Chitra Srikrishna is a classical carnatic singer. She spent many years in the Bay area, which is why you haven’t heard of her. She is a fantastic concert-level performer.

Chitra and I collaborate on a show/performance called Hum Raag. The basic concept is “From film songs to classical music.”

What’s it about? Okay, let me describe the scene.

Chitra is sitting on the stage with a violinist and mridangist (drummer) on either side. I am the sutradhar– standing on the side with my laptop. There is a projector and screen behind Chitra for my Powerpoint presentation.

We start with a film clip from a popular film song. “Yeh dosti,” from Sholay. I play the film clip for one minute. Chitra hums the song, and segues into a Kabir bhajan; or a Hindustani song; or a Carnatic composition. She doesn’t sing the whole song– just for a couple of minutes. While she sings, I am explaining the raga and concepts of classical Indian music in the background. As a slide show. So the audience is listening to music and watching it being explained in the slide show at the back. At the end of Chitra’s singing, I come out in front and do my storytelling bit. I link poetry, music, and drama and do a 30-second monologue. Then we play another film clip. Say it is “Ek tha cholo re,” in Bengali. Chitra sings a song based on that raga, which happens to be Shankarabharanam. I explain the raga, and Tagore and his composition in my slide show. Then I walk up and do my storytelling. And so it goes. We pick songs from different parts of India, in different languages: a lot of Hindi songs, but also Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Malayalam and Telegu.

The show is fast paced and multi-sensory. Music, slide show, storytelling, film clips…… We do this for an hour and it flies by. Organizations have actually come to us and said “One hour is too short. Make it longer.”

So we do this as a one-hour OR a 1.5 hour presentation.

Our Facebook page is here

If you “like” us, you can get updates of our gigs. No pressure!!

We did two shows for ISB’s Executive Education events. One in Bangalore and one in Hyderabad. Photos here

If you know of a cultural space, corporate group, or event management company that would be interested in a music-storytelling-slide presentation, please point them to us. or me.

Here are some photos from the event.

Chitra and the accompanists below, with my slide presentation in the background

Posing for photos with Heemanshu Ashar, the curator of the event, in Hyderabad

Chitra created this nifty photo for our FB page

With the director of the Center for Executive Education and the team

Me doing my storytelling at the show

Reinventing Carnatic Music

For those who want to delve deeper, here are some books and papers that I read. The delight of research is discovery. You sift through reams of stuff and come upon some gems that make your hair stand on edge.

If you must read one, just read this. From the Master himself: Ariyakudi on the katcheri format here

Pantula Rama’s book on shaping of an ideal musician–excellent. Among the many things she touches on are the Divine Trinity. And details such as a list of the 25 types of bad singing– nasal sounding, sounding like a crow (kaki), singing with teeth clenched, singing as if there is a gourd in your throat. And so on.

Todd McComb’s article here. It reflects many of my ideas.

My friend, Kamini Dandapani’s blog has a nice essay on this topic.

A bulletpointed reference of the cutcheri format

TM Krishna’s white paper on how gamakas are a hallmark of karnatik music.

Carnatic music: the need for reinvention

Sruti– of course. Pick any section and enjoy.

How do you make classical music relevant to a global audience? How can you expand its reach?
Shoba Narayan Mail Me

How do you make classical music relevant to a global audience? Should you even try? Today’s audience for Carnatic music ranges from Cleveland in the US to Chennai, and these are the hard-core ones. How can you expand its reach? Is it by removing the bhakti-rasa or devotional tone that some believe to be its core? Is it by changing the concert format, as some are doing? Or is it by developing a smartphone app?

In a wonderful piece published in the India International Centre Quarterly, Autumn 2006 edition, titled From Court to Academy: Karnatik Music, history professor Lakshmi Subramanian explains how “Karnatik music” attained its present format. It was a confluence of events that could serve as a blueprint for the future. In the piece, Prof. Subramanian traces how Carnatic music went from the courts of the Maratha rulers of Tanjore to the sabhas of Chennai.
Traditional Indian music, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, was sung in three arenas—communal group singing such as bhajans; court singing by experts; and ritual singing by devadasis or courtesans inside temples. The Maratha ruler, Serfoji II, who ruled over Tanjore, then the seat of Carnatic music, was a cultured “Europeanized Indian”, who wanted music to be notated and standardized. Until then, our music was not written down but orally transmitted.

