She walked with gentle, dainty strides in a flowing white crepe saree, studded with red beads, into the hall of her home in Brickfields. Her face glowed with artistry and her eyes danced with anticipation of performing, as she sat cross-legged on the floor and placed the veena* on her lap.
It was 5.30pm and the guests invited for a private recital were seated. They were all known faces; aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. Silence prevailed as the instrument was plucked and tuned by her nimble fingers. She twisted knobs on the stem of the veena, to get just the right pitch, before starting to play.
When her left hand began pulling the veena strings, the sound was pure, as though emanating from her heart rather than her fingers. The crowd was lost in musical bliss. I was awestruck by her musicality, grace and presence. The way in which her hands tugged at every string in my heart, drew me to her soul.
The woman mentioned, is one I’ve adored since I was a child of eight.
She is my aunt Asha. She had her beginnings in music at Kalakshetra, a school of music and dance situated in South India. Though her musical education was cut short by the then-tradition of marrying off women early in life, she never forsook playing the veena and singing.
At every family function or community gathering, no matter how small, a medium framed woman clad in only the most tasteful saree, walked in with a four foot wooden instrument in hand. She was always ready to play, to share, to bestow her art. Music for her, though cut short, was never to be sidelined.
Despite the bane of arthritis, my aunt Asha continued to sing for the next 40 years, alongside her Kalakshetra comrades who had the good fortune of completing their 5-year course in India and returning to musical careers. She sang into her late 60s, often using her left hand to rest on a walking stick, and her right to hold a microphone.
At 78 today, aunt Asha has left me her legacy of musical notations from a time when she wished to spread her wings as an artiste. With a tearful smile, she hands me the string bound pile of handwritten treasure and blesses me with a gentle kiss. It feels like she is sharing something much heavier than a small bundle. It is a legacy, a wish and the hope for posterity.
The way she inspires the singer in me is something I will never be able to articulate. I only know that our hearts are one, in the love for music. She will forever be the inspiration for every belted note. The only gift I can give her now is to visit her intermittently and sing any number of her favourite songs, as is (rightfully!) demanded of me. They are each to serenade her like lullabies, gently rolling her from a dull afternoon wakefulness, into delightful dreams of crepe sarees, a 4-foot veena and an enchanted audience.
*** The veena is a string instrument measuring about 1.5 meters. It is considered the most ancient instrument in India and in the right hands, is known for sound that penetrates the soul. Header image by Siyamala.