15 March 2005

How I ended up in Oz

One of the most common questions I get is "How did you get so interested in Carnatic music?"

Before I answer that, it would be useful to give a bit about my background.

My parents are both Kerala Iyers. My Dad was born and raised in Palghat, Kerala, while my mum is from Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. Neither of my parents learnt music but as it was an essential part of the culture, they did have an exposure to it. My father often speaks about attending concerts by old stalwarts like Chembai Vaidyanathar Bhagavathar or Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, not to forget the all-night Kathakali events. My paternal grandfather, Sri G. S. Srinivasa Iyer, was a respected headmaster in Palghat (Alathoor) and has translated into Malayalam and provided commentary for a number of religious texts such as the Ramayanam and the Bhagavatham.

Before I digress too much, my father got a job in Uganda in 1957. Uganda was essentially a place with no scope for Carnatic music. Literally out of Africa, the Indian population there consisted largely of Gujaratis and quite a few Malayalees. I was born in Uganda in 1969, the youngest of five children. Actually there is a large gap, almost 10 years between my brother (the fourth born) and I. Alhough I can't remember it, my parents and older siblings fondly reminisce about the relaxed lifestyle, the comfortable weather, the vegetables and the excellent conditions they enjoyed in Uganda.

Due to the civil unrest caused by General Idi Amin, my family decided to leave Uganda in the early Seventies. A lot of Indian families migrated to the UK or Canada during that time. The initial plan for my family was to return to India as my eldest two sisters were by then studying college in Madras. My father got news from a Ugandan colleague who had migrated to Australia that it wasn't such a bad place and maybe the Ayyar family should give it a chance too. Hence in May 1973, my family and I, then aged 3, moved to Sydney.

This was indeed a new experience. For a long period Australia had a racist White Australia policy where non-whites could not migrate here. By 1973, this policy was totally removed. Nevertheless, there were very few Indians in Australia at that time. There was one only shop in Sydney where one could purchase basic lentils and that was located quite far from our house. My father was supporting a large family on a school teacher's income. Unlike in Uganda, there was no subsidised accommodation for Government employees nor was home help affordable.

...In the next post I will continue and get into more musical aspects!