CHENNAI: On a cloudy Friday noon violinist TK Padmanabhan and vocalist NS Gokulakrishnan meet at vainika Hemalatha Mani’s house in Thiruvanmiyur to practice for their performance at the 15th edition of Rotary Parallel Music Fest, which will be held today at Music Academy’s mini hall. The room echoed with peals of laughter as the three visually impaired artistes spoke to CE about their music lessons, initial performances and why they think visual impairment is not a disability but an opportunity from God to prove themselves.
With keen focus, he adjusts the tuning pegs while sliding the bow over the strings of his violin. It is the moment when veteran violinist TK Padmanabhan becomes one with his music. Born without vision in Thiruvaiyaru of Thanjavur district, the artiste never lost sight of his musical dreams and joined Kalakshetra at the age of 10. Spanning a career of over six decades, this septuagenarian is among the few musicians who had the privilege of composing several dance-dramas and accompanied well-known musicians at concerts including Maharajapuram Viswanathan Iyer, Bombay sisters, and more.
“Right from stepping on to the stage in a sabha to setting up the instrument, our attention never gets distracted. The minute we start our performance, our concentration is directed to the artiste. We sync well with their wavelength. Our duty is to not excel the main artiste in performance. But, that does not reduce our importance at a concert,” says Padmanabhan clad in a white dhoti and a checkered shirt.
Having studied music under T Venkataraman Iyer, Padmanabhan is known for his impeccable coordination. “I’d spend hours with my violin figuring out the string notes in solitude. My guru used to patiently take my fingers through the strings. I had to tactfully remember. Unlike other instruments, you can play violin once you grasp the notes and master the hand movements. Of course, I had to exert myself a bit more compared to other students to cope up with the lessons,” he said.
As a gesture of gratitude to his guru and his way of giving back to music, Padmanabhan teaches violin, sometimes even on Skype. “Nothing can replace a gurukulam. Conducting classes over Skype is challenging especially for instrumentalists. I only take in students with a certain level of experience,” shares the musician who has been an accompanist for 57 years.
Padmanabhan has gone on many international trips for concerts, independently. He remembers a new place by keeping the number of steps in mind. “I don’t see it as a disability. However, there are numerous options and advancements for youngsters these days. Our parents had no exposure but they still brought us up with so much love and care. Parents these days must also embrace the flaws of their children and see how they can be helped. Our world is more beautiful than yours. I don’t want my eyesight back...I’ve imagined things a certain way and I don’t want to get disappointed,” he says.
Record, listen, register
Dressed in a blue formal shirt and black trousers, vocalist NS Gokulakrishnan cautiously places his foot forward, counting every step, and greets us with a cheerful smile. “I study while listening to music...it helps me observe things better. I’m pursuing music and Charted Accountancy. However, many apps have come to ease the process of learning and accessibility too,” says Gokul, a student of Karna Vidya Foundation, which trains people with visual impairment and finds jobs for them.
A sharp ear for music, it was not difficult for his parents to recognise his inclination towards music when he was a child. Under the tutelage of Kadayanallur Venkataraman, grandson of nadaswaram player Namgiripettai Krishnan, Gokul learned nadaswaram initially, but couldn’t continue because of breathing difficulty. So his parents enrolled him into a singing class. “I used to listen to my guru sing, record, and practice at home. That’s how I’d register the notes in my mind. I practice music for three hours every day. Voice apps help me navigate through different websites. I listen to the performance of different artistes on YouTube repeatedly. Vision alone does not prepare you for the field; listening too makes a difference,” says Gokul, who will be performing this Margazhi at Meenakshi Sundararajan Fine Arts Academy.
Gokul considers himself lucky to be born in a supportive and nurturing environment. He feels that the attitude of people towards the visually impaired is changing from being sympathetic to being inspired. “My peers are understanding. There’s inclusivity everywhere. I don’t see my disability as a negative trait. We’re born creative. All we need is encouragement to channel our energy in the right direction,” he shares.
Vision on veena
“I was born with vision only in one eye. It was my father K Narayanaswami who insisted I learn to play the veena. We even moved to Chennai from Thanjavur in 1968 to take advanced classes under maestro Chitti Babu. He accepted me as a disciple after seeing my hard work and dedication. I was admired for my clarity in notes, tonal quality and speed despite my eye problems,” says 69-year-old Hemalatha Mani.
A student of BA Economics from Ethiraj College for Women, who graduated in 1973, Mani says, “I used to perform in cultural programmes and college assemblies every Friday — that’s how I became famous among students. As I started performing in Margazhi, I gained more exposure My first and memorable performance was in Parthasarathy Sabha in 1972. My guru used to get reviews from the sabhas immediately after my concert. I also got the privilege of playing for one of his recordings,” reminisces Mani.
The vainika’s eyesight deteriorated over the years but that did not deter her from playing the instrument. She performed at concerts, during Navaratri in temples, and festivals. Her daughters, Madhumitha and Charulatha, are playback singers and Carnatic vocalists. “I used to keep the veena on one lap and play, and my girls used to lie down on the other. It was a lullaby to them. They never considered my visual impairment a disability. They take me to all their programmes, and ask for suggestions and improvisations. I feel blessed to have a supportive husband, daughters and a caring mother. I owe all my success to them,” said Hema.
The artiste keeps herself occupied by listening to audiobooks on veena technicalities. She also listens to veena performances on social media and practices the instrument during her leisure time. “I’ve been inquisitive since childhood. My two brothers and I used to conduct quiz programmes on All India Radio. I also had the opportunity to interview my teacher Chitti Babu. People like us, learn everything by listening. There was nothing like inclusivity or awareness those days; we took things sportively and strived hard to succeed. We need more people with disabilities who are selected based on talent, to perform. When I was young, my brothers used to accompany me everywhere I went for performance and mother used to sing to me in her free time. It’s disheartening to see kids with disabilities being abandoned. If we’ve proved ourselves, so can they,” says Hema.
The life of Padmanabhan, Gokul and Mani reminds us that vision is what one sets in the heart trumping every road block on the way to fulfilment and success.