Author: Thi. Janakiraman
Tamil title: Seidhi (செய்தி)
Translated by : Maya
Translator’s note: The Message(Seidhi), is among the lesser known short stories of Thi Janakiraman, more popularly known as Thi Ja. One of the foremost Romantic imaginations of Tamil Literature, Thi Ja, in fact could justifiably lay claim to being the finest author of its modern expression. With its seeking for harmony between disparate and often opposite elements, the value placed upon the transformative moment of transcendence, the constant, troubled engagement with modernity and the West, and above all, the heightened and at times lyrical descriptions of musical experience, Seidhi is quintessentially a Thi Ja story.
“What is this?”
Pillai’s face was flush with fury and revulsion. He raised his arm, gesturing his son to stop.
The Nagaswaram ceased to play.
“This is such a nuisance at early hours. You used to practice at night, so I let you do what you wanted to, but now you are at it in the morning too. Why, what is all this? Now is the time to sing Bilahari and Kedaram that will rack the booming flowers all over the sky, but all you have is this lament. Are you mad?”
His son sat there silently, moving his hands over the Nagaswaram.
“Were you taught music, only to wail and lament? No one is dead here, light has not yet escaped any unseeing eyes. Rather than playing this nonsense, you should have been a butcher, mincing meat in a mutton shop in the riverstreet.You don’t need a Nagaswaram, an accompanist and all that.You wince, but why? My words hurt, don’t they? Come on, why don’t you speak?Answer me”.
“You told me that we have a kutcheri today, I was practicing for that”, his son spoke at last, slowly.
“Practice… eh?” Pillai mocked. Growing angrier by the moment, he felt like slapping his son. But then immediately, he had second thoughts.
He wondered whether his son had lost his mind.
“Do you know who is to perform today?”
“I asked you whether you were aware of it or not?”
“Come on, why don’t you open your mouth?”
“It is you”
“So, you do know it is me, isn’t it? Did you think I will let you sit beside me and play this lament, this mongrel music, these film songs and every other flim-flam? Do you think you can come there and create a ruckus like a rat making noise scratching the utensils at kitchen?”
“But Dad, your audience are white people …”
“May be we should play something they can understand, a better choice of music”
“What are you trying to say…? You assume they won’t understand my music, and you presume to play something they could make sense of, and thus save my name? So you will avert your audience from disappointment, and they will go back feeling their visit to our town was worth it, come on, say it out loud”
Thangavelu kept quiet, as if accepting that his father was right. He was silent, like a martyr who knew he was in the right, despite the taunts of his father which fell upon him like a lashing.
“Do you know what the Iyer said? He was quite clear that we should play our traditional music. The folks who have come visiting want it as well. How can we assume they will or won’t like it? Have you already built a tomb for our music, anticipating that they won’t like it? They have not come here for familiar music. The purpose of their visit is to know our music as it is. Whether they get it or not can be known only after the performance. You suppose you could play this gross music, and tack a banner over it- “This is our music”…!
”Ha, how concerned you are for our music, how anxious you are to save it…!”
His son smiled faintly. Pillai laughed with him as well.
“Go ahead, smile… Chee, chee, go… Wash your instrument and put it away”
Thangavelu put nagaswaram in the sheath, wrapped it neatly and walked out after hanging it on the nail. Pillai sat there upon a bench beside the window, pulled the thaazhampettinear him, and began to cut betel nuts with nutcracker.
The musical instruments have been adorning this very place for generations. The instrument that his son plays now was the one with which his father had once performed, such divine music gushed forth from it. The memory of that concert at Thirucherai temple thrilled him even now, at its mere recollection… So moving, so full of life, such soul-filled music. The suppleness of nada that tugs at the pliant Soul. It is with this instrument that Thangavelu now plays these random, off-key notes.
For the past year or so, Pillai has been worrying about this practice of Thangavelu to play the cacophonic, noisy and filmy songs with nagaswaram at the weddings.
