The Music Room: A Memoir

The Music Room: A Memoir

by Namita Devidayal

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The Music Room: A Memoir by Namita Devidayal

When Namita is ten years old, her mother takes her to Kennedy Bridge, a seamy neighborhood in Bombay, home to hookers and dance girls. There, in a cramped one-room apartment lives Dhondutai, the last living disciple of two of the finest Indian classical singers of the twentieth century: the legendary Alladiya Khan and the great songbird Kesarbai Kerkar. Namita begins to learn singing from Dhondutai, at first reluctantly and then, as the years pass, with growing passion. Dhondutai sees in her a second Kesarbai, but does Namita have the dedication to give herself up completely to the discipline like her teacher? Or will there always be too many late nights and cigarettes? And where do love and marriage fit into all of this?

A bestseller in India, where it was a literary sensation, The Music Room is a deeply moving meditation on how traditions and life lessons are passed along generations, on the sacrifices made by women through the ages, and on a largely unknown, but vital aspect of Indian life and culture that will utterly fascinate American readers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429921060
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/03/2009
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,221,001
File size: 248 KB

About the Author

NAMITA DEVIDAYAL was born in 1968 and graduated from Princeton University. A journalist with The Times of India, she lives in Mumbai.

Namita Devidayal was born in 1968 and graduated from Princeton University. A journalist with The Times of India, she lives in Mumbai.

Read an Excerpt

The Music Room

A Memoir

By Namita Devidayal

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Namita Devidayal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2106-0


I was dragged into the world of music as a reluctant ten-year-old. One summer evening, while my friends went off to swim at the Willingdon Club, my mother packed me into a car and said we were going to meet a music teacher.

The music teacher lived in an old building under Kennedy Bridge, ten minutes away from the tree-lined streets of Cumballa Hill where we lived. Kennedy Bridge was a neighbourhood known for prostitutes and gentlemen's clubs, but not for musicians. The only other time I had heard of Kennedy Bridge was when my parents joked about their adventurous evening in a mujrah dance parlor many years ago. They recalled the night vividly — the pimp with a red kerchief around his neck who negotiated with them on the curbside under the bridge; the walk up to room number 88 on the second floor of a building which smelled of urine; the green windows which shielded its inhabitants from any prying eyes on the bridge that heaved with traffic just a few feet away; and a woman called Chandni, draped in a sequined nylon sari, who gyrated under faux chandeliers and leaned forward so far under my father's nose that he bursts into giggles every time he describes the moment.

But, like in most neighbourhoods in Bombay, daylight masked what went on after hours. During the day, the area under Kennedy Bridge was like any other crowded street, throbbing with people hawking their wares or hurrying along. Across the street from the whore houses stood an old stone convent called Queen Mary School. Next to it was a row of auto parts stores. And, at the end of the road, deep inside a residential colony called Congress House, lived a great musician.

It was five in the evening when my mother and I got there. We parked along the curb and walked past the storefronts displaying lubes and spanners to get to the grey disconsolate building. There was no lift, so we trudged up the stairs to a tiny apartment on the third floor. A family of three lived on one side of the kitchen. The music teacher lived on the other side as a paying guest, in a room with pale, pistachio-colored walls. Her solitary companion in this room was her mother, whom she called Ayi.

My teacher-to-be was waiting for us with a cherubic smile. She was about five feet tall and was clad in a white sari, starched crisp. Her black hair was liberally oiled. I was delighted to note that her tiny bun was a ponytail in disguise. She was remarkably youthful for a fifty-year-old which, I later learned, she firmly attributed to never having married.

Sequestered in her tiny apartment, with her two gleaming tanpuras that stood against the wall, she seemed oblivious to the men who loitered below her window next to the brothels, spitting betel juice on the filthy walls of the buildings that housed their fantasies. It was like wading through a dirty pond to get to a beautiful lotus in the center.

