musings on music and life

November 28, 2012

Kaapi alapana

Filed under: Carnatic Music — Tags: — sankirnam @ 4:50 pm

This is a clip from a concert I performed in San Diego earlier this month. This is an alapana in the ragam Kaapi. The brothers are doing an unmetered improvisation in the ragam. This is one of the main modes of improvisation in Carnatic Music, and is very much akin to the alaap in Hindustani music. The approach that the brothers take to exploring the ragam is highly reminiscent of the style used by T. R. Mahalingam (Flute Mali). He would take a slow, unhurried approach, and dwell for a long time on certain swaras (notes). Particularly in Kapi, he would dwell on the rishabam extensively. The piece played after this ragam was also one that Mali played frequently – Mivalla Gunadosha (Kanda Chapu, Thyagaraja).

November 23, 2012

thoughts on Carnatic music education, part 1

Filed under: Carnatic Music, education — sankirnam @ 11:52 am

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.

November 15, 2012

First paper published

Filed under: Chemistry — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 6:24 pm

So my first paper was published approximately a month ago:

This was the result of about 8 months’ work, working 14-16 hour days, seven days a week. All that came was this paper in a low impact factor journal which may or may not be read or even cited. Again, this is why I tell people to stay out of science – the effort:reward ratio is not worth it.

I had finished this work by October 2009 and had to put aside writing it as I had to work on my PhD qualifying examinations. I am going on record here to state that I am not happy with the writing in the paper and how it turned out. I offered several times to help with the writing and was rudely rebuffed each time, stating that “I should get my priorities straight and finish my exams”. I also did the bulk of the experimental work in this paper (about 80%) and did not get first authorship just because I did not have the privilege of actually authoring the paper. I was shown a final draft before publication and aired my concerns then – I was given a copy to proofread and make corrections. I ended up being very liberal with my red pen, and the person editing it at the time told me that “I should show more respect to my seniors and recognize my place in the hierarchy” when I offered to rewrite the paper from scratch in order to make it more stylistically pleasing.

Anyway, the paper is about a new methodology to make fluorinated compounds using fluorinated crotonic acids as building blocks. The acid is dissolved in trifluoromethanesulfonic (triflic) acid, which enables it to undergo a tandem Friedel-Crafts acylation and alkylation with aromatics. This is an example of superelectrophilic activation, which is one of the topics of my PhD research. I will go into detail on this topic in a later post.

November 5, 2012

Abhishek-Anand video

Filed under: Carnatic Music — sankirnam @ 5:32 pm

I found this on a friend’s facebook page, and thought it was worth sharing:

The Anand/Abhishek Rhytmic éclat – [Climax of Khanda Nadai] from Abhishek Raghuram Fan Page on Vimeo.

I have discussed Abhishek’s music before here, and even though I really want to maintain variety, Abhishek’s music is just so good that it deserves repetition. Of course, the highlight of this piece is the thani by Anand. As I have mentioned before, Abhishek Raghuram and Anand (Anantha R. Krishnan) are cousins, grandsons of the late Shri Palghat R. Raghu. Anand’s playing is exactly like how Raghu sir used to play when he was young and at his peak (not a trivial achievement, considering that that was almost 40-50 years ago). Raghu sir had a lot of other students who are also distinguished vidwans today (including Trichur C. Narendran, Manoj Siva, Trivandrum Balaji, Bombay Balaji, and others), but Anand is the cream of the crop in my opinion, having inherited all the traditions of Palghat Raghu sir’s bani and having his genius in his blood.

I vividly remember attending Abhishek’s Music Academy concert back in 2008, when he was still in the subsenior slot. It was a drowsy afternoon, I had just had lunch, and I sat in the balcony to relax and digest while listening to world-class music. I remember he sang Kaapaali (Mohanam) for the main piece, and the thani that followed by Anand was something I still remember to this day and will never forget for the rest of my life. He played some very intricate khanda nadai (5 counts per beat) patterns that day, and those were ringing in my ears for the next few days, so much so, that I ended up playing khanda nadai and that same korvai in my next concert at Mylapore Fine Arts Club a few days later! Since then, I have always made it a point to listen to Anand’s concerts wherever possible, both in US and during the December music season in Chennai.

In this video, Anand also plays khanda nadai, featuring an interesting variation of one of Palghat Mani Iyer’s classic korvais, adapted for khandam. The transition from khandam to tisram (3 per beat) is done absolutely effortlessly. This kind of playing shows how much practice Anand has put into the art, and also how much concert experience he has at this relatively young age – both are not trivial things, and in no small way have contributed to his current standing.

I’ll stop my gushing here lest this sound too sycophantic…

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