The public had decided that Pillai and his music were not entertaining enough, and had cast him aside. But he did not care for it. There was the temple grant provided by the aadheenam, and as long as it was paid, his music would be around, he was quite sure about that that. They won’t starve, and after food, two pairs of veshti, two thunukkus to drape over the shoulders, four saris for his wife, and four veshtis for his son- money enough to cover all expenses. What more does a man need? But this was the part he could not understand: gifts, fame and photos in the magazines were not at all necessary. Twenty five years had passed since he set off on his own, and he hadn’t cared about anyone. What is to happen now? Thangavelu did not lack talent, but Pillai felt uncertain about his own health and was in a hurry to teach his son all he knew. But this idiot, how did he get this notion that he should pander the cravings of wastrels and ignorant dullards?
Is it time for music to face its own demise? While God himself is being destroyed, how soon would he be forgotten?
The Nagaswaram was hanging at the usual place, wrapped in the same sheath- The coarse silk sheath that was stitched when his father was alive. But now Nagaswaram itself has become a sheath for something else.
“Am I wrong? If people do not resonate with something, how could that be music? An art that is beyond understanding, could it still be art?”
“When people engage us to play, they expect that our performance will give happiness to at least a few, is that not so? Is it right to neglect them and wander around in some other world?”
It is a question that has been in his mind for several years. But over the past year, this question has been recurring almost everyday. Early today, Thangavelu had explored Malaya Marutham for a while, and then suddenly played a Gypsy tune. And it was dawn… What a cacophony! It was as if he was dressing up a monkey with ear rings and making it dance. Impelled by some desire, Pillai unsheathed the Nagaswaram and put it to his lip. He could not play that ‘out of tune’ music. That cacophonic pitch made him struggle, he was not able to fix it in any particular note. That pitch was like a parabola which water will make when spat out lying on one’s back. He tried to figure out what pitch and note it was but the cacophony creaked like a broken piece even at the base pitch.
“What sort of music is this? A note sans pitch? Damn cacophony! Chee…”
Although it repelled him, he felt it was a craft to be learnt and now tried to play again. But he could not grasp that pitch. His obstinacy and the obdurate pitchbegun a fierce battle. Amidst the struggle, Pillai smiled meekly.
“It is not so, father. Please look here,” He heard a voice.
It was indeed his son, who had come to the doorway like a Thoppansamy to teach him that pitch.
“Come on, let me see you play that.”
The son played the instrument.
“That off-pitch note… a sort of bastard note that you play- how do you hit it? I can’t play that”
He tried again. He couldn’t play it.
“If I take it this way?”
“No, it is a different pitch.”
“Then it becomes our music”
“Whose is this music?”
“This is different”
Pillai removed the piece of cloth wrapped over his shoulders, tied it around his waist, and paid obeisance, his entire body prone on the floor.
“Can you guess why I do this? I will never look at the direction of this cacophony anymore.”
“What is this?” his wife who had brought him coffee, looked askance at him, her eyes wide open.
“The son you gave birth to after carrying him for ten months, this obeisance is to the music he plays”
“Just a film song, Ma,” Thangavelu said.
“What happened, you couldn’t play it, is it?” she asked her husband.
“It might become possible only after performing ablutions of milk for hundreds of births”, Pillai laughed.
The father and his son came to a sort of unwritten agreement. They usually got play requests at the end of wedding processions. If requests for film music were made with inscribed slips of paper, or if they were directly commanded to play it, Thangavelu would take over then. Pillai would retire to some Thinnai and rest.
Pillai had been practicing these new songs during nights. This had come as something of a shock, but only because it was played in the early morning.
Pillai looked at the Nayanam.
Bah! What if they were White, what if they were musicians, what if they wanted to listen to classical South Indian Music!
Lawyer Mani Iyer, who had visited him the day before yesterday had told him, “They want to listen to such music that reverberates in the heart for long, like the chimes of a bell; they want to listen to such music that never fades”
“Why do they want all that?” Pillai began to remonstrate, “Curry-leaf, Cuscus grass, milk- everything has a fake. Who cares about purity or music, what madness is this?”
“The world has not yet turned as bad as that. Anyway why do you worry about it? When I ask you to play, why don’t you just play it?
“It is enough if you play four kirtans, we don’t even need a thavil. Please play from your Soul, as you would if you were all alone, it is enough if you do that. You don’t even have to notice the shirt or dress or the walk of the man who comes to sit in front of you. Just close your eyes, and play two kirtans, it is enough”
“Oi, you are a cunning one…” smiled Pillai.
“Should I wear a shirt or something?”