Given this situation, it is easy to make a case that some would consider heretical. The reason we still continue to sing songs by the Trinity—Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri and Thyagaraja—is not only because they were musical geniuses but also because they lived at a time when musical notation was coming into being. Theirs were the first songs to be written down. This gave their compositions a historical specialness that later composers did not enjoy. The founding of Pune’s Gayan Samaj in 1874, and the Chennai branch a couple of years later, made the focus of musical standardization and notation a project that the cultured elite took on. It was a way for them to forge a cultural identity. As Prof. Subramanian says, “The aura and weight of the Tanjore tradition became the point of reference for cultural engineers as they embarked on the project of reinventing the classical tradition in the 20th century.”

Here are the things that caused Carnatic music to be reinvented in the way it exists today. Thyagaraja and other composers’ works were written down by their disciples. Many of these disciple-musicians moved from Tanjore to Madras to make a living. Royal patronage by the Maratha rulers of Tanjore was on its way out. Sabhas were being created. The ruling British elite was dismissive of Indian classical music, which it viewed as inferior. Indian musicians had to counter this charge somehow. They wanted to make their music “equal” to the Western classical music that the British were touting. They were in a new city: Chennai. They were caught in the throes of a movement to standardize and notate their, until-then unwritten, music. All these forces created the kutcheri format as it exists today.

Although singer Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar is credited with its creation, it was actually a cohort of musicians; along with the Madras Music Academy, and scholars like Prof. P. Sambamoorthy, who came up with the concert format as a way of both attracting a mass audience; and standardizing Carnatic music so that even foreigners could appreciate it; or at least approve of it.
None of this is happening today. Indian classical music is not under foreign threat. We have no Britishers who are questioning our heritage and culture, somewhat like what the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is doing to the Congress and BJP, thus forcing them to examine and articulate their core principles. We have musicians who navigate the globe and are thus influenced by global music but they operate as individuals, not a cohort. There is no group of musicians who meet at cafés, like the impressionists did in Paris. It takes an informal but vibrant discourse to create a new form. Everyone has to buy in to new ideas. You need scholars like Prof. Sambamoorthy to help formalize free-wheeling ideas. Art critic Clement Greenberg did that for the free-wheeling norms that the abstract expressionist painters came up with.

Carnatic music is therefore missing every element of transformation. There is no sponsor or underwriter like the erstwhile kings who can nudge musicians to think outside the box. There is no collective, either formal or informal, where musicians can meet and cross-pollinate ideas. Conferences can help to some extent, but they don’t encourage conversation, only paper-presentation.
What today’s musicians need is an adda in Chennai where a group of like-minded musicians can meet with scholars, musicologists, and event planners on a regular basis. Rather than competing with each other for lucrative concerts, they need to collaborate and come up with new concepts. Lastly, you need publicists to disseminate the idea to the listening public; to encourage buy-in. Which other area has done this?

In terms of reinventing a nationally beloved icon, the thing that comes to mind is cricket and the Indian Premier League (IPL). Even the most rabid lovers of the sport rarely hark back to the days of five-day matches; which means that the IPL experiment has worked. The second Indian icon that has reinvented itself for a global audience is yoga, which is now practised in one form or another throughout the world. Pandit Ravi Shankar, whatever his flaws, helped popularize Hindustani music to a Western audience. Should Carnatic musicians bring foreign singers into the fold so that they can inject new ideas? Should Beyoncé and T-Pain collaborate with S. Sowmya and Sanjay Subrahmanyan?

What is the purpose of reinvention, if any? To expand the listener and rasika base without diluting the music. How can that be done? Through brain-storming with multiple stakeholders: musicians, visionary sabha secretaries, rasikas, musicologists, event planners. I think T.M. Krishna needs a Koshy’s: a place where he can formulate his new ideas with like-minded intellectuals, without agenda, without ego. This group can come up with ideas for innovation; one that fans will buy into. Younger singers who know their history and music have to be looped in to refine and adjust the blueprint. Publicists and scholars can spread the word.

How did Lalit Modi reinvent cricket? How did AAP reinvent politics?

Carnatic music needs a leader-musician; someone who can forge a consensus. As the recent Oscar ad for the winning film, 12 Years a Slave said, “It is time”.

Shoba Narayan watched and was underwhelmed by 12 Years a Slave. This is the last piece in a weekly, four-part series on the evolution of Carnatic music.

