Chennai Margazhi season: the high notes
N. Ravikiran, the grandson of noted Gotuvadyam Vidwan Narayana Iyengar, shot to fame as a child prodigy at the age of 2, when he could recognize ragas and rhythmic patterns. He began performing professionally when he was 5. The well-known performer, composer, teacher and festival curator was recently awarded this year’s prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi prize—the equivalent of a Nobel in the world of Carnatic music. Lounge interviewed him as the famous December Margazhi season began its 90th year at The Music Academy. Edited excerpts:
From being a child prodigy to reaching the pinnacle of the industry, what has sustained you?
In addition to the blessings of my gods and gurus, what has sustained me is my idea to preserve this rich musical heritage. I would like to do for Carnatic what Pandit Ravi Shankar has done for Hindustani. He is one of my inspirations.
Having grown up in a family of musicians, you also took formal training from other ‘gurus’. How important is a ‘guru’ and what role do they play in shaping your outlook towards the music you make?
I was fortunate to learn from two of the greatest gurus. My father Chitravina Narasimhan, who revolutionized teaching methods, not just for me but for my brother Shashikiran and sister Kiranavali as well. Then, Thanjavur Brindamma, who opened up a whole microcosmic world of music and perspective for me. I believe the greatest responsibility of a guru is not just to instil knowledge but to inspire passion. Being a guru is not just about taking tuitions but intuition. To transform a student’s mind positively.
How would you argue the relevance of the music you make for the times we live in?
Carnatic music is way beyond mere entertainment. It can ennoble and elevate. That is because the architects of this system designed it to be so. Great composers, musicians, thinkers, literary giants and theoreticians have embellished the system over time. If you see the technicalities, Carnatic is the most scientifically melodic system I have seen anywhere in the world. I don’t mean chords but how successive notes are laid out. Especially, instrumental music has the power to transcend all kinds of barriers and reach out to everyone remotely initiated into melody.
What is your idea of ‘Sampradaya’, or tradition? Do you have personal parameters to adhere to it?
Sampradaya, to me, is the constant refinement of all that is aesthetically beautiful as well as theoretically sound in a system like Carnatic. It is like an ancient temple. It could be huge and old but it could also be filled with cobwebs. It is the upkeep of the place that is tradition to me. Just because it has cobwebs, you don’t demolish the structure. An artist approaches tradition with humility. I believe in the process of “refining”, rather than “reforming”. I have never hesitated to change some of the things I was taught. Even the raga structure has changed from what it was a few hundred years ago. Insofar as changes conform to certain parameters and do not blatantly distort the raga, any changes you make will be positive additions to the system.
Do you have musical inspirations?
It is interesting that sometimes my musical inspirations are not necessarily musicians. Of course, there are musicians. My inspiration comes from achievers like Sir Donald Bradman, great scientists and (other) sportspersons.
What frustrates you about your profession?
Nothing ever irritates or frustrates me. I believe that a lot of things can be changed for the better in this field. I was the first to take this initiative to over 31,000 rural children a decade ago. I made a report for the government. I was in the former PM’s core committee for music education in schools. My Melharmony project in schools (in India) is inspired from the West—we want the children of our country to develop a passion for our music and culture. It is a system that takes into cognizance the rules and aesthetics of both melody and harmony. While showing the similarities between diverse systems, it embraces the distinctions too. I have a vision for it. Private enterprise can do this but they will never be able to scale it up like the government or state would.
There is a lot of talk about the decline of interest in classical music. Is it true?
All this talk has no value. I am a doer. Many years ago, I wrote a book called Appreciating Carnatic Music, which was proof-read by none other than R.K. Narayan. It was one of the very first books of its kind in Indian music. I have been trying to globalize Carnatic music and bring in new audiences from across the world. Instrumental music is empowered to reach a larger audience because it is not restricted by language. See the hits on YouTube! You will realize how there is far more interest in today’s youth. So this talk of decline is not true.
You were one of the first to realize that technology could be put to constructive use for documenting Carnatic music.
In a lot of my concerts in several cities, I noticed there were a lot of talented children who had a passion for Carnatic music, but didn’t have access to quality teaching. I came up with the concept of “tele-teaching” in 1996. Now every major guru and musician has embraced technology to teach. Thanks to Acharyanet.com, where there are hundreds of lessons for students of all levels. I believe that technology is very important and has led to the explosion of talent across the world. I still think that technology is only a supplement, never a substitute for a guru. I insist every student take personal classes from a guru.
Do you have a vision for Carnatic music?
My vision, not just for Carnatic music, but our culture as a whole, is that if you are able to tap the talent of young children, there is scope for exponential growth. It would initiate several crores of people into a system. Government and media have a big role to play too. Media has been absolutely silent on our classical arts. It has taken to popular culture more, which is not a problem. But if you see The New York Times, there is space for both the popular and the classical.
When in Chennai
• Attend a full Carnatic katcheri—a full-bench Carnatic concert. If you don’t understand the language, look up the schedule for an instrumental concert.
• Sign up for a heritage walk by Sriram Venkatakrishnan, Chennai’s most popular city historian, author and scholar.
• Almost every major concert venue has a canteen serving delicious food. Make a trip to the Murugan Idli Shop and Annalakshmi restaurant for an authentic Tamil breakfast and lunch.
• Check out the TAG Digital Listening Archives of The Music Academy, the world’s biggest archive of Carnatic music.
• Check out the latest collections of Kanjeevarams at popular stores like Nalli, Raasi and Pothys. Visit the weaving unit of Kalakshetra, where traditional textiles are being revived.
• Visit the vast complex of the ancient Kapalishwara Temple in the heart of Mylapore.
• Make a trip to DakshinaChitra, a heritage village on the highway to Puducherry, and get a taste of the best of south Indian heritage, architecture and culture at one place.