Except for my maternal grandfather, I lost my other grandparents at an early age. My grandmothers passed away before I was born so I never had a chance to even see them. My mother’s father - my maternal grandfather - was the only I grew to know a little.
"Bawa", as we called him affectionately, stayed at my maternal uncle’s house, which was in another city, Bangalore, thousands of miles away from us. As a child, I met Bawa only twice a year, when we visited our relatives during my bi-annual school holidays. How thrilled he used to be on beholding my little sister and me during those visits! He doted on us and often took us out for ice-cream treats and we were glad for our affectionate, though sometimes authoritarian, grandfather.
Unknown to us, though, there was another side to our grandfather. In his heyday, Bawa had been an acclaimed and accomplished classical singer and musician. Innocent as we were in our childhood, my sister and I were never aware of this aspect of his personality.
Through the years, owing to his exceptional musical talents, he had acquired many fans and disciples. Extremely humble by nature and a private person, he never entertained these fans or admirers at home when we were visiting. He would meet them at what he called his ‘institute’ - a small building little away from my uncle’s house. Only years later, we learnt many details about him. His institute had been to him what a studio would be to an artist and a darkroom to a photographer. He would rigorously practice music daily there, conduct music classes, and sometimes record his music too. However, we were little children back then when visiting and all we knew was that he would sometimes disappear to the building he called ‘his institute’ and would return hours later.
For us, as children, Bawa was someone who would pamper us during our bi-annual visits, showering us with affection. Someone who would grab our little hands tightly at the traffic signal, just in time to prevent a headlong reckless rush into the speeding traffic.
Towards my teenage years, Bawa lost his eyesight, grew feeble, and suffered from myriad ailments, yet he never let go of his fierce independence. He would teeter slowly on his frail legs, refusing any offers of support.
Contemporary music had taken over and the city’s youngsters were completely enthralled by it. There were few takers for old school South Indian classical music. It was a challenge for Bawa’s disciples and former students to keep his musical legacy alive in the face of such challenges. They would come to him, every now and then seeking advice and valuable inputs on various aspects of classical music. Frail though his body was, his mind was still sharp and people often benefitted from his knowledge.
Our bi-annual visits meanwhile had dwindled down to annual ones on account of fewer holidays, and I saw very little of Bawa. The transition to adolescence was proving an uneasy and difficult one for me and preoccupied with those issues, I was hardly clued into Bawa’s past or his present. All that he was to me, was a grandfather, now getting older each day. I was unaware of his accomplishments and many talents.
A couple of years later, one morning, a postal telegram arrived at our home from distant Bangalore, bearing a piece of sad news. Bawa was no more. He had been 86 and still walking on his own feet, though riddled with illness and age and had finally breathed his last. My mother wept. Wept for days while my father made arrangements for us to travel to the city. Unable to afford the high airfares back then with his meagre income (this was, after all, before the era of low-cost airlines), my father booked train tickets for our family. By the time we reached Bangalore, five days had passed. Yet, the mansion was still enveloped in a shroud of gloom and sorrow. People moved about in a silence that conveyed volumes about the grief that smote everyone’s hearts.
In the later years, my mother would occasionally mention about Bawa’s exceptional achievements. I learnt that he was born in 1903, that he’d had his early training with his father and uncle both of whom had been established musicians in their own right. I discovered to my awe that he had his first public concert at the tender age of 13 and there had been no looking back after that. To him, music had been as much an intellectual exercise as an aesthetic pursuit. Delving deeply into its study, he enriched himself with plentiful knowledge on the subject. He grew to be such an authority on various aspects of music that he was much sought after at seminars, conventions, and symposia. I learnt that he’d at one time sung regularly at the royal court of the Mysore Maharaja and that he’d received numerous awards and recognition from the highest echelons of the government.
Nevertheless, he never let all this show when he was home with his family or when we visited during our trips. Clad in his simple white dhoti and shirt, he was just "Bawa" to us, a much-loved person always full of warmth and affection. He never let the remotest shadows of his early fame or immense talents affect his relationship with us.
To impart and share his knowledge and discoveries on music with others, he started a College of Music in 1931, which became the first institution to be recognized and aided by the government. Today, a Fine Arts Trust operates in his name to commemorate his rich legacy to the field of classical music. The new talents he’d nurtured in his institute have gone on to gain fame and glory in their own right when the city revived the traditional forms of music. A concert named after him is held every year in one of the city’s finest halls and draws hundreds of accomplished musicians and classical singers from all across the country.
When I was a five-year-old, my mother enrolled me into a music class hoping to instill in me a love for classical music. However, for some unknown reason, I abhorred it and used to run away from the class midway. Eventually, my mother wised up to the fact that I’d never develop a taste for classical music and pulled me out of the class, much to my relief back then.
Today, as an adult, fully informed about his rich history, I regret not knowing much of classical music myself. Recollecting his warm and humble personality, I lament not having an opportunity to reciprocate the many kindnesses and affections he bestowed upon us. Lastly, I regret not having attempted to acquire the skills that would have enabled me to carry forward the torch lit by my grandfather.
Mamta is the granddaughter of the late Shri D. Subbaramaiah, who was awarded the prestigious State title of "Gana kala Sindhu" (which loosely translates to Musical Genius) among many other honors and accolades. The Sri D. Subbaramaiah Fine Arts Trust created in his name sponsors concerts and musical programmes regularly and provides a platform for aspiring classical musicians and singers.