“As you will. The person who has come visiting is knowledgeable and humble, I was talking to him and inferred as much. What difference would it make whether you wear a shirt or not?”
The session was at six in the night, he had barely woken up and was already planning his repertoire for the scheduled performance. But Thangavelu’s cacophonic practice riffs had interrupted his train of thought.
He put aside his bitterness and frustration once again, and seeking some peace, he started to play a Raga, and comprehending its form, he was taken aback- his mind and soul were thrilled by floods of joy at that vision. He fell asleep, his back resting against the door.
Pillai climbed down from the bullock-cart and entered VakilIyer’s home. Thangavelu followed him, along with the accompanist who carried the musical instruments.
The lawyer came out to the outer, larger hall, and holding him by hand, took him into the house where he introduced those in the assembled group by name, individually.
“This is Phillip Polska, and this is his group”.
Phillip Polska had the appearance of a Maharshi, he looked like he was in his seventies. He was not bald but had wispy, blonde white hair. He was of a medium build, but his eyes were so huge, you could just about see the whites above and below the eyeballs. Blue eyes, that looked as if they saw you, and yet didn’t really take you in. Eyes that made you wonder whether he was sleeping, or was lost somewhere deep in his thoughts. Pillai looked into those eyes for a moment. A sensation of tug as if his heart was knotted by a string and pulled, and immediately he felt his psyche being drawn towards Polska.
“Do you remember that you said he is wise and humble?” Pillai looked at the lawyer.
“True words. Look at those eyes. His face is so beautiful, did you notice that?”
“Yes, I had the same thought. Now, shall I tell this to him?”
“No, let’s keep our praises to ourselves, they need not travel abroad. If he asks you about this conversation, please tell him that I was very happy to have known him”.
After introducing Polska, the lawyer introduced Pillai to the other twenty or twenty five persons who had come with him.
Once his accompanist climbed the raised platform and began to play, Pillai began to rehearse with the leaf pipes of his Nagaswaram. Thangavelu sat behind him on the platform.
Pillai began with a handsome alapan of Nattai, and embarked on the kirtan.
A smile broke upon Polska’s face. His eyes were transfixed, rolled up. It appeared as if he had lost himself in the nada that streamed forth as an unbroken current of amrit. It appeared as if nada had drawn his soul towards unseen worlds and experiences. He had let himself go, like one who in his exhaustion, had allowed the flood take him where it will, and was being swept away along its raging course.
The music stopped, all of a sudden. Polska’s eyes were drawn inward, still immersed in that blissful experience. It took a minute for his transfixed eyes to roll down and look at Pillai.
The group, peopled with suits and ties, sat cross-legged upon the floor, every eye intent upon Pillai.
“Aiya, I shall conduct a small experiment,” Pillai told the lawyer.
“What are you going to do?”
“Please wait and see”
Curious, the lawyer looked at him. He could not gauge anything from Pillai, whose face was inexpressive.
“Thasrima… maa…” Pillai began to play.
The lawyer who had correctly identified that Pillai was playing Sama Raga, attended upon his music with unwavering attention, his eyes intent. He could see the gradual flowering of the Raga. The midnight bloom of a flower in the garden, its overwhelming fragrance- and how calm it made you feel, his mind was drawn deep in recollection of Pavazhamalli. His head swayed in accordance with the fragrance he caught now, and then lost and regained again. The Raga matured into being, and was finding its form.
The lawyer felt someone was waving his arms and turned around to look. It was Polska. His body was responding to the Raga, in harmony with its movements. He stretched his hands forward, as if he was receiving something. He had a smile upon his face; as in an ecstasy his face had a vacant look, turned upwards at the sky.
Polska stood up suddenly. Arms outstretched, he moved like a Sambangi plant swaying in a gentle breeze. The Raga was in flow, gaining force.
He who had been standing till now, stepped forward. With his arms outstretched, he stepped forward. He walked slowly to the platform and knelt down. Now his hands reached to the edge of the platform, and he hid his face in his palms.
The lawyer and Polska’s group could not take their eyes off Polska. Where is he now, in which world he wanders, what skies he traverses?
Pillai didn’t pause anywhere at his Raga alapan, but went straight ahead to the kirtan, anxious not to disturb Polska’s contemplative state.
“Shantamulega…” the initial movement of the Nagaswaram crooned as if cooing to an infant. And then it begged and prayed as if it was face to face with Truth.
