She shares quick tips on cooking while passing the tray for the food photography makes coffee for her husband, taking care to wipe the counter – all at the same time! The Kanjivaram which she is wearing seems to represent her since that variety of silk becomes more and more enchanting with age. It does not look as though it has been worn and washed several times just as she does not look or behave as though she is eighty-two years old. Champakaji is the quintessential ‘Mylapore Maami’, a phrase that conjures an image of the silk-sari clad Brahmin ladies who love their culture, and grow up learning and appreciating music, dance and the arts.
When the children in my family heard that I was going to interview Champakaji, who is the mother of their favourite teacher from Bambino school, Mrs. Lalitha Srinivasan, they were excited. Why I mention this is because I noticed the similarity between them – they exude the same warmth and love for teaching and learning.
Born in August 1931, Champakaji is a Tamilian Iyer who resides in a quaint lane of Mylapore in Chennai. Fascinated by her warmth and agility, I quiz her on her love for reading and chanting. She says, “Let me begin by bowing to the Almighty and my Guru Paramarthanandaji. My namaskaram to them.” This deep faith unveils the secret of her joy for life.
As I put forth my questions, she produces two small slips of paper. She has prepared herself for my visit by noting down things she would like to share. She says, “I am happy to be featured in this magazine and would not like to forget important things. Hence I jotted them down.”
She then says, “I was born on August 16, 1931 near the rear entrance of Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore. I think that very location instilled deep love for religion in me. Also I came from a family of high values. Both my grandfathers are judges and there are many lawyers in my family. My aunt Harini was a prolific writer. We grew up in a joint family and were fortunate to receive good schooling as well as love for music. I was amongst the first batch of students at the Stella Maris College where I did my Intermediate in Indian Music and Indian History in 1949-50. In 1951, I was married to TM Venkatraman who is an expert in Aviation and worked as the Chief Commercial Manager of Indian Airlines. We have one son, one daughter, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Our children are well settled and take good care of us. What more can one want from life!”
I now understand your passion for music. What about your love for cooking? Did you learn it from your mother?
Not really. As a child, I hardly ever entered the kitchen. There was always a cook. Also, in a Brahmin household, there are many rules for the kitchen. Even after my marriage, I hardly ever went into the kitchen. Slowly, my sister-in-law taught me cooking. I do wish my mother had taught me some housework earlier in life.
In most of our North Indian families, girls are taught to work from young age. So as a daughter-in-law, what were your responsibilities?
I don’t think there is a clear divide like that. For instance, my daughter-in-law knew a variety of cooking even before her marriage. Though she is an only child, her mother and aunt taught her housework. But as a young bride, my main work was to attend to guests and give company to my mother-in-law. She had a commanding nature and I accompanied her wherever she went.
Would you say that there has been much of a difference in family systems over the years?
Yes, things have really changed. For one, the notion of joint family hardly exists any more. Girls and boys are much more independent these days.
Is that disturbing?
Not at all, this is a good system. They have their freedom and we have our space. Yet they are always there for us.
That is a very healthy way of looking at change. What brings such equanimity in your thoughts?
I am a student of Vedanta and enjoy chanting and learning the meaning of the great shlokas. Along with my younger sister Gita, I studied the Vedanta and the Upanishads for more than a decade. The message in them is bound to influence the way one thinks. Also I learnt yogic mudras from my Guru Vaidyanathanji twenty-five years ago. Regular practice of those mudras brings balance in body and mind.
Many of your relatives appreciate your shloka chanting. I have heard that you often conducted group chanting at home and taught adults as well as children.
I love music and satsang. I regularly chant Lalitha Sahasranamam, Chandrakala Stuti which is in praise of Ma Durga, and Soundarya Lahari where each of the hundred shlokas is in a different raga. I also enjoy singing the Tiruppugal in praise of Lord Muruga which gives us the capacity to work from morning to night. In Chennai as well as Madurai where I lived for some years, neighbours, relatives and children simply joined me for chanting.
Share a memory you cherish!
Two things – once when my great-granddaughter Smrithi played the Vande Mataram on her keyboard. Tears welled in my eyes and I started singing with her. And the second is whenever my other great-granddaughter Aradhana calls me from Bangalore and sings the varnam she has just learnt on the phone.
They seem to have inherited your musical talent. Have you also passed on your culinary expertise to the children?
I don’t know about expertise, but they know most of the dishes that I cook. Our food is simple and healthy, and typically South-Indian. Apart from the Yam Thovayal which I will share with you, the family loves my Brinjal side-dish with coconut milk, and also a Potato side-dish with curd gravy which is something I learnt from my North Indian neighbour.
Interview by Pratibha.
Click to view the Pidi Karunai Thovayal shared by warm loving granny.