Evolution of Music 3

Carnatic music: what’s the way ahead?
Can dramatic changes of the sort that happened in Western classical music in the 18th century happen in today’s Indian music?

Vrinda Acharya believes Carnatic music is dynamic. Photo courtesy: Vrinda Acharya

The thing that stands out is the timeline. Across cultures, the timelines of innovation occurred during periods and places that nurtured ferment and creativity. Paris during the impressionist movement was one; 18th century Thanjavur, Vienna and Florence were other regions; Chennai and Varanasi in the 1920s were others. Are we living at such a time? Can dramatic changes of the sort that happened in Western classical music in the 18th century happen in today’s Indian music?

Western classical music traces its roots to Egyptian and Greek music. The medieval period lasted the longest, from about 500-1400. This was also the time when Indian music was being formalized. The Sangita Ratnakara, a musical text that influenced both Hindustani and Carnatic music, was written by Sarangadeva in the 13th century. The Islamic influence that caused Hindustani music to diverge from Carnatic music was just about to happen.

Western music’s Baroque period began in the 15th century when the plainchant that was the norm started becoming more complex. This was around the time when Purandara Dasa codified the way in which Carnatic music would be taught—and it has held forth ever since. This was the time when the influence of Amir Khusrau, Tansen, and Persian music was felt in Hindustani music; and just before the gharanas were established.

The golden age of music, both in India and the West, was from 1730-1820. This was when the West’s “classical” period occurred, resulting in the composers and symphonies of the kind that we know today: Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn and others. It was the time when composers took the complex and layered Baroque polyphonies (two melodies played simultaneously) and made these into simpler homophonies (one melody with accompanying chords). In fact, the evolution of Western classical music has been a move from complex to simple; from sacred to secular. Should Indian music emulate this?

Vrinda Acharya is one of Bangalore’s talented young musicians. She grew up in Basavanagudi and lives with her in-laws in Malleswaram—the two localities that were combined by R.K. Narayan to create his fictional Malgudi. Acharya has a master’s degree in Sanskrit and has written numerous papers for conferences—about composers, techniques and musicology. “Should Carnatic Music Be Irreligious?” is one. Married to a mridangam player, she is part of a close-knit community of musicians who make their life and living through music. When I visited her, she had just returned from performing on the banks of the Cauvery in Mysore. Over cornflakes mixture, we discussed the future of Carnatic music.
We mostly disagreed. I believe that classical Indian music, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, is in need of an overhaul; a rethink; a reinvention. Acharya believes that change ought to be organic, gradual and evolutionary. I say innovation; she says evolution. In her mind, the flaw in the

Indian system was one of presentation, not evolution. “We need to figure out a way to project our music to a global audience,” she said. It has to do with branding, she said, not innovation.
But, but, but…. I interrupted. Carnatic music has stagnated since the 18th century. What was composed and sung by Purandara Dasa in the 15th century is still sung today, in pretty much its original form. There have been no great composers since the 17th century. The songs composed by the divine trinity of Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri and Thyagaraja are still being sung today. You could call this the strength of Indian tradition. You could also call it a lack of musical imagination.

Acharya emailed me the following day to offer proof. Warning: These are details that will not interest those that are not musically inclined.
“Namaste Shoba. I totally disagree with your points that Carnatic music is stagnant. To give you an example of musical concepts developed post the Trinity:
* Many new ragas like pashupathipriya, karnaranjani, kadanakuthuhalam, valachi, sumaneesha ranjini were invented.

* Many Hindustani ragas like desh, maduvanthi, jog, pahadi, behag were very ably adopted to our music.
* Many technical concepts and experiments in rendition of ragam tanam pallavi have developed.
* Concepts like doing grihabhedam in ragalapana, dwimadhyama ragas, mukhi talams, swarantara ragas have developed.
“I would say the period of the Trinity is the golden age for our music as far as compositional forms and musical concepts are concerned. When it comes to performing aspect of Carnatic music, the golden age is undoubtedly the 1900s when so many great music maestros lived at the same time. Rather than talking about stagnant music, we should figure out how to reach out to a global audience.”

Which brings me back to the musical innovators of the day. Some musicians are now adopting a mix-and-match approach. “What some musicians are doing is like moving bricks in a wall. Instead of placing a brick at the top, they move it to the middle. The structure remains the same,” says Acharya.

