The benevolent guru

“As one lamp lights another, nor grows less, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness”. This ever-luminous quote by the famed American poet James Russel Lowell never fails to glow in my mind – more so whenever I come across noble acts performed by ones who are not well-placed in their own lives.

One such unforgettable person was our flute master, who would conduct classes in a portion of his tiny stationery shop. Despite being an excellent flautist in Carnatic classical style, he was not fortunate enough to shine as a professional performer. 

Among the five of us who were his pupils in the early 1950s, there was a polio-stricken young man from a modest background who had to be carried by an escort to the class. This man was the most devoted among us, determined as he was to acquire enough proficiency to join a professional orchestra as a flautist in order to eke out a living, which was the only option for him in his situation. Notwithstanding his own acute financial problems, our master took only one rupee from him as monthly fee as a special consideration, against a princely sum of five rupees from the rest of us!

Despite his remarkable progress in learning the nuances of playing flute, this mate of ours was extremely conscious of his physical limitation. This manifested into  stage fright whenever the master suggested that he give a solo ‘filler’ performance at concerts by other major artistes, which would enable him to gain confidence. Our master, however, had already worked out a remedy of his own to help his favourite student circumvent this grave impediment.

During one Ramanavami celebrations, our master managed to get a brief slot for this student. That memorable evening, the kind guru himself accompanied the man to the stage and after seating him before the mike, sat in the side wing poised with his own flute. As the curtain parted, the man’s fingers began playing nervously, producing a rather shaky, off-tune note. But before it could be perceived by the vast audience, the correcting note rang out instantly from the master’s flute, which seemed to magically dissipate the diffidence that had engulfed the nervous artiste!

From then on, it was a flawless and soulful rendition of three popular keerthanas, laced with mesmerising, subtle touches that could only be produced by a naturally gifted player. Profuse tears of joy and gratitude flowed from the eyes of the excited student as he ended his maiden performance with a flourish to the resounding ovation of the gathering.

As if the blessings of his benevolent guru (none other than Sreenivas Rao, elder brother of the legendary Shakuntala Devi) had taken effect from that very moment, this newly born professional player was soon absorbed as a regular flautist in a well-known orchestra group, which later facilitated his joining a famous film production unit in Madras.

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