You can’t play on broken strings

I’ve always wanted to learn a musical instrument. When in 9′th grade, I joined a music school and signed up for guitar lessons. My instructor, Julius, was a very cool man. He didn’t believe in conventional teaching. Being self taught himself, he introduced me to some simple beginners’ chords and tabs. Starting with easy 3 chord rhymes, I advanced to the next level songs and learnt to play their solos. He emphasized a lot on solo to make my way through the frets more easy. It wasn’t really the ‘phoebe-way‘ of guitar learning, but it was all about enjoying what we played. We would sit in a circle and he would start off with a simple chord progression and we would follow him, which would eventually lead to a song. The entire room would vibrate with the strumming and singing!

I would come home from school and catch a bus to the class on every alternate weekdays. My guitar was (is) a classic acoustic instrument, which Julius picked out for me himself. He always said I have to use my long fingers to my advantage and play till they hurt (bleeding fingers is a sign of progress). After the class, a couple of students would stay back and discuss concerts, artists and their heroes. I too would sometimes stay back and listen to them in awe. Each one of them would speak so passionately about music and I then realized how the smallest of the things inspired them to pick up a guitar.

I continued for 2 years and enjoyed every bit of it. I would come home late sometimes which wasn’t quite appealing to my folks. I travelled by bus then, with a guitar hung on my back making my way through the crowd. I would leave by 5 and return only by 9, sometimes really exhausted. This left me no time to do anything for school the next day and to an extent, also affected my lifestyle. All this obviously ticked off my mom a bit and I eventually had to give it up when I entered the 12th grade. I promised myself that I would resume immediately once my exams ended but that never happened as then came more entrance exams. JEE, AIEEE, CET, AIMPT, everything took a toll on me and the guitar stayed on the attic, comfortable in it’s casing. (This was the time when I had taken to photography as an alternate hobby and continued it to make up for the loss of another hobby).

My first year of engineering was what one can say “light”. Being a CBSE student and having undergone a hell load of stress and studying, the engineering internals didn’t seem that pressurizing in the first semester. How I got interested in a Carnatic classical instrument is a strange story. Rolling back to many years, like in every other Hindu brahmin family tradition, I too was made to learn singing at a young age. Singing wasn’t really my thing, I just completed the basic course for the heck of it and then quit happily. No more was I made to sing in family gatherings and in the functions at my locality.

The Veena is a fascinating instrument. One night, my mother was watching a Carnatic musical program on television and I happened to not argue and watch it with her. 2 men were sitting on the floor, playing the veena so effortlessly. It seemed so easy, but I knew it wasn’t. Firstly, they were playing continuously for more than a hour and their left hands moved from one end of the fretboard to the other, with the support resting on their laps. It was the first time I noticed that the fretboard tapered into a dragon’s head! How amusing! It was all very grand and unique. More over, Carnatic tunes never sounded more powerful to me before. I made a passing comment about how cool it would be if I could learn the Veena. My mother immediately agreed that I should! (Better learn a carnatic instrument and become a good Hindu woman instead of the late night guitar strumming hippie, yeah?)

I took my dad along to Guruji’s house, to talk about joining Veena classes. He spoke to me directly, “Why do you want to learn the Veena?”. I wasn’t expecting that at all. “I like the sound it makes and want to be able to play it myself”, I said sounding silly and regretting it later. He was a relatively young man, with the tilak running across his forehead, dressed in lungi and kurta. His mother was a renowned veena player and he was blessed with the same gift. Although he worked in the IT industry for many years, he never gave up on his passion for Veena during the time. Later, he quit his IT job completely for promoting the Carnatic music fraternity and pursuing his mother’s dreams. I liked the story and was impressed. My first class was interesting. There were rules. Rules that every student had to follow to learn from Guruji. No jeans and tops, only Indian salwar kameez or saaris. A bindi on the forehead was a must (sometimes I forgot in a hurry and had to quickly apply kumkum before beginning with the lessons). Pray to the veena for 2 minutes before keeping her on my lap. My legs pained for hours, my fingers hurt even more. The sounds thundered in the room with others when we played. The vibrations lingered in my head for many hours after the class.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I picked up the lessons faster than others due to my history with the strings. “In one year, you should be able to play a simple devarnama in our music school’s anual day”, he said. Unlike Julius, Guruji played by the rules and taught me every note and tune from the scripts and made me memorize names, numbers and progressions. I knew I was going good for a year and would play well past all the rules and other difficulties. I was suddenly pressurized into having to learn more in less time and prepare myself for the annual day. Expectations grew and playing the veena was no more an enjoyment. Every time I placed the Veena on my lap, I thought about what I had to memorize and forced myself to play. She still sounded wonderful and echoed in my room, but other thoughts overshadowed her sounds in my mind. Guruji preached Hinduism and our culture along with the music lessons. I sat there blatantly listening to his words, pretending to follow it, while in reality, I would go home and put on some Dream Theatre or Opeth on full volume to get over it. The joy of learning to play a grand musical instrument had turned into a burden of having to satisfy expectations and pass tests. Moreover, I was made to believe in things which I didn’t want to believe in. Knowing them is one thing, but forcing myself into agreeing to them is an entirely different thing. Guruji imposed a strict learning atmosphere that didn’t have space for any mistakes. Only his ideologies were correct in his class, and people had to agree upon them if they wanted to learn to play the Veena from him.

After my first year of engineering (and first year of Veena classes), I told him that I had taken up a small internship during my vacations and would help a company in social media marketing, etc. He blamed me for wasting my free time doing unnecessary things when instead, I could’ve easily learnt a lot more of music and perform in front of a large audience within months. I could practice for the whole day and improve very soon. Practice practice practice, perform perform perform! I didn’t have to guts to tell him openly that I had wanted to learn to play the Veena purely for MYSELF and didn’t really care about performing or showing others. I wanted to take it slow and actually ENJOY it. I started missing classes and over the course of time, I told him that the engineering load is getting on to me, with project work happening after class hours and internals coming up soon. I had to quit unexpectedly. I owed Guruji an explanation. I knew that he only meant good for me, but I was so scared of him.

The Veena still attracts me, and I sometimes feel I should probably get back to her again and learn by myself from scratch (the load of notes and books can easily help me get back on my own). I am not sure though, maybe listening is at one place and learning to play is in another place altogether. As far as the guitar goes, I took her out of the attic yesterday. One of these days, I plan to replace her broken strings with new ones and start learning by myself again. Maybe my time with stringed instruments isn’t done yet.