An elegant simplicity
"MY sister died young, my mother died long ago, my brother is gone. Now my niece and nephew are no more. I have no family left," my grandaunt said, tears brimming in her voice. Usually a sympathetic listener to her tales of woe, this time I was stung into retorting, "How can you say that when every single one of us absolutely adores you?" Taken aback, grandaunt hugged me as she replied, "I know. I only meant my pirandaam (family of birth)."
Even in times of hardship, Kunjamma shared her husband's responsibility in extending financial support to clan members. When a sister-in-law pawned her gold bangles, Kunjamma was happy to give her own pair to the lady and made do with glass bangles. She loved glass bangles anyway, and wore them all her life, matching them to her saree of the day. Sharing was natural. She never put a string of flowers in her hair without checking if everyone had their bit.
Conservative to the core
Kunjamma enjoyed recounting details of how she brought up the four children, shielding them from hot-tempered Sadasivam's wrath. As you listened you could see that this was as important to her as her earlier career in the movies, or her life long commitment to music performance. Once when I asked her just what made her fall in love with Sadasivam, she blushed and said, "Those children wouldn't let me go!"
She was conservative to the core, convinced that a woman's place was in the home. She shook her head over "independent" girls, it was one of the few English words in her vocabulary. If you reminded her that she herself was a career woman on hectic professional tours, she would look puzzled and say, "I just did what your Thatha (grandfather) asked me to do. Besides, he was always with me."
I remember a hilarious conversation between M.S and a film star activist. "Shouldn't women stand on their own feet?" the young woman asked. "Of course," M.S replied. "I've never done anything against my husband's will." The star persisted, "But women must think for themselves." Grandma agreed, "In fact young women don't think before they act. That is why nowadays there are so many divorces."
The star mentioned women's rights. "The woman's dharma is to be meek, and listen to elders, not argue all the time. Look at television! What vulgarity! Times have changed, become so bad," M.S. shook her head.
more casual persons like me, who joined her entourage in 1982. From suitcase packing to stage performance, every thing had its order and place.
Rehearsals were wonderful, not only because of the privilege of listening to M.S., but because you saw her in different lights and moods. Singing "Sri Dakshinamurte", she might talk about a great Sankarabharanam she heard from guru Semmangudi. A song in Saveri reminded her of another from childhood. "The day my mother taught me this song we had a visitor who played the veena, breaking the string in his attempts to show off his skills," she laughed.
More than any other famous person, she captured the hearts of people with her simplicity and humaneness. Every single thing she did, from serving food to tuning the tambura, was marked by elegance and charm. Long ago, when I read this poem of Byron for the first time, I immediately thought of Kunjamma:
She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes,
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies ...
And on that cheek, and over that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent
A mind at peace with all below,
Sitting beside Kunjamma after she had breathed her last, when a quiet midnight saw her in her last bed, covered by the shawl gifted to her by the Paramacharya of Kanchi whom she worshipped devoutly, was to recall tender moments of family life. It was also to remember her journey through pain, sorrow, loss and deprivation. Her music is filled with the tears of human grief, reaching out to the bliss beyond: a legacy of love.