Songs of survival

Songs of survival


True grit: Shashikala says the rigour demanded of her by her gurus, when she trained in Carnatic music under them as a young girl, is paying off even now. PIC BY kishor kumar Bolar

Hair neatly oiled, braided and adorned with a fragrant string of jasmine; clad in a crisp cotton saree and with a dot of vermilion on the forehead, D Shashikala is a picture of poise. Her gentle looks hide a steely resolve. She refuses to be daunted by the fact that she has lost more than 75 per cent of her eyesight to a rare genetic disorder, and has taken life head-on, her guiding light being Carnatic music.

Edited excerpts from an interview with the visually challenged artiste.

Tell us about your childhood.

I was born into a musically inclined family. My paternal great grandfather was an accomplished veena player. My maternal grandfather was also a connoisseur of music. Growing up in such a family, music was a huge part of my early life. I guess it was in my genes, as I am told that I could sing Sanskrit bhajans when I was just 18 months old! I’m told I would stop crying when music was played. Early lessons with a few teachers followed, prior to formal training.

When were you formally initiated into music?

I must digress a little here. I was born with a visual impairment that left with me with just 25 per cent normal vision. Regular education was therefore ruled out, though I did manage to complete my matriculation. Under these circumstances, my parents thought it prudent to encourage my interest in music. So, at the age of 11, I came under the tutelage of R Chandra Singh, a product of the Kanchipuram Naina Pillai School, known for its strict adherence to classicism and perfection in the technical aspects of music. For 11 years, he groomed me not only in the creative (manodharma) aspect, but also in the grammar and technical aspects of music. I have learnt the rare compositions of Thyagaraja, Mysore Vasudevachar and others from him. He would sing just a few swaras for a song and then ask me to go further, using my own creativity, but within the confines of the tala structure. Never did he make notes for me or ask me to write the notation for a song. My guru laid great emphasis on real understanding rather than learning by rote. His unique teaching methods included asking me to write the swaras for a randomly selected song, getting me to learn the names of 72 melakartha ragas with the 6-chakra division, their scales, the katapayadi sutras etc. This rigour has given me a solid grounding in both the theoritical and the practical aspects of music.

You are known for your rendition of pallavis…

My guru taught me the fundamentals of a pallavi, its structure, how to fit a given phrase into a suitable tala, how to fit in lyrics into a given swara passage, the permutations and combinations, how to convert selected lines from a song into a pallavi, and so on. He would give me the jathi (skeletal structure) and ask me to build muktayams (intricate swara passages). He has taught me all the 108 Ashtothara Shata Talas and I can compose a pallavi in any of them. (At this point, Shashikala effortlessly demonstrates the Chaturmukha Tala Pallavi of 28 cycles). I also learnt from Vinjamuri Rajagopala Iyengar, a disciple of Tiger Varadacharya. I learnt some rare compositions of Muthuswamy Dikshitar from him. Youngsters today should understand that cassettes and CDs can never substitute for a guru. Hybridisation of styles does not augur well.

Rare honour

Shashikala was recently honoured by the Governor of Karnataka. It is a fitting tribute to a woman who has scaled great heights in the face of tremendous odds.