The walls of her room were bare except for three portraits. There was a technicolor Ganesh, torn off an old pharmaceutical company calendar. Next to it, a portrait of her teacher, the legendary Kesarbai Kerkar; head covered with a white sari, hair parted on the side, and a string of pearls around her neck. On the adjoining wall was a faded sepia photograph of Dhondutai's parents soon after they were married — her father, a stiff Brahmin in a coat and dhoti, sitting upright with his knees apart, and her mother, a frail, beautiful woman in a nine-yard sari pulled tightly around her shoulders, sitting pigeon-toed, her feet pointing towards each other, acutely self-conscious.

My attention was drawn to a dollhouse-like altar, tucked away in a corner of the room. Inside, was the entire cast of the Hindu pantheon — tiny silver and brass idols of baby Krishna, Ganesh, Saraswati, Laxmi, a couple of silver coins, and a picture of an almost naked holy man sitting in meditation. The gods had been polished and decorated with a touch of kumkum. In front of each lay a sprinkling of fresh jasmine flowers whose fragrance lingered faintly. On top of the temple flickered an orange bulb, fashioned to simulate a live flame. It instantly amused me.

As I learnt later, the room was a semblance of another home — her ancestral bungalow in Kolhapur, the town she had left behind, where temple chimes wafted in with the evening breeze and jasmine grew in abundance. This is the kind of compromise Bombay forces on those who come to her, the price they must pay for her pleasures.

'Say namaste to her,' my mother nudged me.

'She can call me baiji.' Dhondutai beamed.

'Baap re, she is quite tall for her age,' Dhondutai continued, holding my chin, and peering down at my face affectionately.

'Yes, both of us are tall. Hopefully, art runs in the family too,' my mother joked, as usual getting straight to the point.

'She's still quite young. Let's start with twice a week — Tuesday and Thursday? From five to six? That will give her enough time to freshen up when she gets back from school. Then, depending on how she progresses, we'll firm up the days.'

While my fate was being decided, I was intrigued by an old bald lady with a few wisps of grey hair pulled into a tiny bun, who was pouting at the visitors from a corner of the room. It was Dhondutai's mother, Ayi, a wizened vestige of the woman in the photograph. She must have been at least eighty. I grinned at her and got a lovely, toothless smile in return.

As I was leaving the room, my eyes wandered once more to the shrine with the flickering lamp. Catching my gaze, Dhondutai laughed and beckoned to me to come closer for a peek. I sat in front of the gods awkwardly, conscious of her behind me, of my mother hovering impatiently at the door, of Ayi staring into space, and of the strange new room that was going to be a recurring space in my life. I turned to leave and thought I heard her whisper something into my ear. It sounded like, 'You will be my little goddess ... my Bhairavi.'

My musical memories began before Dhondutai, with a woman called Sita-behn who came home to teach my mother light ragas and melodic bhajans when I was very young. I also remember a man coming over to teach my father how to play the tabla, before business worries took over and the rhythms of his life changed.

Both my parents belonged to business backgrounds. Sons were trained to take over the family business and daughters were groomed to find husbands. Girls were taught music or dance to enhance their marriage prospects. So, when Sita-behn, my mother's old music teacher, recommended a music school for me, I was promptly sent across.

I spent several tortured months at Sangeet Vidyalaya. It was located in the heart of Gamdevi, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Bombay, occupied by old-timers who harbored a curious ambivalence — part disdain and part envy — towards people like me. For we were Bombay's brown sahibs, more comfortable watching a derivative Neil Simon than a masterpiece written in the local language. I went to an Anglican school, where we learned to speak the Queen's English and to speak broken Hindi with a self-conscious accent. Marathi was taught as a third language. We viewed it as a crude, amusing dialect that had to be learned so that you could communicate with the cleaning lady or cajole a local policeman into not giving you a fine.

