me, was determined to stay the course. My fingers were getting stronger, my callouses were hardening; I was plucking the strings with more assurance and authority than before.

The second line of the pallavi had Chittibabu drumming the rhythm on the side of the veena to make me understand the beat, "Takita takita takita takita takadhimi," his fingers would say in a rapid-fire burst, to explain the tempo and the rhythm of the last sangati for 'vaaranaasyam varapradam.'

By then I knew the lesson wouldn't end until I got it right. Gone were the days of happily ignoring talam and playing the song out at my convenience, slowing down or speeding up as the difficulty of the phrases dictated.

The anupallavi would be a doddle, I remember consoling myself. Until I remembered the two lines in double-time that came after it with some trepidation. Surely he wouldn't expect a novice to do the digital gymnastics that he does, I told myself; that's probably Ph.D. stuff, and I am just a BA.

Alas, he did. One of the trickiest things in veena technique, to hold index finger down on a fret, lift the middle one and use that to strike the string after plucking to produce a staccato embellishment, and he expected me to do it, in double-time. And then double that.

He was implacable and I learnt. By the time we came to the final double-time "Hamsadhvani bhushita herambam," crashing out thrice to round off the lovely charanam, I realised that I was enjoying myself. It was difficult, and it was more hard work than I ever did in my life until then, but I was enjoying myself. I wasn't just playing the veena now; I was making it sing.

Chittibabu was a great teacher. He never betrayed any impatience, never raised his voice or offered criticism. He just taught again and again, by singing and playing: until the lesson took. And it would, because he never stopped until I understood what he wanted of me and played it to his satisfaction.

He never scolded and he never offered praise either. Any praise I heard would come from what he'd tell my father over their chess games.

My father, on his return from his club would casually tell my mother, "Chittibabu says she's ready for Kalyani," or, "Chittibabu says she's grasped the Bilahari perfectly, he says she seems to have an affinity for it." And I'd flush with pleasure because, yes, I had fallen in love with the Bilahari svarajati, way back in school, and yes, I did have an affinity with that raga. Chittibabu sensed it like any good teacher would and knew it as I played 'Kanugontini' as though I was born playing it.

I know he never had to struggle as much to teach his other students, but I was the unmusical one, with no ear to speak of and I was the challenge. And he relished it, as much as I relished the challenge of meeting his expectations.

"She has no musical imagination, you know? Not like how she writes. But if I had her at home for three months day and night, I could make her give a concert with her rote memory." he told my husband when we visited with him after my marriage.

That was the only praise he ever offered within my earshot: that I could reproduce what he tried patiently to teach me. He played and I learnt to echo.

This is gurupurnima, folks, and I pay my repsects to him who brought music and rhythm into my life and explained it all without speaking a word.



Blogger db said...

Is your Guru "THE" (famous) Chittibabu ? I suppose he is .. Wow, you must be lucky to be his student ...

My mother plays the Veena really well, and is a good singer too ... she desired that I follow in her footsteps .. what ensued hasn't made her too happy .. but thats an entirely different story .. perhaps I'll brag ( oops I mean, blog ) about it sometime ..

Cheerio !

1:30 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ram- It was heaven and hell learning from him. I didn't just love that man, I worshipped him. :D

7:34 am  
Blogger Priya said...

awesome! Reminds me of my dance classes...from the age of two and a half to 22 and a half! Have lost all my sense of 'taal' and 'loy' now. Waiting for my daughter to show interest in something, so I can begin afresh with her;)

10:50 am  
Anonymous Ash said...

Excellently written. I have never heard 'tiruppam' explained more succinctly, even in textbooks. He was a great teacher obviously, but you were an apt pupil, it would seem.

12:15 pm  
Blogger Speech is Golden said...

Makes me feel guilty about my own Mridhangam training (left incomplete).

As my father never forgets to remind, I quit learning a great art for rubber ball cricket. The ignominy of my childhood!

1:50 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Priya- Nah, the rhythm, once in the bones, never goes away. Go on and start again. :D

Ash- This is a sub-category of the 'tiruppam'. It is called 'rava'.

And I was a terrible burden to him, but thanks all the same.

Ram- Ah, you too? Your father is right, you gave up a great art for paltry pleasure. :P

2:16 pm  
Anonymous Rajesh said...

You have given everybody a severe case of nostalgia, it seems. You made the lesson come alive, Lali. A moving post.

4:18 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rajesh- Thanks. :-)

6:48 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

No praise is high enough. Brilliant, lovely. Also fantastic.

Reminds me of my dance lessons too. I left off when I was seven, started again three years back. With a woman who's more concerned about her institutions annual performances. They don't get it, do they...

8:28 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Rimi- You too? Everybody and her boyfriend seem to be touched by nostalgia.

"Whattodo," quoting somebody, I am like this only.

Don't tell me about dance schools, you can't top my stories about them.(that isn't a dare, Princess.)

But do go back to dancing part-time, sweetie. I shall post about exercise and how to avoid it, next. Heh.

11:29 pm  
Blogger Raj said...


One of the first LP records I bought was Chittibabu's " Musings of a musician". Genius!

9:32 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Raj- Wow indeed.

Was it the album that had Malayamarutam and so on- his own compositions on one side- and us students all being devout and doing "Sarasa sama dana" on the other?

I wrote the 'sleeeve notes' for the original issue, as I was one of the lot. :D

10:21 pm  
Blogger Raj said...

Lalita, no. This one had a number of 'western style' themes named "Wedding Bells" and suchlike, on one side and a full Ragam Thanam Pallavi on the other. Very catchy and very soulful melodies. His disciples also played along. Maybe there was a Lalita Lurking somewhere there.....

11:17 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Raj- Ah, that one was before my time. I played in a later album of the series.

You do realise even knowing the term LP marks us as hopelessly old? :D

12:54 pm  
Blogger tilotamma said...

*** THE** chittibabu wow!

5:15 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Tilo- Yes, Ma'am. The Chittibabu. I was the worst of his students, but I loved learning from him, and he enjoyed the challenge of teaching me. I cherish my relationship with him, it was part family ties and part social circles, but we had a rapport. He taught me, yes, the slave driver that he was, but we had huge fun too. I will do a post for his next birthday, about the rituals we students developed.

May I ask, how come you spell your name with two emms instead of two tees?

11:25 pm  
Blogger tilotamma said...

Lalitha - The id with the right spelling was taken,I think, so I picked the other and stuck to it.

Can you read Telugu? I have been reading translations of some stories from the anthology:Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present, V: 600 B.C. to the Early Twentieth Century.

So much good stuff by women from Andhra. Among the present day writers (not in the book)I like Volga's work. Amazing translation by Ari Sitaramayya.

5:03 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Tilo, yes. I read Telugu, it's my mother tongue. Does this book feature Molla and Rangajamma?

9:09 am  
Blogger tilotamma said...

Molla of Molla Ramayanam? - yes, Rangajamma no, but I need to check..

8:10 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lalita, excellent delineation of your experience with the veena. my sis plays the cuckoo song just like Chittibabu..what a great player he was.

11:14 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anon- Thanks. It is always gratifying to get a comment on an old post.

Ah, the cuckoo song. That's lovely, lyric and his playing both.

Do drop in again.

3:05 pm  
Anonymous dipali said...

Here's a Douglas Adams' take on music :

"Music of any complexity (and even "Three Blind Mice" is complex in its way by the time someone has actually performed it on an instrument with its own individual timbre and articulation) passes beyond your conscious mind into the arms of your own private mathematical genius who dwells in your unconscious responding to all the inner complexities and relationships and proportions that we think we know nothing about.

Some people object to such a view of music, saying that if you reduce music to mathematics, where does the emotion come into it? I would say that it's never been out of it.

The things by which our emotions can be moved - the shape of a flower or a Grecian urn, the way a baby grows, the way the wind brushes across your face, the way clouds move, their shapes, the way light dances on the water, or daffodils flutter in the breeze, the way in which the person you love moves their head, the way their hair follows that movement, the curve described by the dying fall of the last chord of a piece of music - all these things can be described by the complex flow of numbers.

That's not a reduction of it, that's the beauty of it."

11:04 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Dipali- Perfect. Music is basically calculated, however unconscious it might be. The greatest musicians would be appalled to think they are actually doing applied mathematics when they make music, though.

4:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a great story of learning music. your comment space is interesting, too.

12:32 am  
Anonymous nageshbabu said...

Dear Mrs.Lalitha,
Of late I went through your 'GuruDevobhava' and verymuch pleased.I am Nageshbabu, another Disciple of the Great Legend Dr.Chittibabu (I learnt under him during 1986-94), accompanied him in THE BELLS OF JOY& a few other recordings . I share your feeling of worshipping our great Guru.I am happy to have your introduction through Internet. Please visit '' to have my introduction as Guruji's disciple.

11:50 am  

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