Once, perhaps twice, a week, I drive to the old Bangalore neighbourhood of Seshadripuram for music lessons. My teacher is an 87-year-old man named R.K. Srikantan. Connoisseurs of Carnatic music know my guru to be among the doyens of the art, but he isn’t widely popular like, say, M.S. Subbalakshmi. No matter. He doesn’t care and neither do I. For one hour between 11 and 12 in the morning, we are quite simply, master and student. He sits on a chair; I touch his feet before and after class and sit on the floor, usually clad in a sari out of respect for his age. I sing and he corrects me. His ear is amazingly acute and finely tuned to dissonant notes.
“The ga is wrong,” he will say after one sangathi or passage. “It is lower… like this.”
Sound start: The South still offers many options for lovers of Carnatic music
“Not enough practice,” he will say at the end of each class. “You need to sing the same piece a hundred times till it gets into your system.”
I cherish my hourly lessons, not just for the music I learn, but also because I believe I am in the presence of greatness. To paraphrase Robin Williams in that wonderful movie, Birdcage, my guru is someone who knows who he is. At 87, he has nothing left to prove except to himself. He lives for what he calls sangeetham (music) and shastram (Vedas). In him, I see someone untouched by the materialism that is overtaking our society. He doesn’t care about who I am or where I live. If someone gave him a million dollars, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. Pay cheque, Page 3, power lists—all these mean nothing to him. What matters are shruti, or harmony, layam, or rhythm, the gait of a particular raagam and how to sing it with integrity.
Musicians, like all artistes, are a breed apart. They enjoy external perks—standing ovations, packed concert schedules, income, and yes, alas in the younger breed, endorsements. Still, it is possible, especially among the older generation, to find musicians who practise their art just for the sheer pleasure of it; for that particular bliss attained from singing a morning raga at dawn in solitude. I can wax eloquent about these wondrous creatures, or I can simply recommend that you pick up Sheila Dhar’s delightful book, Raga n’ Josh, or her earlier, Here’s Someone I’d Like You to Meet.
We Indians have always revered our musicians. When my guru sings a note, he sings it with such wholeness of intent that every note becomes imbued with perfection. It is like blowing a bubble and watching it suspended mid-air. For a moment, you forget yourself and the world; you are transported to another realm.
For many Indians, reality is measured and measurable in numbers—third- quarter profit, advertising revenues and bottom line. Musicians, on the other hand, live in a world that is entirely intangible and immeasurable. How to put a value on the beauty of the Raga Abheri sung by someone who knows it intimately? How to put a price on an hour spent with such a person? Musicians, artists and poets allow us to glimpse this parallel, but completely blissful universe when the measure of a human is not in numbers, but in the perfection of a musical phrase, the gesture of a paint-stroke, the cadence of a verse or the lakshan or a raga. Being in their company is a gift, like a boost of pure oxygen.
The state of Karnataka, where I live, is the womb of Carnatic music. The music scene here isn’t as vibrant as Chennai, particularly in December. But here too, there are sublime concerts, offered for free throughout the year. As I write this, we are finishing the Ram Seva Mandali concert series which is held in a big pandal in Chamrajpet, an old Bangalore neighbourhood. I love attending these concerts for many reasons. The music can be soul-elevating or merely competent. As a feminist, I like to watch women compete on an equal playing field. Carnatic music offers a level field for musicians of both genders.
Some of the most popular artistes are women—crowd pullers such as Aruna Sairam, Bombay Jaishree, Ranjani Gayathri, Sowmya, Sudha Raghunathan and Nithyashree. In the hierarchy of Carnatic concerts, they command equal stature and fees as the men. This is nice to see. Also nice is to watch the play of tradition against pioneering change: Sukanya Ramgopal, for instance, is one of the few women playing the ghatam (the instrument made of a mud pot). There never used to be women playing percussion instruments.
The Ram Seva Mandali concerts are sponsored by banks and consumer-products companies: Bank of Saurashtra, Bank of Mysore and Karnataka Soaps, to name a few. No multinational or IT company in sight, yet the concert series was in its 69th year and thriving. Lastly, when the concert sponsor—the marketing manager of Karnataka Soaps—went on stage to garland and honour the artistes, he touched their feet. A distinguished gentleman probably twice as old and earning four times as much as the young musicians on stage, yet he paid his respects to their art by touching their feet. This, to me, is Indian culture.
Pretty soon, the Odakathur Mutt in the Ulsoor neighbourhood I live in will have their Krishna Jayanthi concert series. The best talents from Chennai will grace the stage. I, along with hundreds of people,
will be sitting on the floor and listening to transporting music.
Music offers you a glimpse of the cosmos. Should we all be so lucky to have not one but two great music streams pervading our nation? Should we be so wise as to preserve them?
Shoba Narayan cannot levitate, but after a good concert, she comes pretty close. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org