(India – 1967)
“Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on behalf of our audience. You are the nightingale of Carnatic Music. Winning the Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards is just adding a feather to your cap,” the interviewer Venkat admired his icon, Vedavalli.
Venkat was a die-hard Vedavalli fan. He had purchased all her phonograph records when it was the time of the gramophone. When the world metamorphosed to electronic music systems, he welcomed home her music cassettes. Venkat began his day with Vedavalli’s rendition of slokas and devotional songs. He ended his day with her lullabies to Lord Krishna.
Such was his craze, that at the announcement of her win, he coaxed his manager at the Radio station to allow him to interview her.
And today, his dream had come true.
“I am humbled by the recognition that my music is gathering. Thank you very much for your love and appreciation,” Vedavalli said with folded hands.
“All our listeners are aware of your musical prowess. Is there a trick to your expressions in music?”
“There is no trick,” Vedavalli smiled coyly. “It is my guru’s teachings that I have been able to flourish so well. He always said every song has a mood, a feel to it. We all call it genre now. But one needs to dissect it, not only by phrases or sentences but by words. A song is soulful only when each word is expressed distinctively.”
“Wow! That is such great advice to upcoming artists,” Venkat paused for a few seconds before running to his next question.
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Yes, sure. As far as it doesn’t ruin my reputation.”
“You have sung innumerable Carnatic songs, but I personally feel the romantic ones stand out. Your rendition of flirtatious and loyal love, loss, despair stand out. Is there a specific reason for it? Have you ever fallen in love?” Venkat was curious.
Vedavalli sat dumbfounded. A mere yes would not suffice the question. She thought to herself, ‘How would people of this decade accept what I call love? Would they judge me? But I am not ashamed of it, and our union was legal and god gifted.’
“Mam, sorry if I have offended you. I didn’t mean to,” Venkat apologised hesitantly.
“No, don’t be sorry. Yes, I was, am and will always be tied in eternal love with him,” Vedavalli initiated the untold story of her life.
All of thirteen, innocent and naive Vedavalli ran through the lush green fields caressing the paddy on her way. She loved hanging around with her friends in the mango groves of her village. Stealing ripe mangoes gave them immense pleasure. On one such afternoon, Vedavalli’s younger brother came searching for her. He waved and called out cupping his palms around his mouth, “Veda, Amma is looking for you. Come with me. It’s urgent.”
Vedavalli followed him immediately. As soon as she reached home, her mother held her arms and led her straight to one of the rooms. She noticed many guests staring at her as she towed behind her mother.
“Amma, who are these people?”
“Stay calm, don’t open your mouth in front of them,” Amma ordered, tying a silk saree around Veda’s waist.
“Wow! Silk saree? What is the occasion amma?” Veda looked excited.
Amma didn’t utter a word. Veda was a puppet in her hands, and she hauled Veda along.
At the main hall of the house, people murmured as soon as Veda arrived. Veda’s father called out to her, “Come here, child.”
He held her near and said, “This is my daughter, Veda. Please accept her hand in marriage.”
Veda looked up at her father, confused. She had a hundred questions in her mind but couldn’t utter a word. She had to keep her promise to Amma.
An aged lady walked up to her and drew her chin up, “Such a beautiful girl. Hope she is good with household chores too. If not, I will teach her.”
“Amma, she is too young. How will she manage?” an older man questioned the lady.
“You stay put and believe me. She is the right match for you. Chariji, we accept the proposal.”
The hall reverberated with cheer, and the alliance was fixed.
Within a fortnight, Vedavalli married Parthasarathy. She had just stepped into her teens, but now she had to be responsible for a household. A few days ago, she roamed about in the village carefree, but today the little bud, draped in nine yards of silk struggled with each step.
Veda’s mother in law escorted her straight to the kitchen and gave her hands-on instruction about chores. She shook her head in agreement with whatever her mother in law told her. Suddenly, she felt someone pulling her saree tip. She turned around and found a young girl sucking her thumb.
“Hello, little sweetheart, what is your name?” Veda enquired.
“I am Shree. Are you my new mother?” the little girl looked puzzled. Veda stared curiously. Her mother in law jumped in between the conversation, “Oh my little dove Shree, come here to Paati. Yes, she is your new mother. Go and get your brother.”
