Fiction: Sangeet, the eternal melody

Shobha Nandavar
Shobha Nandavar


She sat in the small make-shift swing under the moon-lit sky, no end in sight to the maladies plaguing her family. Life was not fair at all to Vishala at the age of thirty three. She was a nurse by profession, presently a home maker to take care of Sangeet, her only child with Down’s syndrome.

A year ago she met the paediatrician for Sangeet’s developmental delay. Her worst fears had come true, when Sangeet was diagnosed to have Down’s syndrome. Her world fell apart when the doctor told her that he had congenital heart disease too which is associated with Down’s in some patients.
She burst into tears and plunged into an abyss of deep despair. She recklessly offered her resignation the next day and resolved to devote her lifetime to Sangeet. With lots of effort, medications and physiotherapy, Sangeet just started walking.

And lo! a second tragedy befell them. Her husband Ankit suffered a stroke one month back; he lost his ability to speak, walk and use his right arm. He was dependent on Vishala for all his needs. He was sent on indefinite leave from his workplace.

The cold wind and the rustling leaves nudged her from her muse. Vishala hurried into the kitchen to wrap up for the day. After all, tomorrow was a special day for her. To eke out a living, she had decided to start music classes.

The household chores and tending to the family had exhausted her. Nevertheless, she was full of anticipation, awaiting a young troupe eager to learn Carnatic music. She was humming Hamsa Dhwani 1, her favourite Raaga (musical scale in Carnatic music) and she felt light like a swan floating in the azure waters.

Vishala made the children sit on the mat in a semi circle. After invoking Purandara Dasa, the father of Carnatic music, she tuned her Veena (a popular stringed musical instrument). She decided to give a strong foundation to the children all of ten years. She taught them ‘Sa’ the first and ‘Pa’ the perfect fifth notes – the only notes with a fixed pitch in Carnatic music. She goaded every child to practise the notes to perfection. 

Days rolled on and the students graduated to the stage of Geetams (simple music forms). The Geetams were chosen based on the timing of the day; some Raagas were best sung in the mornings and some in the evenings.

One morning, she was teaching them Mohana Raaga and its importance, how it was widely used in various Southeast Asian countries like Japan, Myanmar and China. She was explaining to them that even the national anthem of Thailand was in Mohana Raaga. After the children were conversant with the ‘Vara Veena’ Geetam2 taught to the beginners, she was teaching them ‘Ranga Nayaka Rajeeva Lochana’ 3, another composition of Mohana Raaga. Vishala’s mellifluous voice brought out a beautiful visual imagery of Lord Krishna being woken up to the sound of chirping birds. Asking the students to practise, Vishala retreated to her room for some odd jobs.

On returning it was a sight to behold. The toddler Sangeet was squatting near a student, trying to correct her Geetam. Vishala could not believe her eyes or ears – little Sangeet was right in rectifying. The student was singing the Avarohanam (descending sequence) in Shuddha Daivata, whereas she was supposed to sing in Chatushruti Daivata; it was a subtle, single pitch difference which could be appreciated only by a trained musician. Sangeet was a born musician, true to his name; a child prodigy, she was unaware of until then. Suddenly a million lamps shone, driving away the darkness from her life!

Early next morning she woke up Sangeet and took him to a nearby temple, where she had called the students too. Lord Vishnu looked resplendent in the golden robes. The ancient place which was built out of a single rock was reverberating with the Sahasranamas (thousand names of God) chanted. In addition to the mythology of the region, she taught the students the scientific basis of prostrating at the Dhwaja Sthamba (flag post) which was made of brass, where the pure vibrations of the chants reflected from the rocks in the temple were channelized to, through the gopurams (towers). She also apprised them of the positive changes that take place in the chemical milieu of human body with the sound of music.
From that day onwards Sangeet became her seventh student; the last of the Sapta Swarams (seven notes of Carnatic music); an exquisite god-given gift. Vishala was amazed time and again at the speed at which a three year old could pick up music. When the rest of the troupe was getting trained in Jathiswaras (minor musical compositions), Sangeet had graduated to complex Alankaras (detailed musical compositions). The practice of Alankaras improved his motor skills also as it needed taalas (rhythmical timed tapping of the hands) synchronising with the Swarasthanas. Sangeet could easily double-up as a teacher when needed and the students were more than happy to learn from the little maestro!

Days trudged. Ankit was neither able to speak nor comprehend speech clearly. He had to rely on Vishala for every little activity. His sleep was disturbed. He lay in bed most of the day, his gaze fixed to the ceiling. His only child suffering from heart disease and Down’s was a setback, but he had taken it in his stride. His typical middle class dream of owning a house, providing for the family and keeping them safe and secure had crumbled to pieces. The stroke was the final nail in the coffin.  It was agonizing for him to see Vishala struggle to make ends meet.

