Oh, how I miss you!
- Ananda Shankar Jayant
October 22, 2016
My mother Subhashini Shankar bequeathed to us three sisters, great wealth – of searing honesty, a commitment to fight for justice, positive attitude, and a bouquet of charming stories, sayings and anecdotes for every occasion and event! Born into a large family, she grew up in Chennai learning music and later violin from TN Krishnan, and also Sanskrit. With marriage bringing her to Secunderabad, she adapted to Telugu, and Urdu, even as she nearly bought – heaven forbid! - prawns from the roadside vendor, thinking it sounded like Vendakkai (Okhra) in Tamil! Blasphemy or what to a vegetarianTam Brahm!
Contrary to popular choice and wishes for a male heir, during pregnancy, she prayed for a daughter, who she would train to be an artiste – maybe to fulfil her own dreams. And so, her first child was introduced to dance at the age of 4. Yes, that was me - as she found my first Guru Sharada Keshava Rao, at the Subrahmanyaswami temple. A gold medal at a national competition, followed by a summer holiday in hot Chennai, a visit to Kalakshetra, a blessing from the great Rukmini Devi Arundale herself, saw a teary eyed 11 year old daughter bid farewell at the hostel gates of Kalakshetra to an equally teary eyed mother, as I was enrolled as a full time dance student.
My mother would then begin the countdown of three months, to take trains and buses to come and fetch me for my holidays. She did this every 3 months for 6 years. When the hostel warden complained about - her pre-teen daughter’s – my voracious reading habit and nonstop giggles, she picked up cudgels for me and replied to fierce Paddu teacher, “I am thrilled that my daughter loves to read, and even more happy that she can laugh – the essence of life, that will make her a better human being.” If I was right, I had my fiercest defendant in my mother! And woe betide me if I was in the wrong!
When I returned to Hyderabad, after a 6 year training, my mother continued to nurture me artistically, egging me to practice, spurring me to compose and create new works, and encouraging me to teach – I started teaching at the age of 17! She composed the Sanskrit and musical pieces that connected the Thyagaraja kritis in my acclaimed ekaharya Thyagaraja Ramayanam still sounding as fresh as when it was composed in 1986.
All my early dance productions had the stamp of her costume visualisations – If in Buddham Saranam Gachchami (1995) had crushed cotton skirts, and pearl jewellery to replicate a different geography and time, then What About me (1999) had my mother create long cotton tunics worn over black leggings, and turbans, to depict the Pandavas, Duryodhana, Dushasana and Sakuni, simplifying the look completely. And for Jonathan Livingston Seagull, my mother visualised a no ghungroo, no jewellery, no bindi look, with netted skirts over leotards (then sourced from Mumbai), to help the dance simulation of a bird in flight. And yes, that was in 1992! Yes she was way ahead of her time. She sure did challenged me to think out of the box constantly, and strike my own path. Her inputs were invaluable – sourcing meaning, context and subtext of the lyrics, music composition, visual aesthetics, guiding the orchestra and tailors, visualising and creating the hairstyles, ensuring rehearsals and practice. I could go on... and oh the many notebooks with immaculate notation!
To Amma I owe the complete credit to my growth as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. She opened my eyes to many a nuance, broadened my artistic horizons, and to learn to take on artistic challenges, and even risks, to be a brutal editor of my choreographies, and much more, as she helped me burnish my talent and training into artistry. And she endeared herself to every artist she came across. All my dancer and musician friends, even my perceived competitors, and the many akkas and annas, simply loved her childlike warmth and her great sense of humour.
Fiercely independent she raised us singlehandedly after my father passed on in 1983, teaching us to live life with passion, grace, optimism, and an intense commitment to truth and compassion. Her legion of students from Keyes High School where she taught music, continue to remember her zest for life, youthfulness of spirit, and intuitive capacity to connect with people across all ages and walks of life. Each student of hers has personal anecdotes of how my mother helped them during a stressful time, or taught them life’s many lessons, or quietly slipped in a homemade sweet to boost a sagging morale. She was each and everyone’s beloved Music Teacher, the quintessential Guru, allowing her many students to find their paths, teaching with subtle humour, life’s many truths and colours even as they ostensibly learnt music. She became Amma to nearly every person she met – program organisers, orchestra members, tour guides etc, as she accompanied me to almost all my dance programs.
