The silent musicians

Posted on December 11, 2014


Most of the artists in the performing circuit in Chennai have been groomed by individual gurus. So what about those who learn music in institutions?

In a small room behind the Woodlands counter at Narada Gana Sabha, three schoolgirls, aged 13 to 17, were sitting on a mat. An electronic sruthi box lay on a table that rose above their heads, and seated in front, on chairs, were PS Narayanaswamy and his disciple CR Vaidyanathan. Anyone familiar with beginner-level Carnatic music classes would find the scene familiar. The girls began to sing, in clear tones (and in accelerating tempi), the Kalyani varnam, Vanajakshi.

Then, they stopped singing in unison, and each one, in turn, began to render kalpanaswaras, landing on the phrase niluparani. The teachers offered pointed guidance. “Don’t mix mel kaalam and keezh kaalam while singing swaras”. “Sing in sruthi.” As it turned out, the girls weren’t beginners but “advanced students” at the Swami Haridhos Giri School of Music, run by the Sabha. Narayanaswamy told me that in order to qualify for admission, students should have learnt music up to the varnam level, at least, and here, they would be taught the manodharma aspects. He asked the girls what they wanted to sing next. One of them said Muruga Muruga endraal, in Saveri. Before they began, I asked them the what-do-you-want-to-be question. They all said they wanted to become professional singers. They wanted to sing during the Season.

Given this setup, this doesn’t seem an impossible dream. There is, after all, the aegis of a reputed organisation. There are, as teachers, well-regarded senior musicians. So why is the performing circuit monopolised by people who have trained under individual gurus, as opposed to those who learn music at these institutions?

RS Jayalakshmi, one of the vocal music teachers at Swami Haridhos Giri School of Music, spoke to me about the challenges faced by institutions. “(1) You can’t be very strict about admitting people, as you need numbers to run an institution, and therefore the skill levels are going to differ. (2) A private teacher can group students according to skill levels; here, that cannot be done. Therefore, you can’t expect uniformity of teaching or learning. (3) And it is not possible for students to get the individual, 1:1 attention they’d get with a private teacher. There are 10 students. You have 1-1/2 hours. You can only offer general advice. (4) Here, classes are conducted twice weekly, and that’s not enough for concert career-level singing. (5) And even if students are interested, even if they motivate themselves to practice on the days they don’t have classes, their education comes first.”

Then there are colleges where music is the education – like Thamizh Isai Kalloori, in whose precincts Carnatic music speaks only Tamil. I met the Principal – sorry, mudhalvar, as the nameplate on her desk corrected me – Dr Lakshmi Podhuval, and she listed other problems. Actually, given what she is faced with, the challenges at the Swami Haridhos Giri School of Music don’t seem like challenges at all. “It’s easy for teachers to deal with advanced-level students, who pick things up quickly,” she said. “The students here start late. They come here after finishing their tenth or their Plus Two, and they’ve had no previous musical education. So, we have to start with A-B-C-D…” She refers, of course, to the music world’s equivalent of the alphabet, the sarali varisai. And by the end of the third year, students are expected to sing a pallavi in trikalam, with kalpanaswaram. The expectation is akin to becoming a Picasso a couple of years after learning how to hold a brush. “So we cannot produce performing-quality students.”

Another thing. “We have to admit students as per the quota rules stipulated by the government,” she said, and cleared space for the elephant in the room, even if no one wanted to talk about it, wanted to be quoted about it. The closest someone I spoke to got was by referring to the “dominant community” in Carnatic music, which, when acronymed as DC, sounds like a box you’d find in a college application form. These were the points made: (1) With the DC, kids are thrown into paattu class at a very young age. This is not the case with other communities. (2) Parents from the DC community are more aware of music, and this atmosphere of music, at home, helps to shape the child from a young age. Dr Podhuval sighed that her students listened only to film songs, and she had to keep nagging them to listen to concert recordings that would make them better. (3) Most performers from the DC community train with individual gurus, and just hanging around and listening to these gurus helps so much. You can’t learn a lot if you pick up your books and head home when the bell rings after the last period.

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PS Narayanaswamy

A small (or big, depending on how you view this issue) segue seemed important at this point, on this issue, and I asked for the opinions of Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao, Secretary of The Music Academy, that bastion of the DCs. He said, “When you talk about taking up music as a profession, you need the support of your family, and that may not be as easy in the other communities. And the other communities may not be as visible in this field because there’s perhaps an inherent complex – on the part of society, on the part of teachers, and on the part of students. There could also be a financial barrier.”

At least the latter point is addressed by the Advanced School of Carnatic Music (ASCM), run by the Academy with the “purpose of creating performing artists.” It is funded by endowments from philanthropists. “There are no fees,” Dr. Rao said. “Admission is by qualification only. The enrolled students have to be at the performing level – they have to have a stock of varnams and kritis and should be able to attempt manodharma: alapana, svarakalpana and niraval. ” The Swami Haridhos Giri School of Music, which, among the other institutions, is the closest cousin to ASCM, charges a nominal fee – Rs. 3000 per year. Jayalakshmi said that this was another reason people sought out institutions, as a private guru could set a student back by Rs 200 to Rs 500 per class. (And around Rs. 2000, per class, for lessons on Skype – if you are an NRI, say.)

I asked Dr. Rao if the ASCM – much like a private guru – could, through a well-established network of “contacts,” arrange for performing opportunities for students, something that a music college would not be able to do, with teachers far removed from the performing circuit. He said, “There is no automatic slot for graduates. There are no special favours. Our students undergo the same process of filtering as the others.” He added that caste/community does not matter when it comes to admission at ASCM. “We don’t ask,” he said. In 2009, the year the institution was started, all five students were DCs, “but now it’s roughly 50-50.”