In the dead of night, he mustered up courage to tell Vishala that there were a couple of futile attempts by him to commit suicide and that he did not wish to live anymore. Being a medical professional, she was aware that patients of stroke could be depressed, but never in her wildest dreams did she think  Ankit was in that frame of mind! Vishala was aghast. Nonetheless she regained her composure and counselled him, narrating success stories of stroke patients. After he was fast asleep, she silently sobbed into the pillow. The physical, mental and financial stress had taken their toll on her; this was the last straw. Through the night she tried to analyse the situation all over again which kept her wide awake.
The rich aroma of the filter coffee brought in by Vishala elevated Ankit’s mood. He was guilty of hurting her the previous night, but was also relieved after venting out the pent-up feelings. Vishala however had some other plans for him. She decided to bank upon music, her lifeline, to pull him out of the dungeons of depression.

Thodi raaga which was best sung in the mornings was also known to elevate the mood. She decided to sing the ‘ Thodi Raaga Paadava’4 of Yesu Das from the movie ‘Maanagara Kaaval’, which incidentally happened to be the first movie they had watched together. She made him use his right hand for the ‘Aadi Taala’, one of the common rhythms used in Carnatic music.

The heady fragrance of the kedage flowers (fragrant screw pine) emanating from the lawn, the cool morning breeze, the soothing Thodi Raaga and the soft hand of his sweetheart helping him with the  Aadi Taala seemed to transport him into another world. Instantaneously his speech got better and he was able to sing, with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Tears rolled down Vishala’s cheeks, she was thankful to God, she was looking forward to this day, when her husband would be able to bring out at least a few words. She was in the seventh heaven of raptures.

Vishala barely had time to take care of herself. Her back ached and the limbs felt weak well before she hit the sack, but she was oblivious of this. She recollected the day Ankit had a stroke; she knew about the special injection given to stroke patients, and also that it was costly. There was hardly any cash at home. She rushed to a pawnbroker and pledged her jewels and anklets and managed to arrange a reasonable amount for his treatment. The only bus from her village to take them to the town hospital was late and they could reach the hospital only by nightfall. Ankit was out of the time window for the injection; all her efforts had gone down the drain.

She wanted to leave no stone unturned to help Ankit recover this time. She decided to buy a Veena which she hoped to help her fulfil her goal of rehabilitating her husband and son.

In a week’s time Vasant Panchami arrived, which was considered an auspicious day to start learning any new art or music. She helped Ankit sit on the mat with the Veena in his hands. She apprised him of the basics of Veena. His left hand was working fine on the frets, but his right hand was clumsy and he found it difficult to pull the strings. Sangeet put his tiny hands on his father’s and helped him with the strings, and the notes that unfolded were quintessential. A toddler with no formal training in instrumental music was striking a perfect chord literally! Ankit’s musical journey with the Veena commenced, it was tough, but Vishala was beside him, solid as a rock.

The positive changes in her husband’s health encouraged Vishala to work harder in rehabilitating him. She walked to the library in her village daily and peered over books trying to understand the functioning of brain. Here she was at the crossroads of music and neurosciences. She entered into an inexplicably beautiful realm of music and the mind.

She got an insight into the functional network of the brain and realised that she could harness her knowledge of music and brain for healing her husband. She had to concentrate more on the left side of the brain which had sustained a stroke. Rhythm(Taala) and pitch of the music helped the left hemiphere selectively, although diffuse activation of the various networks of the brain was expected by  diligent practice of music. Also the parasympathetic nervous system which controlled all the major bodily functions would be normalised by the Taalas.
There were 175 Taalas in Carnatic music. She planned to teach him the common Taalas. She trained him in the Rupaka Taala, which involved one dhrutham (beat and wave) and one laghu( beat and fingercounts). Laghu improved the fine finger movements while dhrutham improved the wrist movements, while also restoring the innumerable lost rhythms of the brain.

It was a simple task for normal people, but for Ankit it was laborious, strenuous especially the laghu component which made him sweat profusely. It took him a week to be proficient in Roopaka Taala. His hands pained, but he noted many positive developments – his sensations and dexterity had improved, the swelling had come down. He found a glimmer of hope, he was convinced that he was heading in the right direction, although the journey looked arduous.

