Imet Radha Krishna—Radha maami, as we called her—last summer, when I was hunting for a Carnatic music teacher in Delhi. I got lucky: She lived a comfortable autorickshaw ride away, had slots open for students, and was perfectly willing to teach people like me, who filled the voids in their talent with enthusiasm, who couldn’t practise every day or make it to every class with hair-splitting punctuality.
Radha maami was in her mid-seventies, and her voice, hoarse and cracked, had already been defeated by age. But that didn’t deter her; class after class, she aimed that voice unerringly towards the right notes. She sat in her chair leaning forward, back slightly bowed, and began every session by offering her unflinching opinions on the subject du jour—the musicians of today, Delhi’s auditorium administrators, with whom she often warred, the inability of so many of her students to speak Tamil. This catharsis over, she settled down to teach, and she’d be terrific. She accorded you her fullest focus, subtly goaded you into the correct vocal grooves, and wrote into your notebook reams of notes and lyrics from memory. As the best teachers should, she made generous allowances for lack of natural skill but never for lack of effort or concentration.
The guru: Radha maami celebrates a festival at her home. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
In her youth, Radha maami and her sister Nagalakshmi performed as the Trichy Sisters, touring south India as exemplars of the Alathur tradition of music. After moving to Delhi in 1963, she started accompanying the leading dancers of her day, such as Yamini Krishnamurthy and Sonal Mansingh, and she began teaching simultaneously. “I can’t take the music with me,” she’d say, and so she taught compulsively for 46 years, six or seven days a week, almost all day. It was a rich musical life, one that ended suddenly a few weeks ago, not even 48 hours after she began teaching me the first few lines of a new song in Raga Pantuvarali.
It struck me that Radha maami’s generation, or possibly the one after it, might be the last to turn out large numbers of such selfless teachers, who welcome students of every denomination of talent and share music for itself. Teaching amateurs can feel thankless, and it is certainly less glamorous than singing at the Music Academy. There are perhaps too many compulsions today for new teachers to groom students exclusively for the big stage.
In a way, this professional emphasis is a blessing, because it produces the ranks of dedicated singers we see today. But for classical music to thrive, as Carnatic music has, it needs not just a singer on the stage but an audience in the seats, an audience that knows and appreciates the difference between Kalyani and Sankarabharanam, or the value of a 30-minute alapana of Thodi. For that, we need legions of Radha maamis, to patiently teach us when we are reluctant children, to somehow make these lessons stick, and also to welcome us back into the fold when we return as regret-filled adults.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org