Thursday, January 13, 2011

Of Shruthi Boxes and Sunk Cost fallacies

It looks like my mother has donated my "Shruthi box" to the Hanumar Koil Bajanai. This just brought back so many memories. For those who don't know what a Shruti Box is, don't fear - I didn't either for a long time. According to Wikipedia, this "box" provides a "drone" when someone is singing, so that the singer doesn't accidentally lose her pitch. This box is very close to my heart because it symbolizes eleven years of  trying to rebel and the incidental yelling and slamming of doors.  

In the ripe age of four, I was inducted in to the world of music by this old man near our rice-mill, which made us refer to him with a sobriquet of "Rice-mill guy". Three days after the first class, he sent for my mother and told her with that it was impossible to invoke a sense of tone and pitch in my. My mother was deeply offended. She should have known better, as our genetic predisposition makes us sleep in the first rows of musical recitals.

She decided that small issues like being musically numb could be solved by someone who was a better teacher. She found a woman who was very rich and taught music in the evenings because she was bored at home. My mother bribed me with a colouring book version of Thumbelina and dragged me to the said teacher's house. We hit off from the first day and my mother was convinced that she has gotten the best teacher around, impressed by the rows of trophies displayed at the teacher's house. What is life without trophies, eh? From then on, I had to finish school at three everyday, cross the road and go to this music teacher's huge house. Her family had been one of the richest in Madurai, in the days of yore and the sprawling house was replete with hidden corners and crannies like the one in "Five go to Finniston farm".

However, the most important aspect of appeal was that my teacher was an excellent cook. She would prepare the evening snack just by the time I reached her house for my music lessons. She would craft mouth watering delicacies like Malai Koftha and other fancy North Indian stuff that no hotel in Madurai served in that time. I immediately started raving about her brilliant voice and musical pedagogy and told my mother that I might even win that prestigious music competition thingy if only we hung on to this new teacher's amazing methods . I spent the next three-four years in her kitchen during the evenings coaxing her to cook and teach me while she cooked. I sang "Ra Ra Venugopala" inhaling the cloves and spices and rhapsodizing about good food. I still can't hear Ra Ra Venugopala without invoking a Pavlovian response.

Four years later, my musical talents were still "latent" according to my mother and "non-existent" according to the hordes of relatives who were forced to hear song after song when they visited us. It was a good idea because the number of visitors drastically dwindled after I started classes with the great chef. My mother also found me complaining more and more about the food she made at home and she could never figure out the reason.

She decided that I would fare better if I were to change schools as and start representing school in music competitions. This is how I ended up in TVS. This is how I stumbled into quizzing, where there were lesser girls who sang Aarahonam of Shankabaranam without batting an eyelid. My mother gave up on the school music and started entering me in her intradepartmental, under 12 music competitions.

My mother was a very optimistic person. Every time I was asked to study, I would offer to practice my singing and the mere fact that I was offering to sing would just please my mother so much.She would sit before me with rapt attention after serving hot water first, to clear my throat and would keep a flask nearby incase I wanted it in the due course of my recital.

 In 1997-98, days Shruthi Boxes were like like the Louis Vittons of modern day women and all the cool kids (namely the ones that my mother looked at with unabashed envy) seemed to carry one. It was a minimum qualification for someone to be taken seriously in the musical arena and my very optimistic mother invested a significant amount of money and bought me one. She thought that it would do some good to my "image" as a singer than having a discoverable function of its own. However, no one in our household knew what to do with it when we got the box. It was such a mysterious device and it whined like a Moaning Myrtle when the dial was turned from one end to another.

Much to my mother's disappointment, the music box had no effect on me whatsoever. I always carried a well fed look  and a nostalgic smile whenever I was asked to sing.This continued for a year and then, my mother decided I needed a shift of teachers who would "shape" me up better. I was then put into the able hands of one Mrs. Jayalakshmi whose husband was a violinist and a musical history like that filled my mother with hopes.