It is like eating curd rice in the beginning just because you always eat it at the end. There is no logic for the change except rebellion, which—my words—is what T.M. Krishna is doing. But let me say this: I have gone from knee-jerk negativity towards his attempts to reluctant admiration.

In fact, I think he is on the right track and he is also a musical genius. All of which will provide ample preamble for what I am going to write next week about his methods.

Shoba Narayan is reading R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, and Kumar Prasad Mukherji’s The Lost World of Hindustani Music. This is the third in a weekly, four-part series on the evolution of Carnatic music.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Comment E-mail Print 4 First Published: Sat, Mar 22 2014. 12 08 AM IST

Evolution of music 2

Carnatic music: on the cusp of change

Madras, some would say, is not just a place. It is a pace that begins with the milkman at 4am. As cities go, it is like any other. It is a mindset and space. There are birdwatchers and tree-huggers (Madras Ramblings is a great blog on both these areas); there are the textile mavens and stylistas who eschew filter coffee for the city’s new baristas. Madras also, is the place that decides the direction of Carnatic music, given that the city is soaked in this form. Walk around the shaded roads of Adyar, where the vaagai and pungam flowers bloom, and you will hear young voices doing the ‘akaara sadhana.’ This is a basic ‘riyaz’ or practice where you open your mouth, sing up and down the octaves, and hope like hell that a mosquito doesn’t enter your mouth while doing this. It is also during this stultifying “a-a-a-aa” practice that novice girl students wonder if they should switch to Hindustani music, mostly to attract the guys who saunter around IIT during Mood Indigo or Mardi Gras, humming what seem to be amazing khayals and dhrupads but what are in fact old Hindi ghazals of the most basic variety. This passing fancy with Hindustani music soon passes. It is what your ears are used to, I suppose, and Chennai’s ears are doused in as much Carnatic music as there is gingili (sesame) oil in their milagai-podi (chili-powder, wrongly but appropriately called gunpowder by North Indians).

As Sheila Dhar describes in her hilarious and insightful book, “Raga ‘n Josh,” listeners steeped in Hindustani music cannot relate to Carnatic music. To them, Carnatic music sounds like a staccato gunfire volley. The same applies to Carnatic listeners, who find Hindustani music too free-form and slow. It is like swimming in dark muddy waters. The gradual build-up of a Hindustani raga makes us want to snap, “Get on with it already.” Both these great streams of music originated with the Sama Veda, which corralled and codified sounds into manageable tones and octaves. The priests chanted these sounds and so it began.

All music originated in the sacred, no matter what religion. Listen to Gregorian or Mozarabic chants with your eyes closed and they will remind you of the feeling you get in the early morning hours at a temple in Haridwar. Listen to Baroque Jewish music from a Portuguese synagogue, available on Youtube, and it will take you back to a church in Goa. Listen to Islamic Anasheeds or Sufi music and you will not just feel the pull of a mosque but also that of a Buddhist monastery. The chants and singing all sound similar. When people say that music is universal, this is what they mean. Music has since evolved and diverged across cultures but rhythm and melody remain constant. Medieval music called the beats talea, somewhat akin to our tala. They called the melody color, which we can approximate to our ragas. Music, you could say was a way for early humans to express the awe they felt when the universe revealed its mysteries, shocks and sorrows to them. They opened their mouths in awe; sounds came; and then a short step to song.

Medieval western music has more in common with Indian music than the music that came during its ‘classical’ period of Beethovan, Mozart, Schubert and Haydn. An influential medieval composer, Guillaume Dufay, was a contemporary of South India’s Purandara Dasa, who codified Carnatic music in a way that is still being practiced today. Dufay had a similar influence over legions of medieval composers after him. The difference is that western music shook off such influences and reinvented itself through the centuries. Carnatic music evolved much more gradually. Is that good or bad? In this column, I would like to make a case that Indian classical music—Carnatic music, which is the form that I know– is on the cusp of great changes and indeed, needs to change. Some semantics here in how I define evolution (which Carnatic music has done) and innovation (which hasn’t happened in its case). Evolution is gradual and occurs as a matter of course. It is hard to predict how things evolve– who would have thought that Gnanambiga Caterers rather than ‘Gnanamu Sagarada,” the composition, would pull rasikas to Narada Gana Sabha?. Innovation, on the other hand, is purposeful and initiated by a person or group of influencers. It seeks to enhance an existing product or experience. Innovation often begins with rebellion against the current form—impressionist and abstract expressionist painting began like this before it became the norm.