The faculty of the music school in Gamdevi consisted of the Ranade sisters, an enterprising triumvirate who had spent several decades churning out batch after batch of uninspired singers. Each sat in a room that opened onto a balcony overlooking a noisy street. The first room was for the beginners, usually a cluster of giggling girls who were taught the basics of raga music from a set of textbooks (consisting of parts I, II and III). The second room was for those who managed to graduate from the first room. The third room, at the far end and one I rarely entered, was where the oldest Miss Ranade taught a select group of senior students.

On the first day, I sat in the first room, in a circle of girls, before one of the Ranade siblings and her creaking harmonium. She asked each of us to state our name and our favorite raga. Two of the girls had been named after ragas by their parents. The first, a dimpled thing in a floral cotton dress, coyly said in Marathi, 'My name is Bageshree and my favorite raga is Bageshree.' Every one laughed heartily and clapped. We then met Poorvi. Luckily her favorite raga was Malkaus. I had been growing increasingly nervous about my response and felt bits of breakfast flying about wildly in my stomach as we went through the circle and came closer to my turn. When all eyes rested on me expectantly, I forgot to mention my name and blurted out, 'Raga Yaman means Raga Bhairavi.'

I had meant to say, 'Raga Yaman and Raga Bhairavi,' but my eager attempt to speak Marathi translated into this indecipherable response, which set off a chorus of giggles. Even the teacher laughed.

Never before had I felt so conspicuously out of place; I was a foreigner in this traditional, Marathi-speaking music universe, and I was a mildly eccentric character in my pseudo English world, where young girls were more preoccupied with the length of their badminton skirts than with mystifying musical outposts tucked away in the city's dodgiest neighbourhoods.

I was mortified about going to the music class and regularly tried to come up with creative excuses for missing it. But stomach aches and homework didn't quite cut it with my mother. I succeeded once, when I managed to lock myself into the bathroom; by the time the locksmith was called to wrench open the door, class time was over. I hated my mother for pushing me into this embarrassing, depressing world. Besides the classes, I was routinely dragged to even more irksome music concerts, where I would usually fall asleep and wake up when the singer was rendering fast, arpeggiated passages which meant the end of the show was near.

Yet, like most reluctant students, I did manage to learn some music by default. At the Gamdevi music school, I got a basic introduction to the ragas. We were taught the grammar for each raga — how to go up the notes and then come down — followed by a simple, manicured composition. We learned one raga every two weeks and then rapidly moved on to the next. The curriculum was unabashedly devoid of nuance; the idea was to build a repertoire, which would culminate in an examination and a certificate. This was Indian Classical Music 101.

My mother slowly caught on that this was not the place for me. She wanted me to learn music from a teacher who would devote time to me exclusively, to teach me the fundamentals of voice culture, coax the notes out gradually, and instill depth in each utterance. Someone mentioned Dhondutai Kulkarni, who had recently moved to Bombay. Dhondutai belonged to the Jaipur Gharana, a spectacularly intellectual school of music, and was the only student of the legendary singer Kesarbai Kerkar.

My mother went to hear Dhondutai perform at the Bhulabhai Institute, an intimate concert hall tucked away on the first floor of a sea-facing building. Dhondutai started in a no-nonsense manner, right on time, with Lalita-Gauri, a compound raga that interweaves two ragas, Lalit and Gauri. Her music was highly complex. There was perfection, but as a critic had once noted 'not enough pain.' 'Sometimes, you don't listen to music for pleasure; you want to experience the pathos that stirs the soul.' Perhaps my mother liked the uncomplicated nature of Dhondutai's full-throated singing. She decided, into the second half of the concert, that she wanted her to be my music teacher.

In those days, there was a marvellous singer, Durgatai, whom my parents loved. But they felt that, while she may have been India's Maria Callas, Durgatai would not be the right teacher for their restless daughter. She was reputed to be somewhat inflammable. Legend had it that she had once flung a tabla at a student when he hit the wrong note for the third time in a row. She was a star performer, but a terrible mentor. Dhondutai, though not as famous, would be gentle and nurturing.

