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.

FIRST PUBLISHED: SAT, JAN 11 2014. 12 50 AM ISTHOME» LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
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
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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