What I want to focus on is innovation— because evolution of the gradual, incremental sort has happened, and continues to happen in Hindustani, Carnatic and for that matter, western music. All music went from being patronized by the royal courts to seeking sustenance from a mass audience. New instruments such as the violin, saxophone, mandolin, and guitar, and even whistling were absorbed into the fold. Jugal-bandhis, which didn’t exist, were created when Hindustani and Carnatic musicians agreed to share a stage and synchronize their form. But none of these changes are dramatic of the sort that took place in Europe and western classical music. Isn’t it about time we reinvent our music and make it relevant to our time?

There are a few carnatic musicians who are attempting innovation. An incomplete list includes Bombay Jaishree (creative collaborations); Sanjay Subrahmanyam (podcasts); Sikkil Gurucharan (with Anil Srinivasan); Aruna Sayeeram (for introducing North Indian abhangs), Madras String Quartet (playing Carnatic music on western string instruments); and T.M. Krishna (creating a new concert format). All are taking baby steps and all fear being lambasted by the so-called purists who make up the bulk of the audience. Can any of these musicians seize the day and change the paradigm? More next week.

Shoba Narayan remembers a spine-tingling jugal-bandhi featuring Bhimsen Joshi and Balamurali Krishna.

Evolution of Music

My friend, Chitra Srikrishna and I are doing a music event together on March 14th. Details here. A happy result is that I am reading a lot about Carnatic music. Ranging from Pantula Rama’s book to Sangita Ratnakara to white papers.

Two chance conversations started this. In both cases, the two music lovers were gushing about TM Krishna’s “musical genius” and berating what he was doing with the concert-format. I found the intensity of responses intriguing. And thus began this series of four parts.

Apropos of nothing, just watching an AMAZING Disney film called “African Cats.” Highly highly recommend it.

TM Krishna: Carnatic music’s ‘stunt’ man
TM Krishna’s experimentations with Carnatic music structure have opinionated concert goers, in a lather
Shoba Narayan


Chennai, the city I grew up in and still call home is in the throes of a creative ferment, at least with respect to Carnatic music. This has caused some apoplexy and bile among many keen ‘rasikas’ or lovers of music, who live in homes where even the pillars sing, as an ancient Tamil poem said about the author of the Tamil Ramayan, poet Kamban’s home.

These are homes in the bylanes of T. Nagar and Mylapore where the home-ground Narasu’s coffee (my father drinks it) is piping hot and frothy; where the pichi-jasmine is pink rimmed and smells of a beautiful woman’s hair—the one described in the Sangam Tamil poem “Kongu ther vazhkai anjirai thumbi,” which legions of Chennai’s students memorized from their trusty “Konar notes”; and where Carnatic music is played from dawn to midnight.

Carnatic music, for South Indians is not just music; it is a milieu. It thrives in Chennai where most of the top musicians live, but it has a vast cultural network with tentacles all over India. It draws within its fold the bharatanatyam dancers of Matunga, clad as they are in mustard yellow, parrot green and maroon Chettinad sarees. It includes the maidens of Palghat, Kerala, who step out in the morning with dripping wet tresses tied in a loose knot called the ‘aathu kattu.’ It also includes those Delhi army officers with long names like Lakshminarayanan who settle their stomachs with curd rice and piquant vadu-manga pickle couriered from Thanjavur, after enjoying the single malts in Delhi’s swirling party scene. These are men and women, aunties and uncles who can expound on the difference between the ragas, AnandaBhairavi and Reethigowlai; who can snatch a Saramati ragam (which is how South Indians say it—name first and ‘ragam’ next) from the sound of the waves; and who venerate the musicians of yesteryear like Ramnad Krishnan and Voletti Venkateswarulu. It is these ‘mamas’ and ‘mamis,’ the South’s version of ‘uncle-jis’ and ‘aunty-jis’ who froth at the mouth at certain new developments in Chennai’s cutcheri (concert) circuit.

