Shrimathi Usha Srinivasan tells us a story of self realization; as she has traversed a road less traveled by you and me! Notwithstanding the external chaos and changes, she had to turn deep within herself and embark on a journey of transformation. First turning towards alternative healing and then later embracing her deepest passion for music, to create a platform which uses her creative abilities to train and tutor young talent. She firmly believes her responsibility lies in shaping the thinking of her students and is not confined to just the lessons she imparts.
An amazingly versatile, skilled and gifted singer, she temporarily lost herself; but rediscovered her inner calling to create a school for Music Excellence.
(To begin with I would like to say that though I have not written this myself, yet I have allowed Sowmya to write it in first person, as it allows the narration to flow easily.)
(This is the first part of a story that will be presented in 2 parts)
October 1952, the Post master’s house in a town called Gudiyatham was blessed with a baby girl.
My father was not only the Post master but a land owner too and his deep interest in the land he owned prevented him from taking up many transfers that was common to his post. The very few times he took transfers, it was only in and around Vellore where we had our own house. I was his 7th child and was born very late. Even that was one year after my first sister’s marriage. This made my parents very self conscious and they moved to Gudiyatham for couple of years after I was born. I was his last child and probably why his favorite too.
Following the death of his first wife and with 2 girls to raise he married again and the family expanded with the addition of 4 boys and a daughter. The first daughter was married while the second daughter was engaged and a son was in hostel studying when I was born into this family. As the youngest I always felt the wide gap that existed between my siblings and me. This gap and the age difference between my brothers and me, and with no sisters in my own age group, very often left me feeling lonely and isolated. My last elder brother was 7 years older than me. And obviously he was not too happy about my birth and presence either, which continued his whole life time. I constantly fought against this feeling of detachment and many of my later experiences, questions on religion and life, were based on these childhood feelings that I carried with me.
I am told I was a very talkative and self expressed child. But having 6 elder siblings and parents around who were constantly commenting and teasing I could not continue being that way. I became very sensitive and suppressed. Though I was much happier and an extrovert in school and college, the impact of the home atmosphere curtailed my openness, I was very cautious of what I said or did. The result was I had nobody to open up to.
But this situation, where I had no company and had to entertain myself to escape the sheer boredom of being the youngest and most energetic in the house, while all the others were so much older led me to find ways to escape this boredom by becoming extremely creative and artistic. I took part in all stage dramas and dance programmes of the school. More than being in the class I could be found only in drama and dance practices. At home added to my music practice I started writing poetry and composing songs. Drawing and painting, doing craft with waste and old stuff which lay around the house were also my favourite past time. I was very fond of dressing up. So I would attach some borders to my blouse, paint my skirts or sarees, make matching costume jewellery out of the stuff I already had, ( my sisters used to get me a lot from Calcutta, Delhi and places like that.)
Growing up memories are many and very vivid, but an unique aspect that constantly appeared to me, which made my family stand apart from others and surely seems different from other families was the way my mother treated her own children! You would expect a second wife to be partial to her own children but on the contrary it was a reversal of this. She went out of her way to take care of her husband’s first wife’s children. She took extra pain, gave them priority, pampered them and her constant stand was “they were mother-less children. Several times my eldest sister took this to her advantage and was so demanding that she would want everything for herself. In order to act and be fair, my own mother was extra strict, matter of fact and distant with us.
Many instances where my mother would take my eldest sisters’ side and insist that we give in, or give away something because she felt “they were mother-less children”! The unfairness of this was felt by me, the youngest in the family who could not find her own mother supporting or giving her comfort when I needed it the most. (I am talking about a woman who was already married, who was being called mother-less and being given priority over a child of 6 or 7 or 10 years!). Not only she was of this thought, she even kept coaching my brothers that they should take care of these 2 motherless ladies! Again my eldest sister would take this to her full advantage, as we were told to tolerate all her inappropriate behavior without uttering a word.
