Over the years, Kiranavali has steadily contributed articles on music and musicians to various newspapers, magazines, journals and websites. Here are some samples of her already published articles.
The following article was published as a tribute to Smt. T. Brinda, who passed away on Aug 6, 1996 in Arts Section of The Hindu newspaper (dated August 16, 1996)
With the passing away of T. Brinda, Carnatic music has lost one of its most dedicated and honest practitioners. What exactly was it that made Brinda so extraordinarily different? Was it her fine voice, which was probably the most suited for Carnatic music? Or her inimitable style with its innumerable subtle graces and nuances? Or her remarkable repertoire of masterpieces of the highest class of composers? Or her matchless rendering of padam-s and javali-s?
All these are no doubt, true. But if there was one quality, which over-shadowed all the others, it was her integrity. Her steadfast refusal, for over 75 years, to do anything less than what she was capable of and what she believed and valued as right. She never compromised on values, no matter what the consequences were, no matter at what personal cost.
Brinda was born on November 5, 1912, in a family known for its selfless preservation of music and dance in their purest forms. Her grandmother, the legendary Vina Dhanammal and her cousin, the late T. Balasaraswati, arguably, the greatest-ever Bharatanatyam exponent are but a few gems of this illustrious family, not to mention her other sisters, aunts and cousins.
To maintain the great family tradition, Brinda was also introduced to music at a very tender age. She had her initial training from her mother Kamakshi Ammal. This was further strengthened when she was sent to the formidable master of laya, Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, under the traditional gurukula system, when barely nine. Within a short span of three years, she had mastered over 300 compositions of Tyagaraja, besides various other Tamil compositions including Tevarams and Tiruppugazhs. Back home, she enriched her already extensive repertoire with choice kritis of Muttuswami Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri, Patnam Subramaniya Iyer, P. S. Srinivasa Iyengar, and padams of Kshetragna and javalis, in their original forms.
Brinda's amazing natural talent coupled with dedication and hardwork soon saw her as a musician of high calibre. She started giving concerts in tandem with her sister Mukta right from her tenth year. Her laser-sharp sruti alignment, range of nearly two-and-half octaves, command over speed, perfect timbre (rich in the lower octaves, which gradually thinned out as it went higher), complete control over the volume and tone, clarity and breath control are all mind-boggling. The other aspect is her music itself. Her equal proficiency in singing plain notes as well as gamaka-s, ability to sing complex songs in a deceptively easy manner, her execution of a hundred little details even in small phrases, her perfect sense of pace, grip over rhythm, the almost imperceptible delay in her phrasings, her innate musical sense and refinement transported her into the realms of immortality. She was one of those rare musicians who was endowed with the elusive combination of gnana(insight) and expression. However, all this would have gone in vain had she not exercised a great sense of restraint, which is the hallmark of the truly great.
Her concerts were an experience in themselves, marked by immaculate traditional purity, which came from her dedication to and respect for the composers' works. She is the unanimously acknowledged master of the musical forms, padam and javali which contain music of the highest order, thus making great demands on the performer as well as the listener. Her Viruttam-s, for which she usually chose ragas like Bhairavi, Varali, Sahana, Yadukulakambodhi, etc., were a much awaited part of her concerts. They reflected the very essence of the ragas, without a single unnecessary phrase.
Brinda was clearly ahead of her times, not only in music but also as an individual. Always a positive thinker she broke many barriers and defied many conventions and rules laid down for women. She was perhaps, the foremost among women performers to sing kalpanaswaras and sing concerts in an acceptable form in public. A lot of musicians have gone to her for advanced training and greatly benefited. They include Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Ramnad Krishnan and Ravikiran. Her daughter Vegavahini, who is also her disciple, is a musician in her own right.
Awards and honours naturally came to Brinda in recognition of her contribution to music. The Sangeet Natak Akademi recognised her for her outstanding service to music in 1965 and this was followed by the Indian Fine Arts and the Music Academy, which awarded her the Sangeeta Kala Sikhamani and the Sangeeta Kalanidhi respectively, to name only a few. She was a top-ranked artiste of All India Radio since 1955.
More recently, Swaralaya, a New Delhi-based organisation honoured her with the first Swaralaya Puraskar. She served as the Professor in the Central College of Carnatic Music, Madras (now Government Music College) for over 25 years. The University of Washington, Seattle, USA, had invited her as the Visiting Professor for two terms.
