A Song of Flavours ~ Maharashtrian Nalini Deshpande

by on February 5, 2016

I first heard her singing at her daughter’s mehendi ceremony. Her voice had that perfect harmony of melody and mood. The listeners had no choice but to shout ‘once more’, again and again. Later, I was surprised to find out that she was an educationist, not a professional singer.

Meeting 60 year-old Nalini Deshpande, a Maharashtrian from Pune, is seeing a world of myriad possibilities, each one as beautifully vibrant as the other. That’s how creative and multidimensional she is. Her voice is as melodious as a koyal’s, her cooking is the epitome of comfort food and, at school, she is firm, yet compassionate. Above all, her zest for life is unparalleled.


Nalini deshpande interview Pratibha Jain

Namaste Nalini. First of all, with such a melodious voice, how come you are not in Bollywood?

[Laughs] I always wanted to be a singer. Back then, going to Mumbai and trying my luck was not an acceptable option in the family. But I was crazy about singing, so I joined an orchestra when we were in Lucknow and continued singing for 15 years.


Did you grow up in Lucknow?

I was born in Ranchi but we moved to Lucknow and then Delhi and later to Pune. My father was in the Army. We moved to Srinagar twice and that is where I did my schooling and, later, graduation.


Was it easy to cope with so much shifting?

Yes, because the home environment was really stable. Simple values and simple lifestyle, including typical Maharashtrian food. The childhood flavours continued through it all!


Even now?
Yes, the midday meal is a typical Maharashtrian meal: chapatti or poli, bhaji, rice and a dal. Evenings we prepare something different, like a soup and a salad.


Did you learn how to cook after marriage?

I began to cook from a young age, as is common with Maharashtrians from Kolhapur. My mother was very particular that I should learn to cook, perhaps because she would hear her friends complain about their daughters-in-law who were not adept at it! Most of my friends did not cook until they got married, but I enjoyed cooking. I find it a creative pursuit, like music. Music, of course, is my jaan.


What happened next in your music career?

I joined The Entertainers in Pune, a live orchestra headed by Mohan Bhandari. It was a great opportunity for me as they performed extensively in India and abroad. That is also how I met my husband.


Tell me about the two of you.

Anil is a percussionist and was part of The Entertainers. As you can see, music is an integral part of our life. Over time, we found out we had much in common and decided to get married. Actually, three prospective grooms came to see me but none of them liked music. To me, that was non-negotiable.


How did the families react to your decision to marry each other?

One or two small hitches, but all in all, they agreed. I was very close to my father. So one morning, I woke up early and sat beside him while he was doing yoga. He asked me what was on my mind and I told him about Anil. He just wanted to know if Anil’s parents would consent as they are Brahmins while we are Marathas.


What was your reply?

I simply said that I can change myself for music.


Was the environment at your new home very different?

There were differences, yet I managed quite easily. But I never got used to the sweetish flavour in their cuisine. Being Brahmins, their dishes always included a dash of sugar or jaggery. In fact, my father-in-law also preferred spicy food and enjoyed some of the dishes I prepared.


When did you start teaching?

A few years after my daughter was born! When Antara was a baby, we continued travelling with the music group. My parents were very supportive and took care of her during our travels. There was one incident that propelled me to change my mind. Once when we returned after a 10-day tour, Antara did not recognise us. When her schooling began, I decided to give up singing so she could have a stable childhood.


That must have been quite a tough decision.

It was. But I was lucky. One of my closest friends and mentors, eminent educationist Meena Chandavarkar, was a director at Abhinav Vidyalaya in Pune. When I discussed my decision with her, she asked me to join her school. That was in 1989. I taught as a kindergarten teacher for nine years. Then they shifted me to primary school. In 2007, I joined the New Indian School whose chairman was Shashikant Sutar, former education minister. I worked there as a supervisor until I retired in 2013. Now I am ‘In Charge’ at the National Pride School.


Your future plans?

I don’t think we must make too many plans. It’s better to take life as it comes. If life was about plans alone, I would have continued as a singer.


How do you maintain your voice?

By eating chillies [laughs]! I discovered that I sing well when I have eaten something spicy. One or two batata vada with fried chillies and I am ready to sing. I have been so fortunate; not once through all my performances have I had a sore throat or any trouble.


Dependable is the word! I have interacted with your daughter Antara and must compliment you on how responsible and unspoilt she is, even though she is an only child.

Thank you for saying that. It means a lot to me. I believe in freedom. Antara grew up in a very free environment. We never imposed our expectations on her. We never told her that she must win or stand first. We let her be. Honestly, the three of us are like friends. I don’t feel I have been married for 30 years or that I have such a grown-up daughter. We just have an open and honest relationship.


Does the same formula apply at school?

Yes it does. I don’t like it when parents dump their expectations on children. I always tell them: ‘Don’t decide for the child.’ A child may not excel at studies, but he may sing or paint beautifully.


Very true. In the midst of all this, how do you make time for cooking?

That is part of everyday life. I credit my mother for encouraging me to cook from a very young age. I was further inspired by my father’s praises. I remember how my school friends loved coming home and I would cook for them. Now, on weekends, we call our friends over for a meal.


Eating out?

Not much. We do it once in a while. I like home-cooked food. My daughter and now my son-in-law, Puneet Kothari (son of Kavitha & Surendraji Kothari), are also foodies. Food discussions are an integral part of our conversations and meetings.


Favourite dishes?

Too many to name. I still remember my mother’s amti, a preparation with toor dal in which she added drumsticks. Among the ones I cook, my methi toast is much liked. At home, paan pulav is also a favourite.


Sounds interesting. Never heard of betel leaf in pulav!

I just concocted it. I love thinking and innovating on my feet.


Photo Courtesy: Harmony Magazine


Part-2 of this post is the recipe of Vidyachya Paanache Masale Bhaat (Betel Leaf Pulav), a delicious pulav with the flavours of betel leaves from Nalini Deshpande’s kitchen.
First published in ‘Heart to Hearth’ – a column in Harmony Celebrate Age magazine. A series about elders who believe in nurturing the body and mind as the key to joy.


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