My elder bothers’ who were working, would lovingly presented me with few gifts such as an alarm clock or a hand bag for an occasion (like, getting into college). I was very fond of these gifts, cherished them and kept them with me carefully. Yet the moment my eldest sister came home for a visit and her eyes fell on these things, my sister would ask me to give them to her. I was not happy. But I was just 14 and she was not only elder to me she was also very powerful. I meekly expressed my sadness which was not heard well by any of my family people. Not only that! I had to end up hearing all the sermons from my mother about how people should be large-hearted and not hurt people’s feelings. (I silently wished how nice it would have been if she had spoken the same words to my sister); finally I had to give away my gifts with lots and lots of resentment. This incident left me wondering what is preventing the elders from taking a stand and speaking up for justice.
But there were many incidents later (of course after many instances like the above) where I chose to act differently. In a couple of years I slowly started resisting this behavior of my sister… I started refusing to part with my things mainly on a principle ground coupled with an emotional stand. Once when we had gone to Moore Market in Chennai, I vividly remember my sister buying dozens of handkerchiefs (she likes buying things in dozens; always!), and then we both returned to our hometown. My last brother had just then arrived from Belgaum and he had brought some saris for both my sisters and a half Saree plus a pack of hand-kerchiefs for me. Now again the game started. When she saw the new pack she wanted some of it. For the first time I told her this was not done. This caused a lot of ripples in my life, when my family started advising me not to openly oppose her like this and after all it was a very silly thing. But by this time I had developed a deep sense of right, wrong, principles, fairness etc. From my point of view it was not so much the giving away of the gifts/things, but the feeling that people must be informed when they are not in the right path immaterial of our personal gain, or fear about survival. These were the times I started speaking up and taking a stand for myself. (Later when I spoke to my mother, she gave her perspective and reasons for behaving that way, and though I can forgive my mother for her actions, these incidents and feelings shaped the person I became).
Father was big support to me. He was quite old by the time I was born, yet he did as much or I can even say went beyond his means to provide for us and especially for my interests and talent. He was religious, conventional and quite traditional in some of his views. He was not in favor of women working outside the home, or going alone to market places shopping and things like that. Maybe he had fairly good reasons for that since the place we lived in was a small town. Yet he was a Founder member of the Vellore Rotary club and had many friends of different nationalities. He attended parties, visited his friends often who were of English origin.
He was a voracious reader and would share things that he read with me a lot, and also encouraged me to read. He was very particular that I should not do any degree course looking for work prospects. I was put into an English Literature degree course. He said readers live in wise people’s company and only a lady with wisdom can lead a household and her children in the right path. I think I have also inherited this quality of my fathers’. I value our Indian tradition in many areas and I also appreciate the valid purpose of them. At the same time I also feel for practical purposes people should be allowed to make some changes in their lifestyle.
Memories of childhood
Memories of childhood are so irresistibly etched in my mind! (Later in life I realized, that even as an adult I enjoy and conduct classes the same way I used to as a child!). Play was my life-line in those days and I had many friends around the house. Even back then music, dance, and performances were my passion! I loved to sing and dance and one of my favorite games was teaching friends to sing and dance, and then we would hold performances in the house. We had a large table and this used to be our “stage”, I would sing and others would dance on top of the table. We would have meetings to discuss this and call the neighborhood children to watch. We even issued tickets like we were in a professional show! I was 6 or 7 years old at this time.
Another game was to dress up an idol, place it on a stool (a small table), decorate it with leaves and flowers available in our garden and pull it along like how they do it in chariot festival. After that there would be performances also by our own musicians, my little friends and myself! We would sing devotional songs and act as if we were in kutcheri!! All this was during week ends. On other days when my friends left after our daily quota of playing, my mother would light the lamp in the puja room and then it was my practice to sing before God. My sister would tell me that I would sit inside the Pooja room and sing songs with tears falling from my eyes, completely lost to the world …though I remember none of this.
I am also told that I would sing out to my mother heading towards the kitchen, when the greens-seller (keeraikari) came to our doorstep.
(Keeraikkari vandhirukkale……Amma); imagine singing that with a tune?!
I jump started my education very early! Being the last child in the house I was given a lot of leniency. I refused to go to 1st Std because I felt the teacher was rude and not good looking too (that is what I told it seems!) and would land up crying. Once my second sister took me to the second standard teacher who was her friend and casually explained the situation why I was crying. With lot of compassion when that teacher asked me ‘Would you like to join my class?’ jokingly; I immediately agreed… I liked the way she looked and so agreed to join only this teacher’s class. But how could that happen, when I had never been to school and hardly knew my alphabets?! My sister was adamant that she should find a way to take me into her class. The teacher friend then told my sister what questions would be asked and my sister and I worked at home. I got admission into the second standard by simply writing whatever was taught to me by my sister But I had no clue what I was writing! I just drew the words and numbers The school was just next to my house and many days my sister would dress me up and my brothers would carry me and just place me on the other side of the compound wall, which was my school!
I would go to school only once in a while and could not follow much because I had skipped 1st std and was not attending school regularly.
Till 5th standard I managed because my father knew the school principal and my sister helped me along! It was only after that school became a little tough as I had to go to a government school in 6th. Yet I did well in my studies and went on to join Katpadi Auxillium College to complete my graduation in English Literature.
My Creative Interests
My musical learning was greatly influenced by my second sister who used to play the Veena when I was a child and I was constantly with her. She also encouraged me to sing along with her; Mother too played the harmonium at times. At the age of 8 I started learning from Guru Chengalvarayya Bhagavathar in Vaniyambadi. From there we moved to Vellore where I learnt from a unique Guru-Sishya pair Shri Cuddalore Srinivasa Iyengar and then Shrimathi V.R. Gajalakshmi. From very early I had an inclination towards music, which was greatly supported by my father and sister. I had started singing in the stage by this time. I also started composing songs. The first song was on our family deity Karupuleeswarar in Gudiyatham and sang it during the pooja on Shivarathri day. Next was on Lord Rama of Kettavarampalayam, during the occasion of Sri Rama Navami concert of mine. When I was in college I composed a song on world peace, given a duration of 2 hours. I sang and got an award from UNESCO for best Student Composition.
Usually every evening I would sing devotional songs, bhajans when the deepam (lamp) was lit. This practice started when I was barely six years old. This may be the reason why people find a high bhakthi bhavam and religious devotion in my singing. I advocate this practice to my students also these days.
When I finished college (a bit earlier than others as I had skipped my first standard), and now that I had nothing to do I was sent to Calcutta, where my second sister was living with her family. It was now here in Calcutta that I first composed and performed a musical parody in the Kathakalekshepam style, called “Naveena Shakaunthalam”. I used music from film songs, interspersed it with dialogue scripted by me and performed the entire show on stage which went on for 2 hours at the Udayam Club! I was 18 years at that time and the audience appreciated it very much! I shortened the same show and later performed it for the Monday Charity Club as well.
Interest in philosophy and metaphysical reading.
Parallely it was at this age my interest in philosophy also deepened. The only other place I used to go during vacation was Chennai where my eldest sister was staying. The vacation used to be more like a camp. Though she provided me every thing, every movement of mine used to be corrected, criticized and prescribed and always with harshness and insult. So when I grew up most of the time I started to opt for staying back in my own house during vacations. But the couple of times I went, I used to get bored even after completing all the chores and helping my sister . By this time my sister became a member of Chinmaya Mission. She bought all the Books the Mission had to offer, starting from Bagavat Geetha to Upanishads.
This was the period when my natural curiosity and inquisitiveness in philosophy found an outlet, and I started reading Bhagvad Geeta and Upanishads, this interest continued for life. It was very easy for me to understand and appreciate these works even without any Guru, since the comment (bhashyam) by Great Chinmayanandha Swamiji was self explanatory. Later I read the complete compilation of Jagadguru Shankaracharyar, called “Deivathin Kural” which again defined my views and thoughts on traditional values and systems.
So on one side I was finding an outlet for my creative interests and on the other I was starting my journey in spirituality and philosophy. This period lasted for 2 to 3 years till I was 21years old.
to be continued…..