Veda gathered from the discussions at the household that her husband was at least twenty years elder than her. His wife passed away while giving birth to their second child.
She didn’t even have a look at her future husband properly or enquired about him to her parents. Veda didn’t feel it necessary or apt. She just went along with the flow of life.
On their first night, Veda walked into her bedroom, terrified. She had always slept cuddling her mother. But from today, she had to spend her nights with a stranger.
“Come, sit by my side,” Parthasarathy pulled Veda closer.
“Why do you look so frightened? I won’t hurt you. You can count on me. I want to ask you something. Please, tell me the truth.”
“Aiyya?” Parthasarathy laughed, “Calling your husband, Sir, is more hilarious than respectful. Okay, coming to my point, how old are you?”
“Thirteen? I knew my parents lied to me. They told me you are seventeen, soon to be eighteen. And I agreed to it like a fool. They said you look quite young for your age. But now, what’s done cannot be taken back. I assure you I will do whatever is possible within my reach to keep you happy. I have only one request.”
Veda looked up at him.
“Take care of my children as your own. I know I am asking too much from you. My younger daughter is three, and the elder one is six. There is not much difference in your ages, but at least look after them as your siblings.”
Veda nodded in agreement.
Days transformed into months and months metamorphosed into years. Veda engrossed herself in household duties and her step-children’s upbringing. She loved them dearly, and the kids were fond of her too.
Veda and Parthasarathy were not a conventional couple. They never whispered romantic sweets into each other’s ears, nor did they argue or fight. In fact, they never struck a proper conversation. They spoke to each other only when necessary, mostly revolving around their kids’ education and well being.
In happiness or crisis, the only part that reacted were their eyes. A blink of the eyes conveyed it all.
Parthasarathy was the only man in her life, and dedication towards the family replaced love. One morning, in a merry mood, Veda sang a folk ballad to her daughter. Parthasarathy heard it and admired her voice from a distance.
“I didn’t know you could sing so well.”
“Thank you, Aiyya. It was nothing. Sorry to disturb you,” Veda shied away.
“Don’t be sorry. Would you like to learn Carnatic music professionally?”
“I would love to, but how? I am tied up with domestic work all the time.”
“You don’t worry about that. I will make the necessary arrangements,” saying so, Parthasarathy left.
Soon, Parthasarathy appointed a Guruji for Veda. Guru Kannan started visiting their mansion regularly. He was a young man, but his command over Carnatic music and its intricacies were commendable. He had understood and trained well in the nuances of music at a very young age.
Music was his passion. And he found a zealous and talented student in Veda.
Veda looked forward to her sessions with Kannan. They both spent hours singing and discussing various musical notes in detail. Kannan blew a new wave of enthusiasm in her life. He was not only a great teacher but also a true friend to her. They spoke in length about their lives, aspirations and dreams.
The whole household echoed with Veda’s melodious voice. Every night, Parthasarathy would request her to sing songs before they went to bed. She would oblige, and he would admire her.
“You are blessed with a soothing voice. I can see your vocal cords vibrate as you sing,” he pointed out at her neck. “My first wife had a lovely voice too. But I couldn’t do anything for her”, he sighed. Veda immediately sang a peppy song to uplift his mood. They both shared a naughty yet innocent smile.
On the eve of India’s freedom, Kannan had to perform at the city temple. He requested Parthasarathy to permit Veda for the occasion.
“She is my best student. It will be my honour to perform along with her. Also, this would be a great opportunity for her.”
“Oh sure. Veda will be, what Bharathiyar calls them-Pudhumai Pen. Amazing! You have my permission,” Parthasarathy was excited.
Initially, Veda did not agree to the recital. Later, she gave in to Parthasarathy. She realised that he was keen.
Veda’s mother in law never approved her singing or Kanan’s visits. The topic of a program at the temple was the icing on the cake.
“How did you agree to all this? She will perform with another man? What will people say?” she quipped.
“Amma, our country is stepping into a new dawn. Listening and admiring Bharathiyar’s songs and poems are not enough. We need to change and implement them in our lives. People will keep talking behind our back. It is up to us to give a deaf ear to all of it. Let us empower our women. Let us start at home.”
Veda listened to their conversation. Her heart filled with respect for Parthasarathy. She knew that he was wise, but today she realised that he was a champion for feminists and a true-hearted patriot.
