A sore throat was reason enough to visit her. I discovered that early enough in my days as Dhondutai Kulkarni's student.
Maybe there'd be no singing lesson that day, but other lessons, just as layered and enriching. Starting perhaps with a homily on the ills of keeping late nights and moving on to nature's medicines and the power of mind over body. She would make tea, measuring exact amounts the precious Nilgiri leaf that made her brew quite unique. And smile as I heaped my two-spoon measure of sugar into my cup, and add just a pinch of it to hers. Always teetering on the borderline of diabetes, she had learned through her stint as assistant in her uncle's ayurvedic medicine factory, to control it through diet and natural ingredients. I would leave her flat feeling much better, a little stick of liquorice from her store of medicinal things in my bag, and find myself humming as I waited to board the train at Borivali.
For four years I was Dhondutai's student. Years marked by long gaps of absence, as my work gave me little leeway. Years during which I learnt the beginnings of a raag, and my normally soft voice could be heard ringing clear beyond her building on to the approach road. I learnt so much more!
For Baiji gave unstintingly of her knowledge. Whether it was voice training, or life skills, she shared it all with her students, going beyond the role of music teacher to draw them into her heart and advise them in diverse ways.
Her own life was the master plan from which she derived her lessons. Her passion for music, her single-minded honing of her talent; her dedication that kept her not only semi-educated but also single; the determination and humility with which she pursued teachers of the Jaipur Atrauli gharana like Laxmibai Jadhav and the more demanding Kesarbai Kerkar were inspirations she shared without any coating of pride. And we, her students, were welcome to derive from the stories that punctuated the music lessons whenever she could discern a voice tiring.
I was surely just an also-ran among her students, many of whom were accomplished enough to accompany her on stage or sing solo. But on the day allotted to me, I knew she would come smiling to open the steel door, let me in and take her place on the divan while I sat on the floor facing her. She would start by leading the notes gradually forward, correcting mistakes, always patient. But soon enough, something would transform in her. Perhaps, it was the backlit window against which she sat, framed by the filigreed leaves of the casuarina tree outside; the expression on her face or the reflection of the sari; but I would divine a grace in her that was not quite of this earth. I have seen it in her during concerts too, where she would be for long moments unmindful of her audience, as if in a divine embrace. But the teacher in her would soon ensure she engaged in a dialogue, so the intricacies of her compositions would be clear to the youngsters present.
Purist to the core, she would chide those who played to the gallery. Music came from the heart and the throat and any facial contortions were but showmanship.
Living as she did by herself, she longed only for the one genius heir who could keep her legacy alive. It was possibly the only disappointment in her life. There cannot be another quite like her. There was only one Dhondutai Kulkarni.
The author is Consulting Editor, Harper Collins India