Still, that pales in comparison to the diversity at Kalakshetra. Karunakara Menon, bureaucrat and art administrator, who was, till recently, deputy director of the institution, said the student community was “not connected to the ‘traditional communities’ that patronise Carnatic music or Bharatanatyam.” He pointed out students from Kerala whose parents were masons, or vending kadalamittai on carts, or daily wage earners in a factory. He pointed out a student from Tamil Nadu whose brother runs an idli shop, and a couple of others who came from orphanages in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He pointed out a student from Manipur who’d come to learn the mridangam, and a palliative nurse from South Africa who’d come to learn the violin.

“They come to Kalakshetra,” he said, “because of the reputation for quality education.” And he stressed the importance of alumni. “If the institution is able to produce successful performers, then it draws students who want to become performers. Kalakshetra, during its early years, had an array of gurus who were also noted performers, and they, in turn, produced alumni with exemplary performance credentials, like Mani Krishnaswamy, Rama Ravi and Pashupathy sir. But if you produce anonymous graduates in the performing arts, then you will attract students who are looking for just another qualification to help them in the employment market. They end up becoming other things.” Like a researcher. A curator. A teacher.

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Dr Podhuval said that students who join institutions come under three categories: (1) Those who are actually interested in learning music, (2) those who weren’t able to get admission to any other course, anywhere else, and (3) those who want to become teachers and researchers. “With just a degree,” she told me, “they are able to get a job teaching music in schools. And with higher qualifications like SLET (State Level Eligibility Test) and NET (National Eligibility Test), they can teach in colleges and universities.”

Dr Premeela Gurumurthy, the Head of the Department of Indian Music, University of Madras, said, “In Kerala, every school offers a course in music. So with a degree, you can get a really good job there.” The invocation of this state is no accident. Menon, too, said that, of all the southern states, Kerala is most sensitised to music and dance education. “The state’s intervention in the propagation of the classical arts is very structured, so there’s no question of domination by the upper class or caste – it’s much more egalitarian. So you see performers coming from various sections of society, and also a very pluralist patronage base for the arts.”

I spoke to some of the students at the University of Madras. (As with most institutions, the course options here include vocal music, Bharatanatyam, nadaswaram, violin, mridangam, veenai and thavil.) Neela trained under a guru and came here “to learn more, in a structured and theoretical manner. Because of my family situation, I could not perform. I am interested in research and teaching.” Suganthi, who completed a BA in Music, along with music teacher training, in Thiruvaiyaru, came here because she wants “to be a big playback singer. And for that, you need a strong classical base.” Then, as if realising the lightning-in-a-bottle nature of her dream, a practical side asserted itself. “Here, you get a degree. And you need a degree for a job.” Thamaraiselvi teaches music to children at home. “To be a good teacher,” she said, “I need to learn the theory behind music perfectly.” This, in fact, is something you get only at institutions – individual gurus may make for better instructors, but they don’t teach you music theory. One of the students showed me a first-year textbook, titled Isai Varalaaru – Thamizh Marabu. It had, as its first chapter, Pazhanthamizh isai – Silappathigaramum athan uraigalum.

B.Balasubrahmaniyan, who is currently a faculty member at Wesleyan University, teaching South Indian Music, joined the University of Madras for his BA in music, and he stayed on for a PhD. He said, over email, “I guess most of the students who study music at the universities and music colleges are aiming for a teaching job. I have also studied music in the institutional setup and my goal was to teach music at the college level. The institutional music system gives equal importance to music theory and practice. So, to obtain a degree, students have to spend considerable time reading books and doing projects.” As to why these students don’t become performers, he said, “The classes are not on a one-on-one basis and they are syllabus-oriented.” (When I asked Dr Gurumurthy about the syllabus, she told me: 3 swarajatis; 30 kritis, including the pancharatna kritis; 10 ata tala varnams; and ragam-tanam-pallavi, including niraval and kalpanaswaram.) “It’s hard for students to be concert-ready in the five years it takes to get an MA. But many students who come to study music are already students of individual gurus.”

He could be talking about Kalaimagan, a first-year MA student at the University of Madras, who trained under Nagamani Nagarajan, and then was selected to study at Swami Haridhos Giri School of Music and ASCM. Since he was eight, Kalaimagan has been performing with his grandfather, the famous villupaattu exponent Subbu Arumugam. He has given Carnatic concerts at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bharat Kalachar and Astika Samajam. This December, he has a concert at Krishna Gana Sabha. He said the MA course was helping him learn about “the culture and tradition of music, the richness and meaning of compositions.” Seated behind him, wearing a salwar kameez and bindi, was a Hungarian second-year student named Ildiko. She said that in her country music lessons begin in elementary school, at roughly the age of six. “So by the time you are 20, you are ready to be a performer. You can become part of an orchestra. Here, you’re either a soloist or nothing.”

Then there are those like the slight, bearded 26-year-old I met at the Thamizh Isai Kalloori. His name is Perumal, and he is from Tuticorin. “Interest.” That’s what he said when I asked him why he was learning the nadaswaram. There was probably also a genetic compulsion. His mother’s father was Subramaniya Kambar, a nadaswaram vidwan in Nagercoil. But his father, a temple priest, told him to finish his studies first, so he completed his MBA and came to Chennai to learn the instrument. He does data entry at a BPO from 8 pm to 4 am, and he is at the college between 10 am and 4 pm. He practices in his rented room during weekends. When he finishes his course, he plans to head back to Tuticorin. I asked him if he had plans of performing there, and he said that music could never be a career. He’ll play the nadaswaram when he gets time off from his father’s “business,” which he will inherit, like his father did from his grandfather. “I am the only son,” he said. “If I had brothers, things would be different.”

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