On the day of the music recital, Veda’s talent shone bright and high. Accolades and appreciation poured in for her voice. People spoke in length about Veda and Kannan’s magical voice. They praised every raga and every beautiful note they struck with their voice.
Soon, their partnership strengthened and invitations to perform at many events and functions poured in. Veda’s life had come a full circle, from a wide-eyed village girl to a performing star. Household chores and practise sessions filled her day. She spent more time with Kannan, which transformed her into a bold and enigmatic person.
But gossip mongers had their day too. Rumours spread like wildfire, and it reached their home soon.
Parthasarathy’s mother was furious, “ How did you keep a match stick near the fire? Accept the fact, you are twenty years older than her. She is just thirty, and you are fifty already. I have watched how that brute stares at Veda with lust. Stop all this drama immediately.”
She summoned Veda and warned her.
At night, Parthasarathy called Veda by his bedside as a routine, “Sing me a song of hope, Veda. I want us to hope for a better tomorrow. Hope that there is only equality and love in this world. Hope that no one ever pulls someone by the leg, when he or she is chasing success.”
Veda’s eyes welled with tears. She held Parthasarathy’s hand for the first time and hugged it dearly. He caressed her head, “I love you so much. I want you to reach for the skies and accomplish the unachievable. I will never be a hindrance to your dreams. Promise me that you will not look back. Strive hard enough so that the whole world can hear your voice.”
Veda nodded in agreement. And that was enough to seal the conversation.
“Wow! How amazing! Your husband understood you so well. He was well ahead of his time. So did you live with your Guru later?” Venkat was curious. He wanted to hear that she dismissed social norms and walked towards an extra-marital affair. His heart wailed for the little girl in Vedavalli.
“What?” Veda laughed hysterically, “Your sense of imagination is amazing.”
“Oh! Did I say anything wrong?”
“These days, you youngsters read so many weird novels and watch western movies that corrupt your brain. You asked me how I sing romantic Carnatic songs so well, right?”
She paused and continued, “Are you aware of Meera? She was an ancient poet and dedicated all her life to singing songs for Lord Krishna. She was married, but she chose Krishna over materialistic and physical pleasures. For Meera, Krishna was not mere God. He was the air that she breathed. He was the clothes that she wore. He was the blood running down her body. He was her very existence. She believed that he was God, she was human, yet they were one soul.”
“ I am completely against child marriages. But, as a young bride, I was terrified of my husband. Understand, our times were different, and he was quite older than me. But later, as years passed, we grew fond of each other. We both knew about each other in and out. We led a life of celibacy, but we valued being together and for each other. That is what marriage is all about. I have achieved such great heights in my life because of my husband. He was the pillar of support that I needed. If not for him, I would still be sitting in my village busy with cattle. Do you know what my kind of love is called? Its bhakti – complete devotion”
“Amazing, can we meet him someday?” Venkat was ecstatic.
“God snatched him from me too soon. People ask me, why do I still dress like a married woman, with the vermillion on the forehead, colourful sarees, and jasmine flowers in my hair. But they don’t realise that my love and devotion towards my husband has not died. He resides in my heart. He will stay with me till I am alive. We will travel together until my last breath. He has given me memories to last a lifetime. My love for him will be eternal, breaking the boundaries of life and time.”
Venkat stood astounded. He walked in to interview his icon, but he left in appreciation of a person he never knew.
- Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards: an award given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s National Academy of Music, Dance & Drama. It is the highest Indian recognition given to practising artists.
- Amma: Mother in Tamil
- Paati: Grandmother in Tamil
- Aiyya: Sir in Tamil
- Bharathiyar: Subramania Bharathi, was a Tamil writer, poet, journalist, Indian independence activist, social reformer and polyglot. Popularly known as “Mahakavi Bharathi”, he was a pioneer of modern Tamil poetry and is considered one of the greatest Tamil literary figures of all time.
- Pudhumai Pen: Modern Woman
- Meera: Meera, also known as Mirabai, was a 16th-century Hindu mystic poet and devotee of Lord Krishna. She is a celebrated Bhakti saint, particularly in the North Indian Hindu tradition.
- Lord Krishna: Krishna is a major deity in Hinduism. He is worshipped as the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu and also as the supreme God in his own right.
- Bhakti: Devotion.
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