Rukku: My mother
- Chitra Visweswaran, Chennai
August 5, 2009
She never looked at the half-empty cup, only the half-full...gentle, soft-spoken, dignified, she was an epitome of inner strength and spirituality. The half-empty - half-full cup formula only applied to life with all its vagaries and not to any of my activities, be it dance, music, poetry, painting or writing.
My sternest critic, she was also my inspiration, my guide and my dearest friend. She gently encouraged me at what I was good at and firmly wooed me away from what would never become a strength with me. I remember the gentle smile, I remember the mischievous twinkle, I remember the uncompromising, firm gaze, I remember that look... at times pensive, at times deeply inscrutable, looking inwards... a look that I came to understand only as I grew older.
She was born the youngest in a family of eight children. Her father, TS Sankara Iyer was a leading luminary of South Indian society in pre-independence Delhi, the first Indian to become Financial Commissioner of Indian Railways, a visionary, a social reformer and a great patron of the arts. Her mother Seethalakshmi, a nine-yard clad Brahmin lady who supported her husband in all his social reforms, wrote songs, played badminton and was commented upon as being one of the most intelligent conversationalists by the then Viceroy of British occupied India.
My mother thus had a very eclectic background. All the siblings were well educated. In addition, they were taught the art forms...father, mother and the young ones learnt and practised Carnatic vocal and veena under the excellent tutelage of eminent veena vidwan KS Narayanaswamy who stayed with them in Delhi. In addition, amma used to ride and play badminton and tennis. She was a wonderful orator, a gifted playwright and actor, who went on to act in and write plays for amateur theatre, but her greatest artistic gift was, perhaps, dance.
She learnt the graceful and highly creative Uday Shankar style of dance at Delhi. The annual holiday to Madras saw her learning from none other than Chinnayya Naidu. Watching her dance, E Krishna Iyer begged my grandfather to send her down permanently to Madras to make her future in dance, but...broadminded my grandfather was, but maybe not quite that broadminded!?!
Later, Ramgopal, from whom she learnt in London, wanted her to pursue dance seriously, but by that time, my younger brother and I had already come along and in spite of having a supportive husband, she found her hands full.
It was she who first initiated me into dance. More importantly, it was she who awakened within me that love for and joy in dance. I remember those early dances... the puja dance, harvest dance, machine dance and several others. In fact, when I, much later in life, enacted the role of a robot in one of my mother's plays, the principle of movement that I used, found its inspiration in the machine dance!
She was there for me all along, all through my classical Ballet lessons in London, Manipuri, Kathak and Rabindra Nritya in Kolkata.... music-Carnatic, choral, Rabindra Sangeet and of course, Bharatanatyam (both in Kolkata and later in Chennai), which I returned to, like a homing pigeon to its nest.
She was there for me in every other activity I chose to pursue. I deliberately use the word 'chose' because I have been very blessed in my parents. Nothing was thrust upon me, not even marriage! Which, in those days, was not exactly an option.
People say I speak well. While on one side it is genetic, on the other, it is a gift that has been honed by my mother. Right from the way I held myself, made my delivery or my diction or accent, all facets took on a sheen under her eagle eye. Participation in debates, play reading and poetry recitation, under her guidance, became joyous, learning experiences.
She kept a beautiful house and not necessarily expensively so. Her eye for aesthetics and all that is artistic has gladly been inherited by me. Though she was always supportive and encouraging, she never complimented me to my face, nor, for that matter, did she ever brag to others about her daughter's accomplishments or achievements. I remember my dear friends Sudharani Raghupathi and Padma Subrahmanyam saying, "She was so impartial and fair, applying the same yardsticks of judgement to each one of us" (referring to the three of us in 'Viralimalai Kuravanji'). Well aware of my firebrand nature, she, tongue in cheek, taught my husband, whom she loved more than a son, how to handle me!
My dance gurus, TA Rajalakshmi and later Vazhuvoor Ramaiyya Pillai always insisted on her presence in my dance classes, much to the annoyance of some other parents, to which Vazhuvoorar would retort, "If you conducted yourself like Chitra's mother I would let you be present. She astutely observes the classes and helps Chitra with her homework and there is absolutely no interference whatsoever. So it is a great help to have her around." She continued to be such a great help - physically, emotionally and spiritually to me, to my husband, our students and institution, Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts.
What, in retrospect, makes this attitude and approach appear even more remarkable is the story of her post married life. Rukmani was married to N Padmanabhan, a Prince of Wales gold medallist, a brilliant engineer who still holds a record in BHU, whose achievements in electrification of Indian Railways are still spoken of with awe and deep respect. They had two children. I came first and then did my little brother Arun. We lived in London, an idyllically happy family. Fate then struck. The boy, who was normal until the age of three, suddenly had an attack of encephalitis. He slowly started losing his speech and control over body functions. No amount of intervention, medically or otherwise could reverse the situation. Mental retardation set in, even though physical normalcy returned. In and out of hospitals, in and out of abodes of faith, through childhood and adolescence, he finally, much to his parents' grief, had to be admitted into the Institute of Mental Health.
Through all this she smiled. Her tears, trauma and sorrow were well hidden from me. I was never for a moment allowed to feel that all was not well with our family. She taught me to take my brother's condition in my stride, to love him, to cherish him, for the pure 'atma' that he is... to be positive in the face of all adversities, to uphold dignity, to love selflessly.
I later realised why my mother had channelised dance into becoming something much more than a mere career or money spinning proposition for me. "Dance not for name or fame," she used to say. "Dance is foremost and finally, a prayer." A prayer that has given me the strength to face all the ups and downs of life, a prayer that has taken me to Mathaji Vithamma, the spiritual anchor and the ultimate be-all and end-all of my life. And it was my mother who prepared this humble 'paatra' to receive that Divine Grace that has put me on the path that takes one towards making a communion of that prayer.
Neither my mother nor my father lived to see my brother returning home to live with my husband and myself. But that it is their dearest wish come true cannot be refuted. The least that I can do for amma is to look after her son for her.
Chitra Visweswaran is the Director of Chidambaram Academy of Performing Arts in Chennai.
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