Here is an interview of mine put together by Sri. Selva Kumar from Bahrain, formerly a Deputy General Manager at New India Assurance Company, who currently manages the Kalvialayam Trust that offers Rural students free quality education. This article was posted in a Facebook group called CBSE Insurance Diaspora. Many years ago, as a 17-year old, I briefly worked in an insurance company (Yes!) as a result of the course work I had taken in my 11th and 12th grades. :)
If you ask me the raga used for the song ‘Amudai pozhiyum nilave’ I can tell with pride it is Mohanam. But strange, when I try to sing the song it turns into Mukhari. My friends assured me that I can show variations, but such experiments I should try only when I am alone!
But can you imagine a girl of two who could identify over 200 ragas (melodic scales), demonstrate the 175 talas (rhythmic cycles) and answer numerous technical questions pertaining to Carnatic music? By the age of 3 she was hailed as child prodigy and came into eyes and cynosure of the Indian media.
Kiranavali and Keeravani
I was curious to know the origin of the name Kiranavali and its link to Keeravani ragam. So I asked her.
“The word Kiranavali can be split into - 'Kirana' (rays) and 'aavali' (rows) to mean, a group of rays. My brothers are named Ravikiran (Sun's rays) and Shashikiran (Moon's rays), and to maintain the theme, my parents named me Kiranavali, which happens to also be the name of a beautiful raga. In the raga tradition that the great composer Muttuswami Dikshitar followed, Kiranavali is considered to be the 21st parent raga (Mela). But in the raga tradition that his equally great contemporary Tyagaraja followed, Kiranavali is a 'child' raga whose parent is Keeravani. Keeravani is considered the 21st Mela of this tradition (the modern 72-Melakarta raga tradition), and we largely follow it today. Keeravani has all seven notes on the way up and down, whereas Kiranavali has SaRiGaMaPaDaNiSa-SaPaMaGaRiSa (no Ni and Da on the way down). It is a very pretty raga with two compositions of Tyagaraja and one of Dikshitar”
Keeravani ragam always has its rasikas in Tamilnadu, thanks to songs like Kannekalaimane, Malaiyoram veesum Katru, pachamale poovu, Yenge enadu kavidai etc. But Kiranavali has rasikas all over the world!
Kiranavali, the CBSE Student
Kiranavali belongs to the first batch of the General Insurance stream in Kendriya Vidyalaya IIT. She fondly recalls:
“Choosing General Insurance in 11th and 12th was one of the best things I've done in my life as it was totally fun-filled, and I got to do something out of the normal choices we usually are forced to take in our education. We used to feel pretty cool and privileged to have teachers come in from outside to teach our courses, and had a great rapport with them. They were friendly and warm, and didn't really know how to be typical school teachers! During our 11th standard, three periods were combined into one session because our teachers who were officers/managers working in insurance companies would commute everyday just to teach that class. If they got held up at work on a particular day, we would get three periods free, which we used for fun stuff like reading story books in the library! During our 12th standard, our teachers were given a few months off to teach, so we didn't get any free periods as such, but classes were still great!
“As for the subjects, I felt that they quite easy, and therefore enjoyed learning them. I may have had some natural aptitude for some of them too and pretty much breezed through the two years with negligible effort, allowing me enough time to pursue Carnatic music.”
My interesting days during Apprenticeship
“I was posted in the Kutchery Road Branch of New India Assurance (Chennai). I was given the underwriting department of Miscellaneous insurance. For the first few days/weeks, I was taught and supervised by a Senior Assistant, but after that I was pretty much on my own (monitored of course by the seniors). I liked the varied work in that area, and learnt a lot. One memory that resurfaces is that sometime during my year of apprenticeship, I got the results of the Associate exams I had taken earlier. I have never been very serious about exams, and also did not realize the value of the Associate exams then. I had not bought the books prescribed for it, and barely had the patience to sit and finish my papers in those three hours as I was more interested in being with my friends. You can imagine my incredulity when I found out that I had been awarded two prizes - an All-India First in one paper and a Regional First in another. The only explanation I can think of is that our teachers and course material in school must have been excellent! Anyway, after this, some of the officers would come to me clarify insurance 'doubts' with me. I am pretty sure they were just being sweet, magnanimous and jovial, but I would feel pretty intimidated by it! But we had a very nice celebration in the office on this occasion. I still remember all the people I worked with and have very fond memories of my time there.”
Do you still like the Insurance field?
