Indira Menon was born in Madras, and spent her early years in Bihar where her father was posted. With her sister Kalyani, she later went to live with their grandparents in Madras, where her grandfather, Sir K. Ramunni Menon, had them placed under the tutelage of Smt. T. Brinda, who taught them Carnatic music in 1944–1947, a period she later described as the best years of her life. She called Brinda the ‘eternal teacher’, and some of her qualities that she describes so movingly would be recognized in herself by her own students of economics, of music and of remedial English—her instinct for lacing learning with laughter, her decided opinions, her patience. Her recollections of her grandfather, whom she credited with having made music part of her being by subjecting her sister and herself to nerve-wracking sessions where he asked them to identify the correct among two alternative renderings, convey the same combination of humour, warmth, awe that was peculiarly hers.
Her sister Kalyani, in a touching passage in the memoirs she wrote for her son, talks of how she used to feel that everyone pampered Indira because she was the younger one, but later decided it was because Indira herself was so loving.
In 1947, she came to Delhi to visit her parents and younger sister Narayani, and it was here that she contracted polio. In the process of trying out various treatments, her schooling was interrupted until 1951, when she joined the Convent of Jesus and Mary. In the meantime, unable to come to terms with a world without music, she got her mother to arrange classes for her and to accompany her to every concert in Delhi. She also took classes in Telugu to understand the text of the compositions of her beloved Thyagaraja. It was only in her last years that she said she had always suspected it was the weakness of her lung caused by the polio that prevented her voice from developing properly. In her teens she was so busy fiercely trying to do all the things her friends were able to do, she had no room for self-pity. She learned to ride a bicycle, to enjoy knitting and embroidery, to compose fine photographs. In school she found friends whom she could talk to for hours about Dickens and Austen. 1951 was also the year she first encountered theHimalayas on a family holiday to Ranikhet, which she described as a moment like her discovery of music. It led to her building up a library on mountains and mountaineering, part of a lifetime of autodidactic practice that left friends and students richer for her conversations on railways, Hollywood, European and Indian cinema, Western and Hindustani classical music, sari traditions, Greek and South Indian sculpture, medieval European and Indian architecture, Italian Renaissance painting and the French Impressionists.
Although it was Geography that fired her imagination, Economics was suggested as the more practical choice, and she studied this at Miranda House and the Delhi School of Economics, and taught it from 1959 to 1988 at Daulat Ram College and Jesus and Mary College. With the kind of intelligence that (in a phrase of Nadine Gordimer) cannot apply itself at less than its best to anything, she taught the history of economic thought as she was later to write about Carnatic music and South Indian architecture: it always came naturally to her to shade in the historical moment of the people and ideas she discussed with the lightest of touches and disarming clarity, so that listeners and readers all at once found themselves at home in a world that had appeared remote. As Head of Department she made it a point to discuss each student’s performance to see how she could be made to do justice to her abilities. Student Maina Singh recalls her lovely sarees, big bindi and the fire in her spirit, colleague Shobhana Bhattacharji remembers marvelling at someone who could create a glorious bouffant using only one arm, while colleague Anita Ghai once told her that it was difficult for people to think of her as handicapped.
Indira used the vacations to travel to different parts of Europe, and would, in her own words, bury herself for days in books and maps in preparation for her journey. Her travels in India took her many times to the Himalayas, hiking as far as Gaumukh, and in the 1970s to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where she took photographs that in her last year she put together for a book. She took early retirement in 1988 in order to make time for the many things she enjoyed, and was to teach herself as many more. She started singing again after 25 years, continued to spoil friends and family with the inspired recipes she improvized and her signature apple pie, transformed a sedate lawn into a reckless riot of plants, took up drawing (excelling in charcoal portraits) and painting (delighting in paying homage to the great masters she loved). She taught children who had been unable to continue with school, and wrote energetically and imaginatively about issues that exercised her, picturing child labour through the bewildered eyes of a latter-day Alice, and proposing institutional mechanisms for disaster management (with colleague Vishalakshi Menon). In 1999 appeared her first book, The Madras Quartet, written to fill the gap she perceived in writing on musicians, particularly female musicians. The book also guides the uninitiated around the history and the structure of Carnatic music. Her next book, Great Masters of Carnatic Music (2004), grew out of a series of articles translated into Malayalam by her friend P.K. Uthaman for the Kalakaumudi. In both books, she was concerned with every last detail about the choice of quotation, the placement of photographs, the primary material appended, as helping her tease out a historical process.
From 2002, she was increasingly confined to the house: until 2007, because of her tireless care for her mother, and afterwards because of her own dependence upon oxygen. In this time, she made good use of the Internet to keep in touch with her growing tribe of fans/ fellow music-enthusiasts, and helped organize concerts for several; she took especial pleasure in her skill as a ‘networker’ when, after watching a candidate for the ‘Kerala Idol’ award on television early in 2009, she managed to get in touch with him on the phone and suggest what he needed to improve and how to do so.
She never let us know very much about what her handicap was doing to her, and in some ways we sensed it more in other ways, easier for us to bear: her pleasure in a washerwoman’s dexterity, her gentle, systematic instructions in something requiring manual skill, her precise detailing of how she raised herself up after a fall. We now find ourselves inhabited, as it were, by our experience of the affection she could concentrate into her smile, her tactility and the intensity with which she lived through her senses—unable to shift her eyes from the window while on a train, afterwards, when increasingly immobile, conjuring up faces from shadows. In her last hours, her speech was sometimes indistinct; asked once to repeat what she’d said, she answered, ‘I chuckled ‘.