Very early every morning, from the west, I would hear Sri Thirumale’s voice. He would have washed some clothes and would be putting these up to dry on the bamboo poles hung horizontally from the ceiling. All the while, he would be reciting something.
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One day, while I was in class 2, I found myself sitting in front of Aththi as she taught me the first shloka of the Sri Venkatesha Suprabhaatam (or just ‘Suprabhaatam’ as it is even now known). How this came about, I don’t remember. This is what Sri Thirumale used to recite every morning.
After some days (or was it weeks?), Uncle borrowed a Grundig Telefunken spool tape recorder from a colleague and it came with but two spools – 1 full and 1 to take the tape. The only recording on it was Smt M S Subbulakshmi’s rendering of the Suprabhaatam.
Every morning, I’d take bath, apply a spot of vibhuti to the forehead, and listen to it with a copy of the TTD (Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam) publication of the Suprabhaatam with Samskrtam (Sanskrit) text, Tamizh transliteration, word for word meaning in Tamizh, and purport in Tamizh prose. I would listen and recite looking at the book. I understood some of the hymns in translation.
Over and over, every day, I did this. Subsequently, Uncle taught me how to operate the tape recorder safely, even to thread the tape.
Over the coming months, I learned the Suprabhaatam by heart. I learned it has four parts: Suprabhaatam, stotram, prapatti, and Mangalaashaasanam. These words have increased in depth and meaning to me over the years.
Soon, I could recite the whole hymn along with M S. There was no big whoop about it – no parental bragging (“He tells suprabhaatam niiiicely!”), siblings only looked askance at all this, and no bragging by the subject himself. It was just not a big deal.
One day, I asked amma (in Tamizh, mind you; we didn’t speak English at home – that is a different story for a different time), “Amma, what is this language?” As I write this, I can remember the dimly lit kitchen, amma at the stove cooking, the general hum of life in the background with people getting ready to go out on their various lives. Without pausing or even looking at me, she answered, “That is Samskrtam. You can learn it in high school.” That was the only conversation about this.
I kept thinking of high school and learning Samskrtam. I eagerly looked forward to that day from that day! The lilt, the cadence, the rhythm of the hymn totally captivated me. They still do.
Subsequently, the tape recorder was returned. No classes with Aththi – those stopped once the tape recorder came. But I recited at least a few of the verses every morning, and on Saturdays, along with AIR’s broadcast, I would also recite the full hymn before heading off to morning class.
This helped me learn how to memorise verses, especially in Samskrtam. Whom do I thank for that early gift? Sri Thirumale? Aththi? My parents? My uncle? M S ? My uncle’s friend? … everyone!
For eight years thereafter, I nurtured this desire for learning Samskrtam.
It also opened up in me a life-long love affair with the language and culture of Samskrtam. And the connections between that language and the Kannada and Tamizh that I also so cherished.
Fast forward to 1971. (Yes, you will be fast forwarding and fast backwarding a lot with these here chronicles!)
Time to choose a high school. Well, we had a Family Tradition: three out of five of the preceding siblings had attended National High School. Plus, our neighbor, Sri K Nanjundaiah had just retired as headmaster of that school. By then, he and I had become better acquainted with each other. He was very affectionate towards me.
Appa asked him for advice. KN immediately wrote on a neat little piece of paper (no more than about 2.5” x 2.5”), a chit: “Kindly admit Chi. Chandrasekhar to 8th standard. Thanking you, yours faithfully, K Nanjundaiah.”
Appa and I went to the school and joined the queue to meet the headmaster, along with the requisite form. He turned out to be another neighbor, down the road, Sri Dakshinamurthy. When it was our turn, and appa presented the chit from KN, his response? “Oh, why did you wait in line? You should have just come straight through. All done. Don’t worry, please pay the fees and enroll your son.” He scribbled something on it, called the peon and gave him instructions to do the needful.
The needful having been done, I was duly enrolled.
Week 1 of classes. Samskrtam class. Vidvan S. Alasingrabhatrachar was our Samskrtam teacher. But what is this? He is teaching us the alphabets? Oh, what a bore! But what choice did one have? I learned it. I had seen through the textbook and there were shlokas in it! That’s what I wanted to learn. When will we ever get to them?
Then, after a few weeks, when we had learned how to read the script (oh, so that was why had to go through the initial boredom?), he walked into class and told us to open to a particular page.
The title on that page: subhaashitaani. (I later learned that it meant ‘well-spoken words’)
And the Vidvan didn’t read the first verse. He sang it out: bhaashaasu mukhyaa madhuraa … I can still feel the tingling sensation, the thrill that it sent throughout my body and how my whole being felt like it had lit up. He was the next chapter in my love affair with Samskrtam.
I read that verse over and over and, in next to no time, I had memorised it before the next class. This was a race with the Vidvan and I was apace.
Hearing the sounds of the verses transfixed me. I understood the literal meanings vaguely. The cultural and other contexts he gave us for each verse, I did not quite comprehend.
However, years – decades – later, I still understand new aspects of what he had said in his classes. Today, as an educator, my guide to education is a verse he taught us in class 9:
A pupil acquires a fourth of his knowledge from his teacher,
a fourth from his own intellect,
a fourth from his fellow-students, and
a fourth with the passage of time.
Now I can see whom to thank for all that I have learned.
And continue to learn.