“Actually I haven't thought about it at all but since you ask me, I'll try to answer that. Coming from a musical family, and having started performing when I was very young, it was quite far-fetched that I would be doing something other than music. The reaction I got from all my mentors (teachers, managers and officers) when I said I'd be quitting insurance after my Apprenticeship was that I should not, and that I would probably reach great heights in the company's hierarchy. It is perhaps flattering to imagine all this, but since I am in a totally different world now, I have no way of assessing what I may or may not have achieved in the insurance field. I love music, I love the freedom and pleasure of being engaged in something very creative and beautiful all the time, and being close to spirituality. My overall discipline and efficiency may have helped me in a corporate setting, and I may have made for an efficient manager too, but I would have missed this beautiful world I am in right now. When I sometimes see my peers struggling to meet deadlines in their workplaces, I am happy that I am not in their shoes. I guess our Gods have been kind and given me an opportunity to work for some greater beauty and fulfillment in life, and I am very grateful for it.”
Kiranavali as a Guru
Should children learn Carnatic, Hindustani or western?
I honestly see greatness in all these forms of music. So much cumulative thought, wisdom and artistry have gone into them over many centuries. They have evolved in completely different ways amazingly and makes us wonder how the same twelve notes can produce SO much magic!
Vocal or instrumental? Which is better?
Both! Everything has a context and its own appeal.
When children begin learning vocal or instrumental, what they should aspire for? Should they aim big?
Keeping the large picture and context always helps any beginner, but at the same time, devils do exist in the details, so even small aspirations for perfection should be there constantly. I always tell my students/parents that if you are a tennis student, watching tennis matches would help nurture your interest for the sport even though your classes will be filled with work that you consider drudgery, like running around the court 20 times or working on your hand movements. Similarly, listening to concerts will help you enjoy the music and create that genuine interest/inspiration that your early lessons will get a context. I try to give the context to my students even as I teach, but if they don't have listening experience, they will anyway not understand it. Classes can then get boring.
How far does learning music help children?
Personally speaking, I feel that I have benefitted a lot from learning music early in life. For starters, our method of learning music as young students was to listen to the guru and reproduce the line with all the melodic and rhythmic details along with the lyrics. Just this much challenges your grasping, perception, observation skills, attention to details, memory, retention and execution. Once you get to more advanced learning, you also learn to assimilate your knowledge base, learn the rules of ragas and rhythm better, feel them all inside you, and give them in the right proportions. You learn to get creative with them. You learn the value of hard work and not taking your talent, knowledge or skills for granted because a small thing can trip you up. Your brain is working in many different dimensions at many different levels. Throughout school and even up to my degree, I found that just listening to my teachers in class and/or perusing the material in the book once was good enough to get me through tests and exams. Of course, for subjects like math, practice was required.
In my daughter Akshara's case, I'm seeing that exposure to music is keeping her happy, creative and interested in a variety of things. Of course, she's too young to make any further inferences. But I know a lot of musicians who didn't pursue schooling beyond very basic levels - but they're among the most intelligent, educated, perceptive, satisfied and humorous lot! All the 'work' surrounding music is itself fun. What more can you ask for in life? :)
Grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage
The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia, has selected Kiranavali to receive a major grant for 2014-15, following a stringent process of application and review, and a lot of detailed planning even at the proposal stage. Kiranavali says, “Although I am aware of several grants being awarded in this country for fine arts, I hadn't ventured into the world of grant-writing until now. It has been a great learning experience for the sharp focus and professionalism that it brought to one's thinking. I was very impressed by the transparency in the whole process, and especially the neutral manner in which the Pew staff helped all applicants to put together strong proposals, which were then evaluated by an independent panel.”
Through this grant, Carnatic music will emerge as a strong voice in the community that impacts public life in meaningful ways. Kiranavali’s project is titled Tradition - An Evolving Continuum. To showcase both sides of the same coin, she has come up with the idea of a two-part performance, which will be presented by Sruti and take place at The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia on November 7, 2015.
The first part will feature the traditional side of Carnatic music through a conventional concert highlighting the different Indian traditions that have shaped it. The second part of the performance will feature the continuing evolution of this music through a new vocal-instrumental ensemble for which Kiranavali has composed fresh music using well-established ragas and talas. The ensemble will feature vocal music, Konnakkol (vocal percussion), South Indian instruments like Chitravina, Vina, Tambura, Mrdangam, Ghatam and Kanjira as well as western origin instruments such as the Violin, Saxophone and the Electronic Keyboard.
Finally I threw a question which she would not have expected. What if she is offered CEO position in an Insurance Company, will she take it up?
As I closed my pen, I could recollect Plato defining, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
I saw Kiranavali as a personification of Plato’s words as Keeravani raga filled up the air.