Bilahari raaga was known to reduce anxiety and Vishala sang the ‘Chamundeshwari’5 song for Ankit daily. ‘Madahava Mamava’6 of Neelambari raga had sleep inducing quality which helped him with a restful sleep. She effectively utilised music for improving episodic memory and emotional well-being.
 Gradually Ankit was taught the Jhampa taala, one of the rarer taalas where the use of the thumb was necessary. Vishala was now well acquainted with the fact that in Penfield’s homunculus there was a disproportionately large representation of the hands and thumb, and she was convinced that practising taalas of this nature would help him overcome the stumbling block of hand dexterity, a very nagging problem in stroke survivors. At the end of eight months Ankit scaled new heights in rehabilitation and in the true sense of the word - was transformed. His speech had got much better; he was able to do all his activities independently. The father- son duo had a unique penchant for music and was immersed in it throughout the day.

Then came autumn which brought with it the Navaratri festival. It was celebrated over nine nights and the entire village participated. There were musical nites, gharba dance, bonfire and a lot of the like. Vishala had planned a concert where she did the recital; Ankit handled the Veena and Sangeet, the Taalas.

The stage was aesthetically decorated and a clay idol of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music and art was placed on the pedestal. The trio sat down on the carpeted stage. Vishala was dressed in an off-white sari and a gold coloured blouse. The whorls of sweet-scented jasmine in her hair added to her simple but elegant look. The concert commenced with the invocation of Triratnas of Carnatic music- Shyama Shastry, Muthuswamy Dikshitir and Tyagaraja. She started with the Swaras (notes). The Swaras were so perfectly pitched that the spectators could identify ‘Sa’ with the sounds of peacock and ‘Ma’ with the sounds of cuckoo.

As in most recitals she moved from Raagam, Taanam and Pallavi to Tillanas. Tillanas were fast notes which the listeners enjoyed thoroughly. From there she graduated to Varnams and Kritis. The Gamakas (oscillations) were the icing on the cake. Each musician made his music special by addition of his own gamakas, so did Vishala, to the spellbound audience.

She had made modifications to the last part of the musicale to accommodate the requests of the young crowd which demanded film hits. She sang a song each of various ragas from the four South Indian languages. She recited the classical ‘Om Namah Shivaya’7 in Hindola raaga from the Telugu movie ‘Sagara Sangama’ which depicted the life of a classical dancer. Then she chose ‘Manikyakallal’8 of Keeravani raaga from the Malayalam movie ‘Varnapakittu’. She did a splendid rendition of a Kannada song ‘Ee Sundara Beladingalu’9 from the hit film ‘Amrutavarshini’, in Kaapi raaga. Lastly she took to ‘Kannodu Kaanbadellam’10 from the Tamil feature film ‘Jeans’ in Abheri raga, in which the Bollywood icon Aishwarya Rai was featured. The music connoisseurs couldn’t get enough of her and implored her to continue the tracks and the concert dashed past midnight.

From that day onwards she never looked back and became one of the most sought-after musicians. She did not fall to commercial tactics or publicity gimmicks and practised art and music in its sublime form.
Ten years later Vishala and Ankit were sitting in the balcony of ‘Sangeet Gurukul’, their house cum music school. Their house was a bungalow in the outskirts now, to accommodate the ever increasing number of students. There was a sprawling garden in front of their house where music classes were conducted. The Gurukul oversaw a beautiful hillock and a rivulet. The area was bordering on to the Kerehalli forest.

The students had left for the day. The Crimson sunset at the horizon was a breathtaking view. The birds were heading towards their nests. A faint silhouette of the moon was emerging across the pale blue sky. Everything in nature was appearing flawless; Vishala and Ankit looked into each other’s eyes. A searing pain lurked in their hearts.

Sound was the very basis of their existence now.

Sangeet, the epitome of music was no more...

No force on the earth could save him; he had succumbed to the heart ailment.

She believed that after death humans would return to the pancha bhootas –the five elements of creation – the air, water, earth, space and fire and Sangeet was always around them in various forms. To her, Sangeet was seen and unseen like a twinkling star in the night sky. The rhythm set by nature was perfect; for Sangeet, her eternal melody.

***

Bio: Shobha Nandavar is a Neurologist and Stroke Physician based in Bangalore. She writes during her leisure hours. She has about 40 scientific publications in medical journals. She has contributed articles to Deccan Herald, Live Wire, Indus Women Writing and The Borderless journal.

6 comments :

  1. Beautiful and moving. Thank you

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  2. Beautiful and moving

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  3. Beautiful and moving

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  4. Excellent article doctor.gave me an insight how extreme challenges like this are,how they go through.more the importantly how music helped them in their journed.Music is a therapy gets emphasised and we all should look at it apart from medicines in healing all such mental ailments specially.Very well written.Kudos

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  5. Power of mysic in healing neuro patients explained beautifully Though a fiction the narration has reality too Very well written

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  6. This fiction story may one day give an opening to medical science to research whether sound waves of various ragas, thalas,will help the stroke patients to recover quickly having it's impact on motor neurons Thanks madam nice article.worth it.

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