For those who knew Brinda at a personal level, her demise is an irreparable loss, a vacuum that can never be filled. Nevertheless, her exemplary music will remain with us for ages to come. As the grand old man of Carnatic music Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer put it once, "Even if one is able to sing a single song once, as perfectly as Brinda, our life would be worth it!''
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An abridged version of the following article called "The real-life Mridanga Chakravarti" on the all-time great Umayalpuram Sivaraman, was first published in India's leading daily, The Hindu, on October 13, 2006. The original, unabridged version is below.
Three performances that I heard in the last few months stand out in my mind. All of them featured the man who is regarded as the golden mean between playing for the classes and the masses; the man who has successfully wedded the two aspects of music, nada (melody) and laya (rhythm); the man who has found the right balance between aesthetics and mathematics.
Mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s smiling manner puts you immediately at ease, even if you are daunted by his sixty trailblazing years of achievements. Today, Umayalpuram has become synonymous with Sivaraman, but he is the first to point out that it was the hometown of many legendary musicians in the past, such as the brothers Krishna Bhagavatar and Sundara Bhagavatar (both direct disciples of Tyagaraja), Ghatam vidwans Narayanaswamy Iyer, his son Kothandarama Iyer, Sundaram Iyer and Viswanatha Iyer and Tavil Tangavel Pillai.
As a major town on the banks of the Kaveri and being close to the temple towns Kumbhakonam and Tiruvaiyyaru, Umayalpuram attracted the cream of music, harikatha and sampradaya bhajans. In this culturally rich environment was Sivaraman born in 1935. It is little surprise that he was exposed to the beauties of the arts right from his infancy. By age three, he was found constantly drumming on anything he could lay his hands on! Noticing this, his paternal grandmother, Savitri Ammal, who also entertained her grandson with anecdotes about the great masters, bought him a real Kanjira during one of their visits to the Kumbheswarar temple. Thus began his tryst with laya.
With immeasurable pride and gratitude, Sivaraman recounts the role of his father, Kasi Viswanatha Iyer, in his life and career. “A gold medalist of the Madras Medical College, he set up his practice in Kumbhakonam. He was not merely a polymath, with mastery over varied subjects, but also had the right vision for my future, and constantly guided and motivated me. I was fortunate to have his blessings even as far as my Sangita Kalanidhi year.”
Sivaraman’s first mridangam guru was Arupati Natesa Iyer, the master of arai-chappu (a particularly specialised technique). Perhaps owing to the fact that he was Natesa Iyer’s first disciple, they shared a very special bond. The guru spent endless hours teaching his bright pupil. By age ten, Sivaraman was ready for his first concert at the Kalahasti temple in the company of senior vidwans, including his own guru who played Kanjira on the occasion.
The next turning point came in 1947, when Sivaraman’s father and Umayalpuram Kothandarama Iyer (who also happened to be Arupati Natesa Iyer’s uncle by marriage), took him to mridanga pitamaha Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer. With the full blessings of his earlier guru, he began his tutelage under the man who had revolutionised the art of mridangam playing. Sivaraman only had one year under Vaidyanatha Iyer, but he progressed in leaps and bounds, learning the finer aspects of accompaniment. Vaidyanatha Iyer quickly recognised the extraordinary potential of his young disciple and wanted to ensure that even after his demise Sivaraman would continue on the path to greatness. He therefore attached him to his premier disciple, Palghat Mani Iyer, who had already distinguished himself as a genius in Madras.
Sivaraman recalls, “As a top-ranking mridangist of his times, Mani Iyer didn’t have much time between his concert engagements, but he would take me with him everywhere. I was like an apprentice, observing everything minutely. My father would always say that acuity of perception and extra-sensitivity to details was the hallmark of a good student. Mani Iyer was very pleased to see that I possessed these qualities.”
After a few months, Mani Iyer sent Sivaraman back to Kumbhakonam, to receive further guidance from another titan of the times, Shakottai Rangu Iyengar. During his six years of training under Rangu Iyengar, Sivaraman learnt many other technical aspects such as Pallavi, the creation of mohra-s, korvai-s, yati-s and gati-s and also got numerous opportunities to interact with senior vidwans. For instance, violinist Vedaranyam Krishnamurthy Iyer, who was himself an expert in laya, often created new laya challenges for him.