To my disappointment, I wasn't offered succulent treats anymore and the teacher was rather too intent on teaching me the finer aspects of Kalyani and Mohanam. I saw that she meant business and that there were no more inputs from her for my very bright culinary career. I started protesting to my mother about music classes and how she was wasting my time and the teacher's. This triggered off a huge war in my house which continued for the next five years.

My Shruthi box and I were then shifted to another famous teacher in my part of Madurai. She was a strict disciplinarian and was known to deal cases like mine with an iron hand. Needless to say, I loathed those three hours every week and spent all my time concentrating on the clock before me willing it to move faster. We choked and stuttered thorough Paapanasam Shivan, Thaigaraja and Muthuswamy Deekshithar's Keerthanas. She would make me sing the demned Aarohanam/Avarohanam thing for an entire hour (I had been referring to the later as 'Arakkonam' earlier). She was the lady about whom you read only in novels; The ones who would never succumb under obstacles such as the girl who sat before her like a rock. In retrospect, she would have made it great in corporate what with that indomitable will, but in those times, I would fume like a short circuited Shruthi box.

After we ploughed through a single Ada Thaala Varnam for 6 months, my mother had given up on the vision of me going to a classy musical recitals . She came to this teacher and asked her to quit teaching me arcane Varnams and basics and get me started on songs that I would be able to sing in Navratri/Golu places and marriages. It was then we started more on the lines of Nalungu/Oonjal songs to be sung in the weddings.

Thankfully, when I reached my tenth standard, I told my mother that I would want to "Put total concentration in studies". We stopped the madness that had started 11 years before, wasting enormous time, money and energy and it stood like an unfinished government fertilizer factory. I spent my days at home blissfully reading Gone with the wind and P.G Wodehouse henceforth.

Till date, my (dis)ability to sing is a closely guarded secret, and one can find me in the dining halls during the times of Nalungu/Oonjal. Younger women with mellifluous voices have taken my place as the official Oonjal singer. The only time I sang after that was in this competition in one of the nearby colleges. It had a series of rounds, one of which was "talent" round, where I couldn't find anything worthwhile to put on the table. I sang (for 15 thousand rupees, I would have done a somersault if required). My friend, who is rarely shaken by anything and whose mother is one of the famous music teachers in Chennai was scandalized at my notions of Carnatic music.

Yesterday, my mother did an elaborate calculation to find how much profitable it would have been had she invested the 1000 Rs she spent on my Shruthi box, on Infosys shares. She was surprisingly flabbergasted that I have no notions of raga and is as numb as her to music. I explained her about sunk cost fallacy.

The hot news is that the next generation of my maternal family (my cousins) have started on music classes and the kid goes around yelling "Baarukkulle Nalla Naadu" over and over. I sincerely hope this musical pursuit, that has started with the bar, would raise up a bar and does not end in one.


RamNarayanS said...

:-D ROTFL. You are getting to be a master story teller. :-)

Unfinished government fertilizer factory!!! :-) I like that simile.

Did you get the 15 thousand rupees? I am reminded of the Goundamani polambal in Chinna Thambi, when you said you'll do a somersault. :-)

Who is going to sing at your Nalangu/Oonjal? The 'Bar' cousins? That would be 'bar''bar'ic. :-D :-D

I AM~~ ME said...

An awesome post! loved the analogies, that's so typical of u :)

Uttara Ananthakrishnan said...

@Ram - Heh Heh , Goundamani Polambal is one of the iconic comedies! :)

@Sindu -Thanks! :)

Jyothi said...

OMG! Stumbled upon your blog just now, and this post had me in splits! Seriously! And also unplugged some not-so-nice memories of my own, which are uncannily similiar to yours! Except that my mom cottoned on to the fact that i couldn't sing to save my life after the first few classes and enrolled me for violin classes instead. Six years of it, and i finally had to use "full concentration in studies, amma!" line to get out of it..! :)

Love the way you write...You've got yourself an ardent follower, mate! :)

Uttara Ananthakrishnan said...

Glad you enjoy it! :)