The first time I heard of him was when my maternal grandmother decided that she must hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Having read about the great German composer, she wanted to hear his famous composition.
We lived in Thiruvananthapuram, the southernmost city of Kerala, a state in South India. It was a small place, and as state capital, its predominant feel was one of politics. Where in such a town would you locate Beethoven and hear his music in a manner that did justice to its orchestral splendour? My mother’s elder brother then took my grandmother to Madhavan Nair, a relative who hailed from the same native place near Kochi as we did. He owned a fine music system and had diligently assembled over time a good collection of music spanning Indian classical to western classical and much else in between. My grandmother returned from the visit, a thrilled person. I wasn’t let in on this story. But I figured out that music was involved.
Curious, I asked my father, “ who is Madhavan Nair?’’
His reply was evasive and it was for a valid reason. Around that time, an obsession to hear music and hear it loud and clear, had taken root in me. The financial strain it potentially indicated was clear. We were a very middle class family with a youngster praying for Technics, Pioneer, Denon and now beginning to dangerously say, Nakamichi and NAD. I drooled over product advertisements. Those were the heydays of people from Kerala working in the Middle East. Most people returning on vacation brought a two-in-one, a boom-box. At the airport with boom-box in hand was both hallmark of Gulf-returnee and new found prosperity. For many, it was the sign of prosperity that mattered. I wanted the boom-box for what it actually was. On visits to receive relatives at the city airport I became notorious for missing people and seeing only the two-in-ones being carried home from Gulf countries. Not surprisingly, my father was wary of having me in any place with amplifiers at hand. It was therefore some months before I coaxed him to take me to Madhavan uncle’s house.
Those were the days of the LP record and the audio cassette. I gazed respectfully at his music system, which included a turntable with stroboscope, tape decks with restless needles in brightly lit dials, pre-amp and power-amp, graphic equalizer and deceptive book shelf speakers that could rock a room. The whole thing sat like a living, breathing entity, pensive brain in one place and powerful impact in another, all controlled by impressive knobs adjusted to precision. For me, newly arrived to the world of music with a National Panasonic mono two-in-one and a couple of tapes of disco music (plus some more periodically borrowed from a supportive neighbour) this was stunning, heavy duty machinery.
Madhavan uncle was a small, soft spoken person who worked at the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. Away from work, he was a dedicated collector of music. He was also a good artist. In his free time he drew illustrations for other people’s short stories, published in a regional magazine. Like any music collector, he counted on friends, relatives, contacts and sometimes travellers passing through, to access new albums. On the occasions when he had to make a copy for his private collection, he would create his own cover design for the cassette and note down album details in a crisp, thin handwriting. It was all stored carefully and catalogued. An interaction with the man was a focused experience characterized by insight into music systems and genuine respect for all kinds of music. Slowly my father allowed repeated visits. I began to explore music as a collection of different genres. Back at home the old two-in-one was replaced by a car stereo, which we modified to play indoors. Then, we bought a proper Sonodyne music system, a princely investment those days. On my shelf, cassettes sporting Madhavan uncle’s crisp handwriting gradually grew in number.
As I moved from school to college, my pursuit of music became more serious. I discovered my tastes – classic rock, blues, jazz, country, folk, western classical and Hindustani classical. The occasional conversation with Madhavan uncle went beyond musician and band, to the quality of sound. He would mention about a newly acquired album, play it enthusiastically and we would concur on its elegance with a shake of the head or a short laugh. And then, just as you heard the most wonderful quality of sound, he would softly reprimand a rubber belt or connecting chord for the slightest variation audible to his ears, his ears only. A great relief you felt was the ability to approach music – any music – as such, without fear of being judged. With Madhavan uncle, you could sample Jethro Tull, Keith Jarret, Bach and Ustad Bismillah Khan in one visit without ever weighing one genre against the other. I guess that’s because he was also an audiophile. He may have had his personal preferences. What didn’t qualify for that, he probably approached it as sound that still merited being heard as perfectly as possible. Once in a while, I also met others who wished for good music and had come to know Madhavan uncle as a result. All our paths crossed at his house, which was a regular pilgrimage. The people who gathered around him became many things in life; from joining the regular army of Keralites working abroad to finding a career in custom built audio systems to – this I heard of one person – being an acoustic engineer on tour with a major American rock band. It was a small group of people and if I may say, to merely state an impression I had of them and not to indulge vanity one bit – they were seekers. My grandmother, who in her old age, sought to hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, was also probably one. We just failed to think of her so.
At present with the world getting whatever it wants effortlessly, seeking has increasingly become a lost art and its after-effect on person, a lost human quality. Seeking happened in a context of deprivation. Maybe it still can, as alternative to instant gratification; seeking for the heck of knowing life. Back then, you were plain not getting what you wanted – that was the state of affairs in the 1980s and early 1990s (not to mention – certainly the years before that), when many of the creative and technological offerings of the world reached Thiruvananthapuram through the bureaucracy of India’s protected economy. If you wanted more, you had to innovate and stretch. You requested people going abroad to get some music. News of any such album recently landed spread fast through the grapevine. For obvious reasons, a friend with a twin deck tape recorder was a very valued friend. My generation was born in the late 1960s. Its ear for music came alive in the 1970s. Many journeyed back to visit Elvis and Woodstock. Some ran ahead for a taste of synthesizer music. Seekers were thus an involved lot. And critically, because they had to actively seek, they valued what they found. Seeking made you stretch, the stretch provided journey, the journey was an education. People like Madhavan uncle, represented that trait. He was among early customers of the now familiar configuration of speakers – two satellite units and a separate base unit; he was also among early birds in town to upgrade that to Bose speakers. I remember the excitement this transition generated.