By the time Sivaraman had finished his BA, Mani Iyer also moved to Tanjavur. Lessons resumed again, but Mani Iyer soon advised him to go to Madras to pursue a career in music. Sivaraman decided to put his time to optimum use and acquired a Law degree too, while spending his evenings attending concerts of all the top musicians of those times.
With a burning ambition to establish himself as a leading performer during the lifetime of greats such as Palghat Mani Iyer, Pazhani Subramanya Pillai, Palghat Ramachandra Iyer and Ramanathapuram Murugabhoopati, he practised several hours a day. He remembers Kalladaikurichi Mahadeva Bhagavatar’s generosity in giving him the opportunity to hone his accompanying skills. “He would come to my house and sing tirelessly for my playing. His command over sruti and laya was such that performing with a lot of other musicians became child’s play.” Vocalists P S Narayanaswamy, V R Krishnan, Chengelpet Ranganathan and Melakkaveri Kannan would also go to Sivaraman’s house and sing to his accompaniment.
Minding his father’s advice, Sivaraman constantly kept the company of elders and imbibed the best from them. He was frequently seen with senior vidwans like Karaikudi Muthu Iyer, Nagore Ambi Iyer, Coimbatore Ramaswamy and Nellai Devaraja Iyer. Muthu Iyer also often challenged Sivaraman musically, and later acknowledged whole-heartedly that he had attained true siddhi in mridangam playing.
Soon he began to accompany the front-ranking vidwans of his times such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, G N Balasubramaniam, Flute Mali and others. Sivaraman points out that these experiences were not just educative and enjoyable, but also catapulted him into the big league very quickly.
There is deep gratitude and modesty when he speaks of the affection and blessings that his seniors had for him. Some of the anecdotes he related bear him out. Once at a concert with Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, when he was paid extra and wondered why, the large-hearted Chembai replied that it was Sivaraman’s prize for performing outstandingly well! In another concert in Kerala, when some people in the audience expressed a desire to hear him, Chembai gave him five opportunities to play tani avartanam! Similarly Ramanuja Iyengar once sang his favourite, Ambanannu brovave in Todi in the tempo that he was famous for. When Sivaraman expressed his great pleasure at being able to play for that particular song, Ariyakudi said to him, “Well, I chose the song fully knowing that you will embellish it with your playing!”
Has he played for women artistes? No. “It wasn’t a deliberate attempt to avoid them as I hold artistes like T Brinda, D K Pattammal, M S Subbulakshmi, T Balasaraswati and M L Vasantakumari in great esteem. I also had the privilege of earning their respect and blessings. But somehow concert opportunities never happened.”
If there is one percussionist who has successfully straddled playing for the connoisseur as well as the lay person, it is Sivaraman. He is among the select few who command an audience on their own right, and such an audience typically has a fair sprinkling of musicians.
He has participated in numerous jugalbandis and other forms of fusion music with internationally renowned stars and has done himself and Carnatic music credit. His rhythmic exchanges with artistes such as Alla Rakha, Birju Maharaj and Zakir Hussain generated much enthusiasm.
On one occasion, when movie star M G Ramachandran was in the sets donning the role of a King for an upcoming movie, Sivaraman went to meet him. MGR apparently said, “I’m only an actor, but you are the real chakravarti!” Later, as the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, MGR appointed Sivaraman as the Asthana Vidwan for seven straight years. Incidentally, Sivaraman was the one who played Mridangam in the Tamil hit movie, Mridanga Chakravarti, starring Sivaji Ganesan.
Sivaraman’s path-breaking career includes several firsts. In his endeavour to make his art more accessible to everybody, he has presented numerous lectures on the art of mridangam playing. He was the first one to conceive and design a fibre glass mridangam and the mridangam bag (1972) which has become so very common today. The first ever Jugalbandi concert in Chennai featured Sivaraman along with Pt. Ravishankar and Ustad Alla Rakha. And he was also the first and possibly the only Carnatic musician to play for a fashion show. A professional to the hilt, he believes, “A person who has internalised tradition can be a part of anything and yet remain untouched. I believe in change and adapting to situations. I have six decades of experience playing traditional concerts, and I have also been a part of the more contemporary musical developments like fusion. At every instance, I am discovering new facets of music and am thoroughly enjoying myself. Finally one must understand that music is universal but each culture has explored a different aspect and calls it by a different name. If we learn to enjoy and appreciate other cultures, other people will do the same with ours.”