One of the objects of their ire is a musician-singer named T.M. Krishna and the reason for their sound and the fury has to do with Krishna’s “messing with” the traditional cutcheri paddhati or format. Krishna sings varnams in the middle of a concert, for instance. These fast-paced compositions are typically sung at the beginning of the concert to warm up the voice and energize the audience. Krishna has, on occasion, trailed off after an alapana or flight of musical imagination of a raga. Instead of singing the composition that comes after the improvisation, he has asked his violinist to do the job instead. All this has my uncles and aunts who are rabid, devoted and opinionated concert-goers in all of a lather. I recently attended a family lunch where no one could agree on anything including whether peanuts were appropriate additions for a lemon-rice; or the origins of asafetida (it originated from Afghanistan for the record). But they were united in the condemnation of “modern” musicians who mess with tradition. My eldest aunt shook her handkerchief so vigorously while speaking “on the matter” that the rest of us were doused with the Gokul sandal powder that she spirits into her kerchief. My uncle—her husband—was frothing at the mouth and not because he had slurped a large mouthful of coffee. In fact, my uncle never slurps. He pours the hot coffee straight down his gullet, which has over the years developed a kind of acid coating to all manner of hot fluids going down its centre, tainting neither tumbler nor esophagus as far as I can tell.

In speeches and interviews, Krishna has tried to explain why he is breaking the mold. The cutcheri format as it exists today is less than 100 years old, he correctly says. It was formalized in the 1920s by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar to follow a standardized format. First, a brisk varnam; then an invocation on Lord Ganesha; then a few fast-paced krithis or songs without the improvisation; then a heavy piece in a ‘ghana’ ragam or weighty ragam like Kambodhi, Kalyani, or Bhairavi. Then the centerpiece of the concert or the RTP– Ragam, Thanam, Pallavi, which is raga improvisation followed by swara-play followed by the song in a ragamalika or garland of ragas; then the virtuoso “thani avarthanam” display by the accompanying drummers; then the lighter fare called ‘thukkada’ which include bhajans, abhangs, padhams, javalis and the like. This is how a typical Carnatic music concert is structured and most concertgoers time their bathroom and bonda breaks to suit this format. In changing this structure, Krishna has derailed the audience; and put a spanner, or in his case, silence in the works of when they go out to stretch their feet and gossip about sabha secretarys.

I too had a similar knee-jerk reaction when Krishna “pulled his stunt,” as some purists might call it, at a Bangalore concert. After shifting the varnam to the middle of the concert, he explained that there was no rule that stated that varnams had to be sung in the beginning; that he was just trying to innovate with the format.

My view, however is different from the average Chennai rasika who views Krishna’s experimentations as being disrespectful of tradition; and altogether too bold, indeed cocky. I think Krishna is right to experiment. I also think he is not bold enough; not imaginative enough. Read on…. Next week…..

Shoba Narayan is practicing pouring green tea down her gullet.

Music– classical and film.

I am very excited about this program. My friend, Chitra and I are doing this together. I met Chitra because of my columns in Mint. She was a reader who became a friend. She is an amazing singer. So we came up with this idea and pitched it to Bangalore International Center. They accepted it; and here we are, at home, rehearsing. Chitra lived in California for many years before returning to India. She is a lovely person. We are having a great time rehearsing this. Please come if you are in Bangalore on March 14th. It will be well worth your time to hear Chitra sing. It is a FREE event.

Invite dt. 14-03-2014

Carnatic Music vs. Harry Potter

Great archival photos of two music greats accompanying this piece.

Carnatic music versus Harry Potter
How do you teach Carnatic music to a child whose idea of ‘bhakti’ is watching Harry Potter reruns ad nauseam?
Shoba Narayan
When Bhimsen Joshi or M.S. Subbulakshmi (centre) sang, the ‘bhakti rasa’ was evident. Photo: Hindustan Times

There is one phrase that leaves me wonderstruck these days. It is, “I learnt juggling from my father/mother.” Or “I am teaching my son how to play the piano.” Or “I am teaching my daughter how to play tennis.”
Insert your choice of interest or skill.
How do you teach your child something that you are passionate about without—forgive me— pissing them off? Lots of parents have figured this out, but I am abysmal at it. Carnatic music, which is what my daughter (reluctantly) and I are currently engaged in, is replete with musicians who began learning from their parents and then went on to concert-level careers. How did it happen?

