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For the rain to rest...: A tribute to N. Nagalakshmi
- Ramaa Bharadvaj

May 3, 2014

One year ago on May 2nd, my beautiful mother wound up her connections with this life and moved on. Today while her black and white image gazes back from inside a photo-frame, I hope her artist-spirit is trekking the land of music and dance, painting and poetry.

My mother was born an artist but her parents didn't tune in to that. She wanted to be a dancer - but dance was not in the accepted to-do list for girls. So she would pull a sheet over a pillow to fool her father that she had gone to bed, and run off to participate in her school dances. She collected music notations and dance images from magazines and meticulously bound them into books. Now they are a rare collector's collection.

She knew nothing about the grammar of music - but could bring tears to the eyes when she sang her favourite song - "mazhai iLaippaarida kuttaiyundu" (for the rain to rest there is the pond). It ended with the words "engaL aasai iLaippaara undo idam" (for our desires to rest, is there a place?). I have searched for that song and can find it nowhere. Maybe it was meant only for her to sing and only for us to hear. Her family didn't find a teacher to groom her in this talent either. It was my dance guru Kamala ("Kumari" Kamala) who appreciated her. "Aunty, if only you had learnt music methodically you would be in my orchestra touring with me. I will never let you go."

N. Nagalakshmi

The author Ramaa (in white gown) and her twin Uma (in black vest)
with their mother N. Nagalakshmi and their dog Jockey

She created spectacular drawings and water colour paintings of lyrical women and scenes of South Indian traditions. Another un-nurtured ability! She wrote poetry and stories - that too IN HINDI!! But she was not encouraged to pursue writing. Instead, they simply got her married off at age 16 into a struggling life of a middle class family. Her focus shifted. She gave us, her daughters, all that she could - the dancing, the education, the travels! With a mere middle class income how did she manage to do all that? I still don't know. For after all, as the secretary of organisation in Chennai told my dad once, "Dancing is for children of those families that can afford it - not for people like you." And yet we continued to dance thanks to the kindness of gurus like Vazhuvoor Ramaiah Pillai, Kamala (a goddess in the guise of a teacher), Dr. TN Ramachandran and the generosity of my uncle Sengalipuram Anantharama Dikshitar and his family. But mostly it was because of my mom and the fact that mere ego hurt could not deter her from giving her children the access to the best in the Arts. I consider her an unparalleled CEO - the ultimate lemonade maker when life gives you nothing but lemons!

Her handwriting would put a calligraphy artist to shame. When Dr. T.N.R taught us dance theory at age 12, and we were too playful to really be interested in it, she sat down and wrote notes meticulously, notebook after notebook all hand-stitched by her, as if measured pearls had rolled off the point of her pen and on to their pages. Today I hold them tenderly in my hands and turn the pages gently.

She was a genius when it came to cooking. She baked biscuits and cookies without an oven. She churned fresh butter for us every other day. She knew by heart Ayurvedic cures for all kinds of physical ailments. She mentally dissected the recipe of any cuisine and recreated it at home. The neighbours asked for her recipes but she simply blushed. She never knew how to explain that. So instead, she cooked for them and sent little tiffin boxes around the neighbourhood. When the Colgate University students and faculty came to Chennai from the US to work with Kamala back in the 1970s for her production, they would sneak off to my house simply to eat my mother's cooking.

She kept a meticulous house filled with chants and pujas, bhajans, celebrations and even ancestral worship and she did it all with no help from us - her daughters. We were pure brats who did not understand the work it takes to put these ritual events together. Now, one year after she is gone I slowly recall that many times, a gossamer veil of melancholy used to drift across her doe like eyes. I wonder with deep sorrow "Amma! Did you leave with the music still inside you? Was your life an unfinished symphony?"

Uma, Ramaa and Hema (seated)

As I type this wondering how to end this note....
A sudden spray of moist mist drifts through the window and tickles my cheeks. I run to open the windows fully to be drenched in it - for it has suddenly started to rain in torrents. A cool strong wind gushes in to wrap me in its embrace and play with my hair. The thunder laughs loudly, the lightning winks and there arises a rich deep nourishing aroma of the earth and water meeting after a long time.

It is as if my mom sings her favourite song...
"For the rain to rest - there is a pond
For the mind to rest - there is the thought
For the wave to rest - there is the water
And for our desires to rest - is there a place?
There is indeed, dear daughter, a place!
Here, where I am now
Beyond your world of Unreal Realities.
So, rest easy, Ramaa
I did not build an outward temple
But within me it was completed and consecrated."

I understand now, Amma! Newspapers did not write about you and photos were not clicked of you. There were no painting exhibitions, no stage appearances, no publications! But that's not what being an ARTIST is really about. You lived as an Artist - filling the everyday lives of your children and all those who came in touch with you, with your symphony of skills and with your ARTISTRY!

Thank you, Amma! I miss you.

Ramaa Bharadvaj is a storyteller - sometimes with movements and sometimes with words. After 31 years in the USA as an award-winning dancer, movement designer, educator, arts advisor & advocist, she returned to India in 2009 and currently guides the dance program at Chinmaya Naada Bindu, a Gurukul Ashram for classical dance and music in Kolwan, near Pune. She is a published writer with numerous columns and articles to her credit.

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