Nothing could daunt or deter or faze her. In 1997 on an ICCR tour to Vietnam, a severe asthma attack hospitalised her. But by sheer will power, she surprised us at the theatre in Ho Chi Minh the next evening, coming in straight from Intensive Care, ready to sit on the sound and lights, even as we were worrying how we could get someone to do it! And she received the loudest ovation that evening from the largely Vietnamese audience, bowing to her indomitable will. Asthma, heart attack, and through it all she would say “I am alright,” long before Aamir Khan said “All izz well!” An extraordinary and amazing value system that continues to see us all through the vagaries and challenges of life.
Just as she lived with zing and zest, full of vitality, creativity, inner strength and an inordinate spiritual light and energy, my mother shed her mortal coils on a Vaikunta Ekadasi day 15 years ago on January 6, 2001 - in a flash. Great exit, but there is not a day that goes by without wishing she could have stayed a little longer. More than 6 months after her passing on, I remember many of my dancer friends would say, “How is your mother doing,” not able to imagine me without the presence of my mother.
15 years is a long time and yet even today, my eyes yearn to see the look of approbation and pride clouded in the cryptic word of “Good” she would utter after a performance; my ears want your feedback, my family and students want to hear your many stories and riddles and jokes, and your many life lessons that continue to throw light on our paths. If my sisters and I have come this far in our journey, it is your values and vision. Oh! How I miss you amma!
Ananda Shankar Jayant is a serving bureaucrat and a classical dancer, choreographer, scholar, leadership speaker, writer and a Padma awardee, and would do anything to be in the physical embrace of her late mother Subhashini Shankar.
That was a perfect Ode to Amma, Ananda Akka.
I always wonder how our parents had such foresight and raised us accordingly. It was quite gutsy for our parents to send their first born, a mere 11 year old, off to Kalakshetra, a good 700 kms by train from Hyderabad. Akka wrote about Amma from her perspective. Here is mine.
I guess they knew that I would live far away from them in US and hence taught me Home Economics early on. I remember my parents asking me to count the money and pay the milkman, newspaper bills etc., or Amma taking me to the grocery store to purchase rice, wheat and pulses and the Market to pick and choose the best vegetables and fruits. She taught me to keep a watch on the weighing scales, making sure that no one cheats us. Another important lesson I learnt from Amma is how to stretch the Rupee to last through the month.
Her Erissery and Molagootal on Sunday mornings, roasting coffee seeds (a perfect blend of Peaberry and Plantation seeds), vegetable pulav, the various festival dishes, and also the grandparent(s) death anniversary food, Amma made sure I knew it all well. But nothing can beat her vathakuzhumbu and Thayir sadam, that she lovingly served us, telling the most dramatized and hilarious stories until we cleaned up the food and licked our fingers dry.
All questions asked were always answered with analogy, something I have learnt well from her. Amma was a voracious reader, I would wait for Amma to read us the stories from Ananda Vikadan, Kumudum etc., As an elementary school child, I looked forward to listening to her reading of ‘5 paisa ammu’. Some of her stories are well known to my students here as I re-tell her stories with my own thadaka.
She always paid attention to detail. Excited to have performed alongside my akka for the first time, I was not ready to practice the next day. Amma asked me to practice Tisra alarippu and then I could do my thing. One hour later, I still had many mistakes to correct and had not received a GOOD from Amma, but just a smile and admonition, “You could have done this the first time, now go and finish your homework.” This story is told every time to all my students who refuse to perform Tisra Alarippu.
It is heartening to hear from students of Amma, who talk warmly about her and reach out to me through social media.
- Suganda Iyer (Oct 26, 2016)
(Suganda is the second daughter of Subhashini Shankar and lives in US where she runs her Bharatanatyam school in California.)
It's a lovely account on aunty. She was a mother to all your friends and their children too. There was always a child in her that always showed in her zest for learning new things. Yes she was way ahead of her times. You are indeed blessed to have such a mother. My sincere tributes to aunty.
- K. Padmavathi (Jan 6, 2017)
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