Sivaraman’s philosophy to mridangam playing is to closely approximate melody and in the process, bring out the best nada. He feels that it is important to keep up one’s standards and learn as one goes up, but the more vital thing is to know how to use one’s knowledge. He has surely lived up to his own beliefs. The recent concerts that I heard were fantastic examples of how far he has gone on this path. They underscored his complete mastery over every desirable aspect of mridangam playing – sound, tone, speed, technical virtuosity, variety, brilliance, sowkhyam, contrasting effects and embellishment of every phrase of the song, with the art and science of mridangam playing being finely balanced. It was at once a connoisseur’s delight as well as the layman’s thrill. Undoubtedly, such experiences come your way only a few times during your life, that too if you are lucky!
Every kind of honour that a top professional of his calibre deserves has come Sivaraman’s way. The Indian government recognized him with the Padma Bhushan recently. He also got the much coveted Sangeeta Kalanidhi during the Music Academy’s platinum jubilee year, exactly 50 years after his first concert there! However, what he cherishes most was Semmangudi’s comment after an AIR recording. Semmangudi was a ripe 90-plus and himself sang a wonderful concert. When Sivaraman paid his compliments, Semmangudi said to him, “It was your superb playing that inspired me!” Sivaraman regards his words as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
He has set up the Percussive Arts Society in the USA, and has numerous disciples all over the world, several of whom are successful performers today. His advice to aspiring musicians is that it is okay to build castles in the air so long as the foundations are firmly grounded! Single-mindedness, hard work and dedication are his mantras for success. Who else but an achiever like him would know!
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The following article was written for a beautiful tribute website to the late Smt. M S Subbulakshmi (www.msstribute.org).
Hundreds of people have written about M S Subbulakshmi or simply MS, who would easily rank as the most well documented Carnatic musician ever. Mere mention of her name makes every Carnatic musician or music lover burst with pride for she has not only touched so many lives and hearts but also elevated Carnatic music to a high pedestal at the national and global levels. It has never ceased to amaze me that one person could have made a difference to so many people’s perception of music, womanhood, beauty, devotion, philanthropy and so on. I particularly feel that in the last few decades when feminism and equality have been the much-bandied words, we have an example like MS who enjoyed success at the highest levels with all her feminine grace intact. She totally disproves the myth that in a man’s world one has to adopt aggressive means to achieve success. The values she brought to the table were her music, which was a combination of abundant natural talent and her own tireless efforts towards perfection, her bhakti, her natural humility and her well-known golden heart.
One of my earliest musical memories of MS is her rendition of Bhavayami Raghuramam. My mother, who was a great fan of hers, would always hold MS’ bhakti and bhava as the lofty standards for every Carnatic musician to emulate. I still remember being impressed by the crystal clarity of her voice, the delivery of her phrases and the economy of her paatham. Since then, I have heard many concerts and recordings of hers and these characteristics of her music have repeatedly made their presence felt! At the risk of sounding like thousands of others before me, I am going to confess that one of my favorite all-time recordings of hers is her rendition of Bhajagovindam. That particular rendition conveys just the right mood and tone that the song intends – introspective and gleaming at the same time. Personally, it has never failed to create this sense of tranquility and inner joy in me. Many have been the mornings when I would automatically tune into that song.
One of the words commonly used to describe her music is ‘impeccable’. I think it is a perfect choice for the music of MS. Being gifted with a naturally melodious and glittering voice is one thing, but to be motivated to use it in the right way is quite another. Most people with gifted voices fall into various traps along the way, mostly musical abuse or overuse. But not MS. Clearly she followed the correct methods of practice, which was not just confined to the use of her voice but was also directed towards good musical values. Her rendition of anything always gives this feeling of flawless perfection, be it a Varnam in two speeds or a mammoth composition like the 72-Mela Ragamalika which song itself runs to about an hour. Every aspect of her music – sruti, laya, melody, bhava, pronunciation, enunciation – would stand out as the golden standard even under the strictest scrutiny.
