Sunday, June 17, 2012

Madras Chronicles—Guitar Hero

The first audio cassette player I used was a Sanyo. It was a cassette recorder with a built-in microphone and a mono player. My uncle bought it and it was in my grandmother's house. It was the year when Mouna Ragam released in the Grand Theatre in Annanagar, the first Tamil film in a theatre that ran English films and directed by a new director named Mani Rathnam which went on to become that year's biggest grossing film.

The same year saw the release of Punnagai Mannan by K. Balachander starring Kamal Hassan. It was widely publicized as the movie in which Ilayaraja, the composer used the MIDI synthesizer to bring computer music to the Tamil film industry, believed to be operated by A. R. Rahman. Oomai Vizhigal was another hit movie that year, a film written by Aabhavaanan and directed by R. Aravindraj, starring Vijayakant. But there were three reasons why the film that is etched in my mind from that year was Vikram, another Kamal Hassan starrer. The first reason—the story  and screenplay was by my favorite writer Sujatha. The second reason—it had Vanithavani,vanamohini…, a song considered too risquĂ© at that time that Oliyum Oliyum, a program that was telecast every Friday by the state-run Doordarshan TV (Channel 4), never showed it. It was a song that a trio of friends secretly sang in the back benches at school while the teacher was busy with the lesson. The third reason was the beautiful Dimple Kapadia who was brought from Bollywood to act in that movie as a princess of an exotic land.

Remember the Sanyo cassette player that I started with. The very first recording I made using it was songs from the Hindi blockbuster movie, Bobby from many years earlier, starring Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia. That was the first time that I saw Bobby and instantly fell in love with it, the same way that Rishi Kapoor's character is enamoured seeing Dimple's. The movie was telecast by Doordarshan and I meticulously taped every song. A Sanyo cassette player, Bobby, Dimple Kapadia, Vikram—the universe conspires to design your fate.  That moment marked my unofficial introduction to music.

My school had co-curricular activities every Thursday and I had signed up for Yoga. After a year, I felt that I should switch because I felt the other kids were having too much fun while I was stretching my body into uncomfortable poses. We also had a guitar club that sounded cool and I decided to join. When I told my mother, she asked me if I was really interested. I answered affirmatively.

Photograph of Musee Musical, Mount Road, ChennaiThe next week she took me to a quaint shop in Mount Road called Musee Musical. I instantly fell in love with that shop. There was an old-world charm to that store. They had violins, guitars, drums, flutes and every other musical instrument that I had seen before in my life. I got myself a yellow Givson guitar. It cost 650 Rupees and the salesman gave me two complimentary picks. My mother and I returned home in an autorickshaw. I held my Givson carefully as the autorickshaw navigated the potholes in the Madras roads.

Our guitar teacher in school started with music theory, treble clef, bass clef, notation etc., One day, someone brought a leaflet for a CASIO electronic keyboard that had numbers instead of the notes and was playing Jingle Bells using it as reference. Initially, the teacher was smiling and walked up to that boy. When he discovered that he was playing it from that leaflet that didn't have notation—an abomination to say the least—he was horrified. He went into a rage tearing it apart and throwing it into the trash can.

On another instance when he found three of us talking during class. Saravanan was my classmate and the other one was a junior student. I vaguely remember his name as Ravi. He asked each one of us to make a fist and knock the other's head with our knuckles. The first one to get struck was Saravanan and the Ravi was to do the deed. It was my turn next to strike Ravi and then Saravanan was supposed to strike me. I had to think quickly to escape, so I did the unexpected. I rolled my right palm into a tight fist and gathered the maximum strength that I could and struck Ravi hard on the center of his head! It must have knocked the living daylights out of him that he immediately began crying, tears flowing uncontrollably down his cheeks. The guitar teacher was stunned and didn't know what to do. He asked me why I hit him so hard. I just shrugged and told him I just did what he asked me to. He then ordered the three of us to get back to our seats and consoled the boy who was wiping his tears and stroking his head. I don't think Ravi ever spoke to me after that.

I continued in the guitar club for the next two years and then my interests shifted to dramatics. The guitar gathered dust at the corner of my room except for the occasional time when I would feel like strumming.
After I finished college and got into a job, I gave my guitar away to one of my younger cousins. That was my brief brush with music.

A decade and a half later, I am a happily married family man with two sons. My wife wanted to wean them away from TV by putting them into—you guessed it—music class! Both the boys learn Classical Carnatic violin. A random thought crops up in my mind and out of a whim, I ask my wife. She says it is never too late to learn anything.

A week later, at the insistence of my wife, I register for guitar classes at the same place where my sons go to learn violin! On the first day at class, my classmates are a couple of college students and a school-going boy and girl, just a few years older than my sons. It was a true Vasoolraja MBBS moment for me. The first day was just basic theory. At the end of the class, the teacher instructed the little girl to bring her notebook during the next class and then turned to me and asked me to copy the lessons from her. Jokes apart, I was truly thrilled that I decided to learn the guitar. There was only one thing left. I needed a guitar before the next class.

I was very excited about the thought of buying a new guitar. I wanted to take my family with me to the store. Unfortunately, our washing machine broke and my wife said she needed to stay home until the technician finished fixing it. Luckily, he came early and she was on board for the trip to the store. My younger son loves shopping, so he said he would join. I told my mom that we are going to the store and she asked me if I want her to come. Not to be left out, my brother and his wife also join the group and off we go to the store!

Madras is now Chennai and Chennai Metro Rail is busy digging up Mount Road for laying the tunnels. Policemen on horseback are crossing Mount Road at the Walajah Road / Mount Road signal. We take a U-turn on Walajah Road and come back to Mount Road. Almost twenty-five years later, after asking directions from a bookseller who had set shop on the sidewalk, we arrive once again at Musee Musical. The store looked very different from what I recollect from my memories.

I select my guitar. The salesperson tuned it and gave me two complimentary picks and a guitar belt. We took pictures at the store. Minutes later all of us are on our way back home. I am sitting in the front passenger seat of our car holding on to my guitar firmly as the car bumps a little. Damn potholes!


  1. Great idea for a blog, really well presented too. A pleasure to navigate!

  2. Nice storytelling, There is a new site where the concept of social storytelling produces unique short stories (a group of people like yourself work together on a single story)

  3. :) very interesting depiction madras,a great blog too,
    look up a stories from kerala, mostly from about 40 years back

  4. this is really great. please check out my blog @ for some cool fiction as well

  5. Interesting story and blog. Feel free to check out mine and follow.

  6. Interesting i love blogs with a personal touch to it..

  7. Very nice and interesting writing with nice touch of humor, its only improved multiple times from our school days.

  8. hilarious story I wish I was back in India
    please take the time to read my free stories here

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