And so it began. DKJ and uncle began teaching me some small pieces. There were some crucial variations in the sAhitya which I was not aware of – srirAma pADalAma? SunDal vaDai vENumA? was how a Tyagaraja kriti in AmritavAhini was begun. But grandmother frowned and so that was hastily corrected.

The cast assembles for my ‘debut’ – Bangalore 1969. L to r – grandmother, grandfather, HH Jagadguru Abhinava Vidyateertha Swamigal of Sringeri, uncle TN Nagarajan, aunt Rajam, cousins Rama & Usha, uncle Ramamurthi, Dad and Mom. Behind Dad is an unidentifiable person

vara vINA was a different matter altogether. Opposite our house, in the cowsheds, lived Chinnappa and Ranganayaki. Till date I can sing this only with the line varadApriya ranganAyaki changed to chinnappA Priya ranganAyaki. This was jointly fashioned by DKJ and uncle. Even the original Chinnappa and Ranganayaki enjoyed it as uncle made sure I sang it to them.

DKJ joined in the fun and laughter. He loved wordplay and once he became a victim of it. He was accompanying his sister Pattammal in a concert and they sang bhAvayAmi raghurAmam, He forgetfully sang ati dhIram (very brave) as ati ghOram (very ugly). She turned around and glared the first time and when it did not register with him, pinched him in the thigh in full view of the audience to make sure he did not repeat it when they sang the line again!

Lessons for uncle were progressing and then one day, grandmother announced that we were leaving for a couple of weeks to Bangalore. My second aunt Rajam and her husband, who was known for his princely lifestyle and generosity (they were Amrita Murali’s grandparents) lived there and staying with them was something we all looked forward to. Chocolates, mangoes, movies – you name it and it materialised. An added attraction was that His Holiness Jagadguru Abhinava Vidyateertha Mahaswamigal of Sringeri Sarada Peetham was camping in Bangalore and we would have his darshan at a special pada puja at aunt’s house.

Mahasannidhanam or HH was a favourite with the family. Ever smiling and always happy to meet people, he was a truly evolved soul, who only prescribed prayer as a cure for all ills. He liked Grandfather’s erudition. To us, in particular aunt Rajam, he was God that walked the earth. Grandmother thought it a good idea to get me to sing something before HH. Imagine this cute child of three singing something. How charming it would all be!

DKJ and uncle were tasked with teaching me something suitable and they got on with it. In all the hectic activity prior to leaving for Bangalore (grandmother being an ex-railway official’s wife thought she owned the entire rolling stock and travelled with mountains of baggage) nobody bothered to check what had been taught. Ramamurthi was in charge and it was assumed he had made me word perfect. He had.

We arrived in Bangalore and the day of the HH visit came too. It was while the preparations were ongoing that aunt Rajam decided to check on what I was going to sing. The family gathered around. I have never had stage fright and so I began confidently –

OothikoduthANDi oru rounDu

Intha ulagam suttuthaDi pala rounDu

(He poured me one round and the world goes round and round)

Till his demise I never asked uncle as to what he thought he would achieve by teaching me those lines to sing before HH. I should have. But I can imagine what the immediate aftermath would have been- grandmother must have flown into one of her queenly rages and berated everyone else. She was like Bianca Castafiore in the Castafiore Emerald when it came to her angry moods. I am sure my parents must have been castigated for not knowing how to bring up a child, Ramamurthi for trying to lead a young innocent astray, it was all her father’s fault – he had after all earned people’s curses as a moneylender… as for DKJ just wait till she got back to Madras. I will not be surprised if she had blamed it on the Kanchi Mutt also. She would have spared Thatha – in her eyes, and for that matter in everyone else’s eyes also, he never did any wrong. And he must have smiled and watched the goings on. Uncle laughed uproariously. It was worth every minute spent in coaching me. He was only disappointed that the song had not premiered in HH’s presence.

It was too late to get the child to sing anything else. And for some reason, I, thinking I had made a great hit, kept repeating the song even while grandmother ranted on like Mozart’s mother in law in Amadeus. There was every danger that I would break into this song when HH came. So aunt Rajam was instructed to keep me on her lap, with one hand firmly clasped over my mouth till the pada puja ended. This she did – when grandmother instructed you, you obeyed, even if you were equally imperious, as aunt Rajam undoubtedly was.

HH arrived and the pada puja progressed. It was nearing its end when there was a momentary lull and aunt Rajam, momentarily distracted, removed her hand. I burst into song. Everyone held his/her breath. But I must have known inwardly that that song would not do. I launched into vAtApi gaNapatim. HH beamed in my direction. Aunt beamed. Grandmother beamed. Everyone congratulated everyone else. The State visit was a success. It was all HH’s grace, declared grandmother, that the dear child had performed so well. Music she said, ran in our veins, her dear father being such a good singer himself. DKJ was such a good influence, bless him! And Ramamurthi’s music has been such a role model. Now the evil eye must be warded off the child – such an exemplar of good upbringing.

Grandmother never brought up the topic with DKJ I am told. I somehow think he must have been spared because of vAtApi. Many years later I came to know that the original song I had been taught to sing before HH was from a Cho-starrer – Ulagam IvvaLavuthAn, which released that year. You can see the song here. Uncle was a regular moviegoer and between him and distant relative Vali Athangar (on whom a film ought to be made), there was intense competition on who had made it to the premiere of which film. But that is another story.

The classes with DKJ ended for uncle by 1972 or so. He got married and moved elsewhere before settling in the US. We too shifted to Calcutta accompanied by grandmother who became a very serene personality, spending her time reading and singing. She remained that way till her demise in 1981. We lost touch with DKJ but kept watch over his progress – he was “our sir who made it big”. Uncle sadly battled various illnesses and passed away relatively young but his sense of humour and his amazing music buoyed him and us, till his very end.