Are you, dear reader, teaching your child something that you care about? Are you good at it? What do you do? Is it patience? How do you stop yourself from criticizing your children to the point where they walk away? How will they get better at it if you don’t criticize? Does it have to do with sensitivity, both yours and the child’s? Can you learn to be dispassionate about something you are passionate about? Because you need this detachment in order to be a good teacher. These are some of the questions I am grappling with.

Twice a week, I force my daughter to sit on our jhoola (swing) and learn Carnatic music from me. Much of what we sing today was codified in the 15th century by Purandara Dasa, a composer who created the pedagogy of Carnatic music. He deemed that the basic voice-training exercises would be in one particular raga called Mayamalavagowla. Dasa created the gradually more complicated exercises that allow the voice to rapidly rise from one octave to another, and create a string of notes, somewhat like a jazz trumpet. This is voice culture and it is what Carnatic music students do for hours every day—for years. At the end of it, your voice should be your slave, my teacher would say. It should move up and down three octaves with the ease and grace of a slithering snake, only faster. I tell my daughter all this during our lesson. She turns to look at the clock and says, “You said only half an hour today.” I search for an analogy that she can relate to: something modern, something more like the music she listens to.

Carnatic music is like jazz in a lot of ways, I say, even though she listens to little jazz. Emotion counts when you sing or play. A good musician can elevate a composition and bring tears to the eyes of the audience. When the iconic M.S. Subbulakshmi sang, “Kurai ondrum illai”, the entire auditorium wept. So said my grandmother anyway. The Tamil word kurai means grievance but alludes to worry in this context, as in, “I have no worries/grievances, Krishna, O lord of wisdom.”
Bhimsen Joshi. Photo: Girish Srivastava/Hindustan Times
I sing the tune, “kurai ondrum illai,” and my daughter sings along, having heard this song many times. It sounds odd, these words, coming from a 12-year-old. Most of our music is steeped in bhakti, or piety; or romance. One of the songs I love, “Jai Durge Durgati Parihaarini,” which Bhimsen Joshi has rendered in a stirring, spine-tingling manner, cannot be sung well without that bhakti rasa. How do you teach it to a child whose idea of bhakti is watching Harry Potter reruns ad nauseam?

Another song I am learning is from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda. It begins on a rather cheery note: Pralaya payodi jale (The world is ending). To imbue this feeling into the song when you know for a fact that the world isn’t ending is a challenge faced by singers of
our music.

Like jazz, Carnatic music allows for a lot of improvisation. Most concerts begin with improvisation. We call it alapana. And like jazz riffs, you can traverse the musical universe with your imaginative singing and then return to the base, in time with the beat, of course. It is this bit that I cannot do. I can learn and render countless straightforward compositions, but I don’t have the imagination and confidence for improvisation. My foundation isn’t strong enough. I am worried that I will falter. I will sing one note off-key. That, I couldn’t stand. I would hate myself for getting it wrong. So I don’t even try.

My daughter tries though. She is able to sing imaginatively even if it is off-key. I crunch my hands, quite literally, and hold myself back from yelling at her. My face changes even though I channel an inner botoxed look into it. My daughter watches me turn from an easy-going mom to a tyrant. She is spooked by it. My obsessiveness comes through when I teach, which is why my children hate to learn from me.

I am as hard on myself as I am with you, I tell her when she is in tears, trying to make her understand; and forgive; and return to me to learn. My daughter approves of this self-flagellation. She watches my face get stricken when I get a note wrong. She smiles.

With music I get time out not only from the world but also from myself. So I turn on GarageBand, switch on my Snowflake mike, connect it to my SoundCloud account, download the tanpura from YouTube, feed it into my iPod which is streamed through my Bose docking station.
Surrounded and supported by these pillars of technology, I take a deep breath and search for the eternal: mokshamu galada (God grant me salvation). My daughter rolls her eyes and wishes for something similar—time out from her mother’s music.

Shoba Narayan is teaching her daughter geethams , and is trying to learn Jai Durge from Bhimsen Joshi’s CDs. Write to her at

Song from the navel

One of the tough things about writing is that the piece that you think is great will not resonate with readers and the piece that you think is so-so will elicit unusual responses.

