Musical instrument, at the instant of creation, is but a piece of construction — an exoskeleton of wood and metal and skin. And then a flautist blows into it the breath of life or a veena vidwan sends a shiver through its taut spine, and the instrument awakens — like the stone statues brought to existence in the myths of the Greeks, it’s now ready to speak the language of humans, ready to laugh and cry, seduce and cajole, plead and burst into incandescent rage, all at the pliant urging of the artist. Inevitably, then, artist and instrument are inexorably intertwined. No two artists sound the same even when wielding the same instrument — and this is perhaps what Leela Samson alludes to when she paints a picture of Sambasiva Iyer through his veena, which now resides at Kalakshetra.
“It’s huge, much larger than any veena you see today. It just shows that the man was big, his music was big.” M D Ramanathan’s tanpura, similarly, is housed at the venerable institution, and it isn’t surprising when Leela pronoun­ces, “There’s no other tanpura like it on our shelves, and we have 40 tanpuras.” It has to do, she explains, with the memory of him singing. “When you strum those strings, you can hear his voice.” The romantic inference, therefore, is that after years of association, the artist bequeaths to his instrument a bit of his soul. And now, a bit of M S Subbulakshmi’s soul is coming to rest at Kalakshetra. “We were thrilled when, some six months back, the family asked if we would like to have the piano that belonged to her, a very beautiful instrument, a baby grand.”
The initial picture in the mulish mind is one of dissonance — it somehow does not compute that one of the greatest (not to mention busiest and most peripatetic) exponents of the classical music of Southern India would have spent long, luxuriant evenings tickling the ivories over reams of staff notation — but Leela is quick to point out that the piano, at one time, was very much a part of a certain subculture in the subcontinent. It was a fixture in the early films, and it was “very much a part of the scenario in any sophisticated or cultured home. But it’s interesting that MS mami had one and that it was so well maintained right through her life.” It’s only now that it needed repair. “I don’t think the strings were ever changed.”
Leela talked to a few people, all of whom “said the obvious things. They advised me to retain just the shell and put a Japanese set inside. I know what the Japanese sets sound like. I know how expensive they are.” Instinct told Leela that this was “wrong, absolutely wrong. The wires are from the nineteenth century. They’re so beautiful — touch them and you feel a thrill because their resonance is so completely different from these tinny things that you now hear.” And so she enlisted the efforts of Anil Srinivasan, “in the key role of advisor,” and after the pianist overcame his early bouts of (understandably uncontrolled) excitement, he suggested that they write to the original makers for parts. No bills have been presented, but Leela doesn’t appear unduly concerned. She’s just delighted to be enabling the continuum of a cherished history.
“I think the piano even requires a room of its own, where people can come and look at it, come and play it. I’d like people like Anil to come use it and sit around and talk to us about it.” Anil, of course, is going to do more — on July 24, he will become the first person to play the restored piano in front of an audience, in a concert (at Kalakshetra, titled Ebony and Ivory) with vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, accompanied by B S Puru­shottam on the kanjira. The performance will be in what has come to be known as the “Madhirakshi format,” after the name of the first album to feature the distinctive style created by Anil and Gurucharan, where traditional compositions are freed from rhythmic rigour and set loose on voyages of introspective exploration, so as to seem not so much songs as silent suspirations of a restless spirit.
A future occasion could command a second similar performance — for there exists, at Kalakshetra, a second piano of august lineage, one that belonged to Rukmini Devi Arundale. “It was lying in a kind of godown, neglected and forgotten here in Kalakshetra,” says Leela. “It’s a beautiful standup piano, perhaps not
as valuable as the baby grand, but when you open the cover, there are inscriptions of all the friends of Rukmini Devi, who, along with her husband, brought it over in the early 1900s.
“MS mami’s is the guest piano, so we’re giving it first preference. But I hope to have another occasion where Rukmini Devi’s piano will be unveiled for the public. I hope Anil will oblige us. And I hope that the concert could be a dialogue between these two ladies who greatly admired each other.” The possibilities for an evening of high theatre don’t escape Leela. “You could almost make it a drama,” she says.