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And The Granny Goes To...
|by Hema Vijay|
Seetha mami, 81, is busy packing her bags and a bucket, for Cleveland, USA. At the airport - as on previous occasions when she has flown out of Chennai for a performance - she will part with the bags, but the bucket she will hold close and secure. For, inside the bucket, tucked safely in between layers of old saris is a precious assortment of porcelain bowls that will make music when this grand old lady fills them with water and flicks her bamboo sticks across them.
"Come to think of it, it is a practical way of carrying them. She also uses the bucket to fetch water for pouring into the bowls," remarks writer Jaya Madhavan, one of Seetha mami's grandchildren.
Meet Seethalakshmi Doraiswamy, one of the rare tribe of 'jaltarang' artists in India. In fact, she is perhaps the only living accomplished female performer of the art. Curiously, it was by sheer accident that she came across the 'jaltarang' bowls. When Seethalakshmi was all of 11 years, her mother enrolled her in the Summer School of Indian Music at Triplicane in Chennai. There she became proficient in vocal music and was even selected for the honors class.
Getting into the honors class presented her with a unique opportunity that changed Seetha mami's life: She earned a free six-week 'jaltarang' course. She took an instant liking to the art form and, even after the special classes were over, continued to practice on her own. Such was her dedication, that though she did not have a 'jaltarang' ensemble, she trudged daily to principal Professor Sambamoorthy's house, who owned the only 'jaltarang' ensemble in the area, to practice. "One day when he [Sambamoorthy] realized that I had walked in the hot sun to come to his house, he presented the ensemble to me, saying it was too hot for me to be out...!" Seethalakshmi recalls fondly.
Today, thousands of musical performances later, Seethalakshmi retains the same passion for this offbeat art, as she did when she made her trips to Sambamoorthy's house.
This octogenarian, resplendent in a silk 'madisar' (as the nine-yard sari is referred to in Tamil) and flicking sticks over the arc of bowls, is a sight to behold. But, does it tire her? After all, leave alone the performance, setting up the 'jaltarang' ensemble and tuning it is a tricky business that requires a clear understanding of sound-pitch variations effected by different water levels and different volumes of the porcelain bowls.
Seethalakshmi with her husband N. Doraiswamy just after their marriage.
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