Music should begin at the ‘nabi’ or navel, move to the ‘hrud’ or heart, then ‘kanta’ or throat, and give the ‘rasa’ or emotion
Shoba Narayan
A song from the navel
Narayan’s teacher prefers that she practise before dawn. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

My music practice always begins with the strings of the tambura. I’d like to say that mine is an old-fashioned Tanjore-style stringed instrument made from jackwood and rosewood with a spherical gourd that rests comfortably on my lap when I sit cross-legged on the floor for practice. But it is not. My tambura has been downloaded—for free, I might add—from YouTube. With a click, I can choose any of the octaves I typically sing at: G or G sharp being the usual ones. In Carnatic music, we call it “5 or 5.5 kattai”, respectively. When I chant in Sanskrit, I choose a lower octave: more like 3.5 or 4.
My music teacher prefers that I practise before dawn. He actually prefers that I emulate the system demonstrated in that great Carnatic music film, Sankarabharanam. In the movie, a boy trainee wakes up before dawn, stands neck-deep in a flowing river and sings: Sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa. The slowly rising notes are the Carnatic equivalent of Do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do, which, with some variations, conforms to our tones.
For some reason, I feel ridiculously happy singing those simple notes, because they link us Carnatic singers with that other great stream of Indian music: Hindustani.
I am well beyond Saregama though.
I have been singing for 30 years, not at concert level but at comfortable-before-home-audience level. I sing kritis or compositions, typically by Muthuswami Dikshitar, who is my favourite composer.
Like all Indian singers, I begin with the basics, just to warm up my voice. I don’t sing at dawn, standing in running water. I sing after my children have left for school and before the milkman, jasmine-flower man, ironing-man and housekeeper ring my doorbell in a fairly continuous fashion: the incessant drone of Indian life. If I want quiet, I get an hour, say between 7am and 8am, for my practice. Or at dusk; or anytime during the day. I sneak in a song when possible. I sing when I walk down the stairs—the acoustics are good in staircases.
I am a better listener than I am a singer. I have never sung on stage and I doubt I ever will. I sing Bollywood songs in the shower. I do a mean Summertime. Carnatic music is different. I grew up venerating its traditions and when you do that, it is hard to break free and gain the confidence to sing before an audience unless you are really good. I am not. I am good enough to know that I am not good enough. So I sing at friends’ homes; really close friends and only if I know they mean it when they ask for a song. Mostly, I sing for myself. I wonder why I sing because practice isn’t easy. It isn’t even pleasant. I mess up and hate it when I do that. After all these years, I say, scolding myself. You can’t get that simple note right.
For such a slacker in life—I can walk over clothes lying all over the floor, no problem—I am intensely self-critical when it comes to Carnatic music. I tried teaching my daughters. It didn’t go well. I would tell myself not to frown when they got a note wrong. I always frowned. I couldn’t help myself. That was the least of it. The tongue-lashings came after about 10 minutes. “Open your mouth and sing. I don’t want to hear that false voice. You are not an opera singer, singing in a high-pitched falsetto. You are a Carnatic musician. Your notes should begin at the navel, rising up to the heart and come out through the throat: Nabi, hrud kanta rasana,” as Thyagaraja sang in the song, Sobillu Saptaswara. Music beginning at the nabi or navel, moving to the hrud or heart, then kanta or throat, and giving the rasa or emotion.
After two classes, my children walk out in tears. Never again will we sing Carnatic music, they swear. I stare after them, feeling like I have lost something; like some part of me is torn out and discarded. Please, I plead. I promise I won’t yell at you. Let’s do a short class tomorrow. Just half an hour. I’ll buy you ice cream.
And so it goes. Just last week, I started the latest instalment of my music class with my daughter. I begin with the best intentions. I tell myself to stay positive and not be too critical. Two minutes later, I become a shrew; I start screaming. There is no hell worse than knowing perfection but not being able to achieve it; not being able to tolerate the lack of it in your students, or in my case, my daughters.
I am not a perfectionist. Ask my friends and they will agree. But bad music has my self-control collapsing. Even today, when I hear my daughter singing—Coldplay, Gotye, Avicii, Black Eyed Peas, or whatever it is that she sings that day—I think to myself: “Wrong. All wrong. It isn’t coming from the navel. It doesn’t have a rich timbre.”
My voice doesn’t have a rich timbre either. For that, you need decades of practice. It is like the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai, who did the wood-block print of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, said: By 90, I will have penetrated its essential nature. He was talking about painting, but the same applies to Carnatic music.
Shoba Narayan is practising Mokshamu Galada , in the beautiful ragam Saramathi.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns