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
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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.”
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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 thegoodlife@livemint.com.