In my opinion, one of the biggest contributions of MS is also how much she influenced succeeding generations of music. Though Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar popularized the concert format, I think MS took it much farther than that. Not only did she know what and how much to sing, she also knew how to present them in a way that everyone in the audience, from a connoisseur to the layman, would be able to take home something from the heady mix she offered. Today hundreds of musicians emulate her consciously or otherwise, and we have also started using the term ‘packaging’ as a matter of course in our conversations about Carnatic concerts. MS was definitely the pioneer in such ‘packaging’, although she might not have thought of the term herself!
All through my life, MS and her music have been a constant presence. The few occasions on which I met and interacted with her will be some of the most cherished moments of my life. I remember being awestruck at the artistic humility with which she regarded her own seniors and peers, not only speaking of each musician highly, but also by surrounding herself with pictures of them in her living room. Her interaction with my father and brother would show the same level of dignity and graciousness (without being patronizing, which of course wouldn’t have been out of place for a senior vidushi of her stature) as her interactions with my guru, the late T. Brinda.
Perhaps only some know that MS, on the suggestion of music connoisseur and UN member C V Narasimhan, also learnt from Brindamma. The mutual regard and warmth they carried for each other was unmistakable to those who knew them personally. There were many occasions during my class when MS would call her Brinda ‘Akka’ to enquire after her health and chat with her about the then-current music scene and various other things at a very personal level. Invariably right after these calls, Brindamma would get very nostalgic and talk about her in very affectionate terms. By the time they were in their late 70s and early 80s, when traveling to Tiruvaiyyaru for the annual Tyagaraja Aradhana wasn’t easy because of their age and health, MS would call Brindamma to find out if she would attend the one at the Tyagaraja Sangeeta Vidwat Samajam in Mylapore. The Pancharatnam rendition here would be a grander affair, with all the doyens like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Brinda-Mukta, MS, D K Pattammal, Dr. Balamuralikrishna and others adorning the session. One had to be there to see the natural humility with which MS gracefully let her seniors lead the proceedings even though she was definitely better known than all of them.
It was indeed a sad day when we lost this unique gem. My family was among the first to be at her house, when the world was still waking up to the news of her demise. I remember thinking that with her, we have lost a whole set of values yet again, perhaps forever.
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Here is an article on Kiranavali's esteemed father and guru, Chitravina Narasimhan, titled "The Prodigy Maker" written a few years ago for an online music journal called Ragavani.
Very often, I have a hesitant parent ask me whether it is too early for their 4-year old to start learning Carnatic music. Usually, my answer is, “No, by my father’s standards you may be some three years late!” My answer is not flippant or exaggerated by any means, but it genuinely puzzles them because they have only heard others tell them that their child may not have the attention span, the grasping ability, or the patience to sit through a lesson.
The story I am about to tell you goes back to the year 1967. My father, Chitravina Narasimhan, who was 26 years old then, had gone to give a live concert for All India Radio. When he returned, my mother reported to him that their first-born, who was barely six months old at the time, had listened with rapt attention. A few months later, after another radio concert, the child had identified a Raga that my father had mentioned to my mother just once. My father’s interest was piqued. He had heard of the exploits of Abhimanyu and other legends in Indian mythology. Here was a real-life incident to prove that theory! So he went about creating the right atmosphere around the child. The child's temperament took priority and my father went along with it, slow and playfully introducing a new Raga while making sure that what had already been learnt had not faded away from the child's memory. He would patiently repeat the same Ragas frequently, cleverly interspersing a Raga every once in a while. Most adults get bored of this kind of repetition within a few days, but apparently not my father!
How would the child know when a new Raga had been introduced? This is where my father’s own musical acumen and excellent expression played a big role. He believed that to hold a child’s interest, the music had to be of superior quality, both to attract the child’s attention and to distract it from other playful pursuits. His own music is endowed with precisely this unique quality that would make the child look up questioningly, as though to ask, “Hey, what was that? I have never heard this one before.” My father would then smilingly name the Raga. The attractive audio-visual would create a photographic imprint on the child’s mind. He was able to make music a seamless and natural part of the child’s daily life and routine. For example, if the child was eating butter, he would tell him that he was eating 'Navaneetam', which was also the name of a Raga. Similarly, keerai (the Tamil word for spinach) was 'Keeravani', another Raga.
