My tribute to a great friend was published in the Sruti issue of January 2010

Indira Menon – Author and Rasika

Indira Menon passed away peacefully in the early hours of the morning of 27th November 2009.

I got to know her first in 1999 or thereabouts when I read her first book, The Madras Quartet. While the principal focus in the work was on the lives of T Brinda, MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and ML Vasanthakumari, it had an exhaustive section on the careers of women in Carnatic music in the early years of the 20th century. This was fascinating. We subsequently met when Indira came down from Delhi for a short visit. As she autographed my copy of her book when we first met and also included the date, I can see that it was on 7th November 2001. From then on we became firm friends.

Indira came from a family of achievers. Maternal grandfather Sir K Ramunni Menon was a zoologist and had served as Vice-Chancellor of the Madras University. Father VRK Menon was an ICS officer, sister Narayani Gupta a respected historian who specialized on Delhi and nephew Ramu Damodaran, apart from being in the IFS, was a familiar face as a newscaster and a famous voice over Doordarshan. Indira was an achiever too. In 1947 she contracted polio which rendered her right arm completely useless. She taught herself to manage with her left hand and not content with that managed to learn how to cycle, go mountaineering, make charcoal portraits, take lovely photographs and plenty of other things. Qualifying in Economics, Indira taught at the Daulat Ram College and the Jesus and Mary College. Retiring in 1991, she was able to spend time in doing whatever she liked, which was many things, including the taking care of her mother and listening to Carnatic music.

Indira was born in 1935 in the house that MS Subbulakshmi made famous as Kalki Gardens. It was the residence of Sir K Ramunni Menon for a short while during which time Indira was delivered. “My mother had a tough time delivering me,” she later recollected. “I was huge. And my grandmother Lady Menon, after the delivery and with a view to strengthen my mother, called out to Dr MR Guruswami Mudaliar who was present if my mother could be given curds”. “Are you mad woman?” he is said to have barked. “Why would she want to eat birds now?” Relating this to me, Indira burst into her trademark laughter – high pitched and most infectious. “Many years later,” she continued, “I went to Kalki Gardens with my mother and was pointed out the room where I was born. Imagine my thrill when MS told me that it was her boudoir”!

Music was one of Indira’s great passions. She frequently recollected how she would be taken along with elder sister Kalyani to listen to the Tamil Isai Sangam concerts at the St Mary’s Co-Cathedral on Armenian Street and the neighbouring Gokhale Hall for the Indian Fine Arts Society’s concerts. “On one occasion, MS sat behind us. I was so excited that I kept turning around until my mother pinched my thigh and asked me not to gape like that. After a while I found my mother doing the same and then we both shamelessly kept gazing at MS. The suspense was too much. We wanted to know what her speaking voice sounded like. And so my mother made some inane enquiry as to why Radha had not come. MS gave a gentle smile and said something in a low voice. But that was enough for us. We were so thrilled.”

Sir K Ramunni Menon wanted the best tutelage for his granddaughters and so T Brinda became their guru. Indira treasured the handwritten notations that Brinda wrote down for her. She also had a tambura of Brinda’s which if I am not mistaken she gifted to N Ravikiran. All this and more were pieces of information that Indira shared whenever we had one of our unending telephone conversations – always interrupted by her high-pitched laughs.

Indira and I embarked on almost identical projects in 2003. I began writing Carnatic Summer and she, Great Masters Of Carnatic Music (1930-1965). Eleven musicians were common to both books and while writing it we exchanged a lot of information. She would be tickled pink if told some of Ariyakkudi’s witticisms or Maharajapuram’s ribald jokes and often regretted that the latter could not be put down in print! Later, her pen portraits of the musicians were translated into Malayalam by her friend PK Uthaman for the Kalakaumudi. Somewhere in between, Indira came to Madras once again. This time Uthaman was also here and I took them to George Town. There we helped Indira climb into a rickshaw and we visited Gokhale Hall and Veena Dhanam’s house. Indira was overwhelmed. We also visited Bunder Street where Tyagaraja is said to have stayed in 1839.

In Delhi, Indira spent a lot of time taking care of her mother who lived well into her nineties, passing away only in 2007. By then Indira was confined to the house as well. The polio had steadily weakened her lungs and she needed to be on oxygen support. But this did not sap her spirit. We continued chatting on the phone and our favourite subject would be the music and the idiosyncrasies of the masters of the past. Following the release of my book on Bangalore Nagarathnamma, The Devadasi and The Saint, Indira arranged for me to release the book in Delhi and give a talk on the subject at the India International Centre. A high-profile audience attended the talk, thanks to Indira.

I last called on Indira in 2008 and she had some gifts for me. One was a bound volume containing xerox copies of catalogues and advertisements of gramophone records from the 1930s and 40s. The other was a set of five 78 rpm gramophone records in mint condition with each disc in its original cover. Indira had inherited Sir K Ramunni Menon’s collection which she had preserved carefully before handing it over to N Pattabhiraman for SAMUDRI. The discs she gave me were some that had been retained by her.

My last telephone conversation with Indira was a few months ago when she gave me a couple of anecdotes concerning the Music Academy. “If you are including them in your book, remember to acknowledge me” she said. She was busy organizing an exhibition of her photographs of Hampi. And then she was gone. I did remember to include the anecdotes and also acknowledge her in Four Score and More, all the while thinking of what a laugh we would have had after seeing the stories in print. Truly she was a blithe spirit.