Several non-music factors also supported the seeking mentality. Around the late 1980s, if I remember right, both the local engineering and medical colleges made it to the last stages of Siddharth Basu’s iconic quiz competition on national television. While the music-crazy were anyway searching deep to know and access bands, this new found legitimacy by TV to being bizarrely informed provided value to maintaining a wider world view. It broad based the curiosity to know. A reasonably interested college student bothered to be aware of musicians and actors not just from the state but also elsewhere. At the very least he / she tried. Looking back I sometimes feel amazed at what all my music loving friends in Thiruvananthapuram dug up – Buffalo Springfield, Travelling Wilburys, The Yardbirds, Grateful Dead, Traffic, Spencer Davis Group, Cream, Wishbone Ash, Emerson Lake & Palmer; these were besides usual suspects Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Def Leppard, Jethro Tull, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Queen, Rolling Stones, Beatles and so many others. You lived in a small town. But you knew that something much bigger lived outside. Later, some of these efforts would seem the first dots joined of small miraculous journeys to come.
Once, at PAICO, one of only two or three shops in Thiruvananthapuram that sold rock music in my college days, I was sufficiently intrigued by the art work on a cassette cover to buy the album of an artiste I knew nothing of. I think the album was,`The Extremist.’ It was fantastic to hear. The album travelled around in my small circle of friends. At the local YMCA, I recall discussing Joe Satriani’s style with Ramesh, a wonderful creative person who was then a student of psychology. Over two decades later, I would hear Satriani play in Mumbai and meet him to collect his autograph. Other friends, seriously into music and more knowledgeable than me on the subject, would similarly wait in queue to hear a host of artistes from Ian Anderson to Roger Waters and Mark Knopfler, perform in India. Many of these pilgrims knew Madhavan uncle for the collection he built up, the effort he put into cataloguing it, the equipment he invested in to hear it well and his down to earth attitude despite it all. I may still have albums that he copied and gave me. But the gift went beyond album to empathy for music. Anybody can secure albums. Very few pass on an interest in music by personal example. He did.
Sometime in the 1990s, Thiruvananthapuram stopped looking beyond its shores. The satellite television age was kicking in and with it, a strident patronage of vernacular tastes to gain eyeballs. Regional channels aggressively promoted local programming. This was expected. But it changed the texture of life for seekers. Where there was no television till the 1980s, you now had a basket of channels. It meant world at your doorstep discounting that much the need to seek. It also prompted the rise of a popular self wrapped local culture. As these changes occurred, foreign music’s cassettes were giving way to imported CDs that were expensive. It gradually eroded shelf space for foreign music. Soon I was running into film songs, parody songs and loads of religious music on shop racks in the city. I wondered if greying society and the remittance economy becoming Kerala’s overwhelming reality with its accompanying baggage of incomplete households had anything to do with the trends. Or was it the effect of big media engineering a navel gazing market of the people at hand? Kerala felt strange – gold, weddings, ethnicity, fervent prayers to God, rituals and a peculiar conservatism. An era of curiosity was drawing to a close.
My last meeting with Madhavan uncle was special. I introduced him to a couple of blues musicians that he hadn’t come across before. It was the first time I could give something back for all the music he had brought to my life. Blues particularly, was something he introduced me to. Thanks to heavy duty marketing, the Madonnas and Michael Jacksons of the world get everywhere. But something off the mainstream, like blues? And that too, not just Muddy Waters, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton but others like Robert Cray, Tinsley Ellis, Son Seals, Elvin Bishop, Luther Allison, Otis Rush and so on. Had it not been for music collectors like Madhavan uncle all this would have been difficult to access in Thiruvananthapuram. But it didn’t take long for him to turn trifle philosophical and question the relevance in having a wide taste in music when all around insularity had become virtuous. Room was shrinking for those who appreciated the wider world. I remember him saying that despondently, the last time I met him. Sometime in 2007, I toyed with the idea of calling him up on the phone. It inexplicably persisted in my head till I finally told myself that I will meet him when I went home from Mumbai, where I worked and lived. I didn’t do that early enough.
One day, I got a call from home – he was no more. In all those years that I knew him, I never asked Madhavan uncle how he began collecting music. I only know how knowing him, changed world by music for those like me. And, I also remember those times.
In my life, I have met several people cast as seekers in several subjects. In music, some intimidated me by their ability to reel off statistics about bands and their history, some intimidated by their vast collection of music measured by external hard disk-space, some intimidated by the concerts they attended overseas, for some it was what device you heard music on – was it latest iPod or some other gadget? Much of this seemed music as armour; another one of the weapons stockpiled for self importance and distinction in life. Very few people lived the simple delight in hearing wonderful music of any type reproduced well by a decent music system – which was what Madhavan Nair seemed all about. Meeting him in his living room said all that has to be told. The music system would be playing something softly, yet so clearly that it felt like gentle rain. Madhavan uncle would be dressed in simple clothes – usually the white dhoti of the Keralite householder worn with a shirt or T-shirt. I would inquire of new additions to his music library. The brief conversation about music – including on genres originating overseas – was always in Malayalam, the local language. He had all the stuff that people stocked in their armoury of music with none of the airs.
I miss that age of seeking gone by.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)