Thus, within a just a few months, my father had not only introduced nearly 300 Raga-s to the child but also taught him to sing and reel off answers to a variety of technical and theoretical questions including the 175-tala system, names of composers and so on. Soon the child's ability was put to test by some of the best vidwans of the day such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Ramnad Krishnan, T. N. Krishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman. The child passed with flying colours. I'm sure many of you have already guessed that the child was none other than Ravikiran!
When Shashikiran arrived, my father repeated his experiments once again. Only this time, he started earlier and the child was able to do things earlier than the first child. I’ve heard my parents say that Shashikiran was able to identify Ragas by the time he was 21 months old. And once I came along, my father’s teaching skills had been honed to perfection; he was able to produce similar results when I was only about 18 months old. We were also tested in public and acclaimed as child prodigies by connoisseurs and critics. However, the awe surrounding us was not as high as it was with Ravikiran. By now, the public had decided that it was all in the genes. So, there was no big surprise in our being prodigies!
However, this was the very notion that my father was trying to disprove. He believed quite firmly that nurture is more important than nature, that environment plays an enormous role in early success, and that any child given the right exposure and training from early infancy can become a Raga-identifying prodigy. His basic premise was that if you expose your child to television, she will repeat or mimic what she sees there. On the other hand, if she is exposed to animals, she will pick up those behaviors and mannerisms (the Tarzan story is a classic example). Similarly, a child exposed to Carnatic music will only reflect that back to you.
In order to prove his theory further, my father trained and taught his sister’s second son, Ganesh. Of course, being the daughter of a great musician, my aunt had a lot of musical flair. But her husband had no musical background and was not particularly interested in music either. So, the chances of my cousin being endowed with musical talent were about 50-50. When he came to our house as a 2-year old, he was like any other child that age. With my father’s careful nurturing, he was also hailed a prodigy within a year.
Most of my observations about my father's teaching methods are from some of my own childhood memories of his teaching my cousin and other little children. I saw how my father would repeat a key phrase of a Raga (e.g., Atana) a few times and reveal its name right after that. The child would therefore associate that phrase with that Raga. After making sure that the child had fully grasped this bit, he would introduce other new phrases from the Raga and tell the child that this was also the same thing. For some of the less known Raga-s, he would sing the line of a composition in that Raga and say its name (e.g.,Ragasudharasa for Andolika). The beauty of my father's teaching lay in the way he could highlight the key differences between closely allied Raga-s like Sriragam, Madhyamavati, Brindavanasaranga, Manirangu and Pushpalatika such that even a child a could identify them correctly.
My father was equally gifted with the ability to impart laya (rhythm) aspects to children, a subject that most Gurus shy away from teaching their students. The beautiful world of laya was opened up to us in a steady and grand manner over the years, starting from very simple patterns to complex Pallavi-s. In fact, my father keeps us on our toes in this department even today!
His holistic approach to music as well as teaching us is also borne out by the fact that he emphasized the importance of disciplined rendition of compositions with correct lyrics and pronunciation. He would explain the meanings word by word and narrate related stories and anecdotes. As and when required, he imparted us theoretical knowledge as well. I clearly remember watching him teach the 72-melakarta-s to a 2-1/2 year old Ganesh. The compound wall of the house we lived in had a double gate with 18 spikes at the top of each gate. My father creatively used these 36 spikes to teach him the names of the melakarta-s. He would start from the first spike on the left calling it Kanakangi (the 1st mela) and then go up to Chalanata (the 36th mela), thus covereing the Shuddha Madhyama melas. He would then do the reverse for the remaining 36 mela-s, which were the Prati Madhyama mela-s! Similarly, I remember him asking us to tell the time by looking at the clock. When we told him the time, would ask us to say it using the melakarta names. For example, 10:32 would be Natakapriya-Ragavardhini. Such an exercise not only helped us learn the melakarta-s effectively, but also tell time with greater precision! For a child, learning couldn't be made more fun.
It would be no exaggeration to say that my father is a master of another important dimension of music, namely,manodharma (improvisation). Give him any Raga and he can sing it with ease, bringing out its myriad colors, emotions and form in an utterly awe-inspiring manner. I have never heard anyone sing Tanam better than him. Neraval was again child’s play while Kalpanaswara-s would flow Niagara-like, be it the sarvalaghu-type, free-flowing type or those involving mathematical patterns. So, we have a Guru who was a one-stop source for everything we needed to learn in music.
