I recently conducted a small recital for all my students here, and the process of organizing everything and conducting the function stirred up some interesting thoughts which I want to pen down before they become stale.
I started my education in Carnatic music with vocal lessons at the age of 9. My first teacher was a disciple of the late Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman, and had imbibed his highly unorthodox, innovative approach to music, especially with regards to teaching. She did not believe in strictly following the traditional order that is used to teach music (first saralivarasai, then jandu varasai, daatu varasai, mel sthayi varasai, alankarams, geethams, etc. in that immutable order), but switched things up in order to pique and maintain our interest. We were all hyperactive 7-9 year olds at the time, after all. While learning the aforementioned initial lessons, we were also taught small krithis, thus exposing us to other ragams and scales at an early stage. We were also taught the pancharatna krithis at an early stage, dashing any preconceived notions that those songs should only be taught to advanced students.
Around that time, I also began to develop an interest in laya and thalam aspects, and began to study laya theory on my own. I was initially interested in learning to play the ghatam, but I was advised that it would beneficial to take mrudangam lessons first before doing so, as mrudangam is considered the “mother of all percussion instruments”. I then started mrudangam lessons and began a lifelong journey which continues to this day. Looking back at those early days and reminiscing about how everything unfolded makes me realize that these developments were timed almost perfectly. It is said, and I also agree, that all mrudangam vidwans must have a knowledge of vocal music. The greatest ones are also very proficient at singing! There are numerous examples of this. Palghat Mani Iyer was one of the first gurus of K. V. Narayanaswamy; he taught KVN several songs and also cultivated his uncanny mastery of laya. Srimushnam V. Raja Rao is also a very good singer (I have heard him sing before), as is Guruvayoor Dorai. Dorai mama stayed at our house once during navarathri, and I remember he sang a few songs which I accompanied. Knowledge of vocal music is important for mrudangam, because the mrudangam vidwan also needs to be sensitive to the rasa (mood) of the song, and be able to bring out the appropriate emotions through the instrument. Knowing the songs also helps with anticipating the sangathis (variations) in the lines of the songs better, helping one score points with the main artist by effective support.
That being said, it is indeed fortuitous that I began vocal lessons first and continued those while taking mrudangam lessons. Unfortunately, because I was young at the time, and had to split my time between so many commitments (including school), I did not take music too seriously until we moved to the US. I resumed vocal lessons almost immediately upon moving to America, and this time my teacher followed all the basic lessons in a very strict order. It may not have been the most enjoyable way to learn, but the benefit is this: it works. The traditional methods are tried and true, and yield results if followed properly. They build a good foundation for the voice, and enable good adherence to sruthi. About one year later, I had the good fortune of continuing my mrudangam training under my current guru, Shri Neyveli Narayanan. At that time, it may have been luck, but in retrospect, it must have been more than just a mere coincidence. These kinds of “lucky breaks” in life are attributed by some to be due to divine intervention, and there is probably merit to that idea.
While in high school, I continued training in both vocal music and mrudangam, but I had more interest in vocal at the time, and only used to practice mrudangam properly when Narayanan sir was in town! At that time, I used to be a fairly sickly child, and frequent illnesses took a toll on my being able to practice singing every day. After 3 years or so, I then decided to focus on mrudangam more, since I could still practice that even if I was sick. Another, more important consideration, is that there is less competition for mrudangists than there is for vocalists. Finally, I was learning from one of the greatest mrudangam vidwans of all time – as I said earlier, such opportunities are rare and should not be squandered. After that conscious decision, I stopped vocal lessons after finishing high school, but continued with mrudangam. That enabled me to make rapid progress. I soon started playing for local concerts, and about 3 years later, Narayanan sir organized my arangetram (debut concert) in Chennai.
The arangetram is done when the student has finished all the basic lessons and his guru deems him or her ready for public professional performances. In this sense, it is almost like a Ph.D. defense, in my opinion. The public is invited to the function, which will hopefully draw an interested and knowledgeable crowd. The student’s teacher will be there, and a chief guest (who is usually a top-tanking vidwan) is invited. Various vidwans and secretaries are invited to the function, like organizing the thesis committee for a Ph.D. defense. The student shows off what he/she has learned in front of this highly knowledgeable crowd, and if the performance passes muster under public scrutiny, the student has passed. Thus, like Delhi Sunder Rajan once said here, the arangetram is indeed an exam, “a final exam” of sorts. At the same time, it is only the beginning of a lifelong journey in music. Too many kids here (in the US) just haphazardly scrape together something for an arangetram so that they can put it on their college applications and then later forget all about it.
I still remember my arangetram clearly. I had requested Saketharaman to sing for the occasion, and Narayanan sir and I had settled on conducting it at Srinivasa Sastri Hall, in the heart of Mylapore (in Chennai). We had invited Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir and Cleveland Sundaram as chief guests. The day before, we even went to T. N. Seshagopalan’s house and formally invited him to also attend the function; his response, however, was noncommittal. The next day, we were all sitting in the green room, waiting for the event to start, when I received a shock; TNS sir and his son (TNS Krishna) had arrived early to the program, even before Sivaraman sir had arrived! Not only did TNS arrive early, but he also stayed through the whole thing, and gave a very nice speech afterwards. I attribute this not just to the close friendship that Narayanan sir and TNS have, but to the even closer friendship that Thanjavur Upendran sir and TNS had. This friendship compelled TNS sir to come hear the arangetram of “Upendran anna’s” grand-student!
(Saketharaman (vocal, middle), Vittal Ramamurthy (violin, right), me (mrudangam, left), and behind me, Dr. S. Karthik (ghatam))
Since then, it has been a fun ride, performing in various cities across the US, and in various sabhas in Chennai. I’ve played for both young and senior artists, instrumentalists, vocalists, highly experienced vidwans and even beginners. I have conducted lec-dems several times for novice audiences and also played in front of some of the most discriminating people on the planet! Like I said, music is a journey, and you can’t predict where it may take you…
I had intended to jot down thought about teaching music (which I have done for the past 7 years), but this turned out to be an autobiographical sketch. Thoughts about teaching will be in part II.