Today, if I had my druthers, I would be on my way to Varanasi to attend the 2009 Ganga Mahotsav. To listen to classical musicians on the banks of the Ganga under a full moon would be bliss indeed. Ustad Bismillah Khan played here; as did a host of other luminaries.

I go through phases when listening to Hindustani music. For a while, I listened only to sonorous men: the Ali, Mishra and Gundecha brothers. The latter’s Shiva Shiva Shiva available on YouTube is a particular favourite.

MS Subbulakshmi: T.J.S. George wrote her biography. Hindustan Times

Whether it is Kishori Amonkar’s Hey Govind Hey Gopal, Shruti Sadolikar’s Har Har Deva, or Ashwini Bhide’s Gayeeye Ganapati, there are few things as sweet as the female voice. Men’s voices offer depth; women’s voices offer unadulterated honey. The problem in Hindustani music is that depth is valued more than sweetness. In Carnatic music, we call this gaathram, which means ‘body’ in Sanskrit. I am sure that there is a word in Hindustani music for this rough deep texture of a masculine female voice. D.K. Pattammal had it, as did Gangubai Hangal. Or maybe it was simply that they practised more than their sweet-voiced contemporaries to make up for their presumed poor voice, and achieved a level of expertise far above the norm.

Also Read Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

As we speak, I am learning a Carnatic kriti (song) called Mokshamu Galada. My method is usually to pick a musician’s version that I like and learn via CD by listening to the same song ad nauseam. Mokshamu is a lovely song composed by saint Thyagaraja in the raga Saramathi. It is a “minor" raga in that most musicians don’t choose it as their main raga for a concert. Bombay Jayashri has sung it, as has Aruna Sairam. My favourite is by the sweet-voiced sisters, Ranjani and Gayatri, and it is their version that is playing on my iTunes. On YouTube, if you type Mokshamu Sivapalan, you will hear a decent version by Toronto-based Aathirai Sivapalan who does fusion Carnatic music under the auspices of Phatwave Productions. The Madras String Quartet has a nice instrumental version too available online.

Understanding the nuances of Hindustani or Carnatic music requires a patient guide. Books are a good bet. Just as writers are better conversationalists on paper than in person, musicians make woeful guides to the complexities of a raga. Talk and music don’t necessarily go together. All my teachers, ranging from Balamuralikrishna (the elder) to R.K. Srikantan, are phenomenally knowledgeable about Carnatic music. But to get them to talk about the ragas was like pulling teeth. They would use the same simple words that didn’t necessarily say much. Things like, “Oh, Bhairavi is a heavy ragam; very beautiful." Okay, then what?

Musicians in general are poor guides of music. The best way to savour the delights of classical music would be to find a few good writers who are also musically evolved. In Hindustani music, I tend to read and re-read Kumar Prasad Mukherji’s Lost World of Hindustani Music, and Sheila Dhar’s hilarious Here’s Someone I’d Like You to Meet. Namita Devidayal’s The Music Room gives a rare first-hand account of what it means to be a Hindustani music singer; of “playing out all of life’s dramas and moods" within the “boundaries of the sa", the tonal base note that is the pillar of Hindustani music. Carnatic music doesn’t accord the sa such a prominent place. Also on my reading list is the biography of Begum Akhtar that was reviewed in Lounge a while ago.

Carnatic music is woefully inadequate with respect to books about its art form. My ex-landlord, T.J.S. George (father of poet Jeet Thayil), wrote a comprehensive biography of M.S. Subbulakshmi but it didn’t delve too much into the music. I enjoy Gowri Ramnarayan’s articles and talks about her grand-aunt: the same M.S. A couple of years ago, singers T.M. Krishna and Bombay Jayashri co-wrote a book, called Voices Within Carnatic Music, about the stalwarts but I confess, I haven’t read it.

When I was growing up, Chennai was blessed with superb reviewers, ranging from the late N.M. Narayanan (known as NMN) and Subbudu. They didn’t shirk from offering incisive, sometimes insulting critiques of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. More important, they took a stance. Like Clement Greenberg did for a generation of abstract Expressionist painters, NMN and Subbudu set down rules and influenced the minds. Their critiques edified young musicians about the boundaries of traditions. Just now, I googled “N.M. Narayanan", to see if I could illustrate his approach and found a typical article, titled “Padanthara—from lofty concept to huge joke". In it, NMN lamented the fact that contemporary musicians used songs as a “plank" on which they could mount their technical excellence. To him, the singer and song were merely a vehicle with which the soul could aspire to the divine. Music, by his lexicon, had to be approached with humility, not hubris.

In the end, there is teaching and there is doing; there is book knowledge and there is sheer practice as illustrated by the old National Award-winning Telugu movie, Shankarabharanam, in which the young student stands neck deep in a flowing river at dawn to practise her taans or swaras as we say in Carnatic music. Being a not-so-good singer, I guess I simply must sit down beside the drone of my tanpura and just sing the lofty top notes of the Saramati raga that I seek to embrace.

The Ganga Mahotsav runs from 29 October to 2 November. For details, visit

Shoba Narayan dreams of standing neck deep at Gangotri and singing Mokshamu galada to an audience that comprises the full moon and little else.

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