By the time Ganesh was 3 years old, 12-year old Ravikiran had started making waves as a Chitravina player. Shashikiran and I (aged 9 and 6 respectively) were also singing together as a duo. What a balancing act it must have been for my father! His penchant for perfection and insistence on our equipping ourselves to be solid musicians must have made great demands on his time and energy. He was also clear that we should never be overexposed and unduly burdened with performance engagements. And that learning was more important for our long-term progress than winning laurels as children. Thus, every public appearance was carefully timed and planned.
My parents took certain crucial life decisions soon after Ravikiran started identifying Ragas. In order to spend more time training him, my father put his own career on the back burner. My mother, who already had a job in a bank before my brother was born, decided that her husband’s dream was a unique one and that she would support him fully in his endeavor. Therefore, she freed up his time and mind from mundane worries, and told him boldly that she would manage the household on her income for some time. Today, we hear a lot about gender equality and role switching, but my parents put it into action almost four decades ago. Until a few years later, when my father took up a job with All India Radio, my mother supported our family largely with her income.
Another radical decision my parents took was to home-school Ravikiran till he was 9 years old. In fact, when he was finally taken to school and tested, it was clear that he had learnt a lot more than most children his age. He could read and write six languages (Tamil, Hindi, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu and English), and his math abilities were excellent (Carnatic music uses a lot of math-based patterns). However, Shashikiran and I were sent to school at the usual age. Ganesh went to school initially but was home-schooled afterwards. Today, a number of parents who want to see their children achieve something extraordinary opt for home-schooling, but conventional thought in India over the ages has been that to excel in one line, one had to focus fully on that, be it the study of the Veda-s or music or carpentry.
Even though we lived in a joint family (both my grandmothers and my mother’s younger sister also lived with us), there was a united approach to our upbringing. My father had a vision and other members of the family helped him wholeheartedly and to the best of their ability, as they also firmly believed that pulling a child in different directions would be detrimental to his/her progress. Since all of them were proficient in at least 4-5 Indian languages, they were also able to correct us if we made a mistake while singing.
My father's rules of discipline were the law of the house and nobody would allow us to violate them in any way. For example, if we were found pottering around during practice time (as children are wont to do), we would promptly be sent back to practice. Television was strictly banned in the house and so were movies and film songs. This continued for many years, until my father was sure that we would be able to retain our musical values even if we got exposed to them. So the whole family had to give up these things for our sake! However, we were allowed to read and play during our spare time or indulge in hobbies that interested us. Lest readers get the impression that our childhood was heavily regimented, let me hasten to add that my father has always been as loving as he has been firm. He has won our respect and love in equal measure, and that has not diminished but only grown over time.
Thinking back to our childhood, I can say with complete honesty that we never felt the burden of learning. A large part of our learning happened before we even realized it! The fact that the entire family could sing, learn, discuss and debate music-related issues enhanced the fun! And even though we were not ‘allotted’ any specific time for school work (my father left it to us to manage our time), we all did well in academics too. Perhaps, learning music from a very young age had sharpened our ability to grasp new material and commit it to memory. This reinforces my belief that my father’s methods of teaching a child can be effectively applied to any sphere of knowledge. Many people (including musicians) have approached my father to train their children to be prodigies. My father's only condition is that they leave the child with him when s/he is 6 months of age. No parent has come forward to accept this condition, so my father has not been able to train any non-family prodigies. He however teaches a number of students who are passionate about music and dedicated to its pursuit.
I believe that every student should try to surpass his/her Guru. But a good guru is one that always keeps ahead of the student. The day a student has caught up, it would be clear that the Guru has stagnated and needs to start working harder. My father has not only given us lessons that will take us several lifetimes to master, but he also continues to keep ahead of us and challenge us in different ways, and open up new vistas for us to see. He has successfully achieved his dream of making performing musicians out of all of us. One of the biggest ways in which we can pay our debt to him is to pass on his values and huge wealth of music to successive generations. Therefore, when hesitant parents call about their 4-year old, we say, “Yes, we will teach your child!” There is not a day that I don’t think of my father as I work with students of varying abilities, talent, aptitudes, attitudes and priorities.
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