Our worlds were fated to collide. And so that is how I ended up, uncomfortable yet intrigued, sitting in my guru's modest home. What was to follow was a lifetime of learning — and not just of music.


I went back to Kennedy Bridge the following week. In our first lesson, Dhondutai asked me to shut my eyes and listen to the singer's loyal accompanist, the tanpura. I was intrigued by the instrument, which looks like a sitar but plays just four notes over and over again. She ran her fingers over the strings and a hypnotic rhythmic drone started to fill the room. It created a constant murmur of serenity. Soon, all the ambient sounds — the whirring of the fan, the soft tick-tock of the table clock, the occasional shouts from children or vendors outside, Ayi's gentle snoring, the hissing of the pressure cooker from the kitchen — found their place against this background drone. From then on, the language we heard and spoke was that of music.

I started with the first note, sa. On that first day, to my dismay, Dhondutai made me sing only the base note — the tonal pillar of Indian music which remains unchanged, constant, reliable, and stoically oblivious to the whims and fancies of other notes. It is the foundation, the first and last note, the point at which the circle begins and ends. Within the boundaries of sa, one can play out all of life's dramas and moods. But every time one gets back to it, there is a sense of closure — like coming home after a long and exciting journey.

'Make the sound of your sa merge into the sa of the tanpura until both are one and you can't tell the difference,' said Dhondutai. 'Sa encompasses all the notes, just as pure white light contains all the colors of the rainbow.'

We finished our lesson in half an hour, a nod to my age and restless spirit. Dhondutai put the tanpura back in its resting place against the wall and shuffled into the kitchen. I followed her there, overwhelmed with curiosity. The kitchen was a dark space with a single, small window that looked out onto a courtyard in the center of the building. Dhondutai's entire culinary equipment fitted into a compact wooden cupboard in one corner. She pulled out a small, old-fashioned brass vessel and rinsed it.

A heavy-set woman, with a shocking white bob-cut and a dark face embedded with tributaries of suffering, emerged from the flat's other bedroom. It was the landlady, from whom my teacher had rented her room and the right to use the kitchen and bathroom. Dhondutai introduced me to Mausi, affectionately referring to me as 'her little student'. Mausi smiled and held her hand out to me limply and I shook it, both of us mildly uncomfortable with this western mode of greeting. I noticed her feathery moustache which she had trimmed unevenly, leaving behind bits of white stubble.

Dhondutai asked if I wanted tea, which I declined. As she started making it, she chattered on, and I stood next to her, leaning on the kitchen counter, listening.

'Making tea is a lesson in life,' she said. 'You think that you've made the tea just because you've put the kettle on the pot and dumped tea leaves into it. But take a deeper look at what's going on. Actually, someone has grown the tea leaves, someone else has pruned them, some poor fellow put them into packages. Someone has milked a cow and another has pressed sugar cane to give you sugar. And it is thanks to the fire that you can boil your water. So what you have done is a small speck in the scheme of tea-making. Never feel undue pride, for there is much more unseen energy contributing to your so-called achievement. What do you say, Mausi?'

'You are quite right, tai. It is all in God's hands,' said Mausi with a sigh, dabbing with the end of her sari the film of sweat misting her face from the steamy tea. Dhondutai laughed and poured the hot tea into two slightly chipped china cups and brought them into her room for her mother and herself. Ayi picked up the cup with a quivering hand, and spilled most of the tea on to the ground. She looked up at us like a sheepish child.

'Why can't you be a little more careful, Ayi?' scolded Dhondutai. 'How do you expect me to keep cleaning up after you? Here, give me that cup.' She shook her head and sighed. 'You didn't get burned did you?' Her voice softened and she went out to get a rag. Mausi walked in from the kitchen and gave Ayi a don't-worry smile. Ayi was looking at the floor. She slowly lay back on her bed and turned her face to the wall.


Excerpted from The Music Room by Namita Devidayal. Copyright © 2007 Namita Devidayal. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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