Polska’s body trembled in awe, a sudden shiver ran up his spine.
The kirtan came to an end, and the instrument ceased to play.
Polska, who had listened with his arms upon the platform, and face in his palms, leapt at him in a bound and took hold of Pillai’s hands. His face had a look of entreaty.
Pillai couldn’t make sense of it. Mustering courage, he smiled as he would smile to a child.
“Mr Pillai, Mr Pillai,” Polska held Pillai’s hands, and supplicant, his voice was tremulous and broken.
“Mr Pillai, please don’t play anything else. It feels as if I will be torn asunder. I can’t take any other music”
Pillai could not understand what he was saying. Uncomprehending, he looked at the lawyer.
“Mr Pillai, please play this again. Or else, it feels… it feels like I would die”.
“Pillaivaal, he asks you to play Shantamulega once again,” the lawyer spoke gently, hesitating to disturb the silence.
He played “Shantamulega”.
“Yes, yes,” said Polska.
His head was swaying as the kirtan came to an end.
“Please don’t stop,” begged Polska.
“Don’t stop Pillaivaal, he looks like he is in a trance. Keep playing”
The nada streamed forth again.
Pillai played the kirtan five or six more times. Finally, nada merged in silence and the music ceased.
Polska’s head was still swaying to the music. His head and heart and Soul moved and swayed in that silence like the reverberations of a temple bell.
After waiting for about three minutes, the lawyer sighed. He felt his throat hoarse, and cleared it as gently as possible.
Polska turned towards him.
“Mr. Iyer, Mr Pillai, there is some message in this. I can hear some intimation, a message directed at me. I can hear the other-worldly message. I feel overwhelmed with the joy of that intimation. I still feel its force. It is definitely a message, a message sent to me in particular. A message for the world. Your music holds such a message”
Polska had a childlike smile in his face, and struggled to give expression to his emotions.
“Do you understand?” he asked.
“I think I understand what you are saying,” said the lawyer.
“I can understand it very well. It is a message. No other music in this world that I have ever heard, has given this message to me. I have taken hold of it with my two outstretched hands. I have received the message that no person, no art, or no music has yet managed to deliver to me. If you ask me whether I am willing to die now, I shall gladly do so,” he said.
“Sir, what is he saying?” asked Pillai.
The lawyer translated Polska’s question.
“Does he want to know how I felt? Mr. Iyer, Mr. Pillai, there is death all over this world, and I see corpses everywhere. Loud noises, large crowds, and great clamour. A storm blows, and fells the trees. Waves rise, higher and higher, and washes away huts. Thunder strikes the trees by the roads, and the trees wither. Buildings come crashing down. Loud noises all around… In this battlefield, in this noise, I alone find peace. This noise subsides, and these apocalyptic cries and noises gradually subside and quieten down. A silence grows and reigns in my heart. All these chaos and noise and wars won’t touch me anymore. I have risen. I have transcended to a height beyond clouds and storms, to a height where sound will not disturb me anymore. I have risen and I am at peace, I have come to know eternal peace. This silence is enough for me. I can welcome death now, and I am ready to lose myself in this silence”
Polska spoke calmly. The lawyer translated his words.
Pillai was taken aback.
“Did he talk about peace? Did he feel that?”
“Is it really so? If then, our Tyagaraja Swamy too has sung this kirtan asking for silence and peace, has he not? How he longed for it… Did this man experience that same feeling?”
“So he says”
“I didn’t even say a word to him.. How does he know this?”
Pillai sat still, in shock.
“Mr. Polska, this song too prays for peace. Though it does not speak your language of storm and thunder, this song is also a supplication for peace, it repeatedly beseeches with peace as its final goal”
“Is that so?” Polska exclaimed, awestruck.
“This is certainly a message. Music is perfection, it delivers the message past every barrier,” he said.
“Please give me your hand. Please give me the hand that played this music. Please give me these fingers where God dances. I want to celebrate and kiss God,” Polska took Pillai’s fingers and carried them up to his lips.
Pillai too had got the message.
Link to the Tamil version: http://solvanam.com/?p=5069
(Translator’s note: Heartfelt thanks are due to Nambi Krishnan and Rajmohan, without whose corrections, a translation of this quality .is beyond my capabilities)
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