31 March 2005

Music Season

I have not written for a few days mainly due to being busy with a family function. I would like to return to my musical journey and talk about my trips to Madras during the so called "music season". Whenever I visit Madras, the time of preference is December. Not only is the weather tolerable at this time but there is literally music in the air.

The first 'season' I attended must have been in the late 1980s. That time, and most subsequent times, my family and I have rented an apartment or house in Madras during the season time. We were fortunate to be able to stay in the Mylapore area a number of times, within close proximity to several of the major music sabhas. The usual routine would be to have breakfast and head off to a concert or lecture-demonstration, return home for lunch, have a nap, then go off for another concert or two. Oh! What a life!

In late 2000, I made a trip again to Madras but this time my time was not spent with sangeetham (music) but with Sangeetha. Yes, I met and married Sangeetha in December 2000. Probably the thing which clinched it for me apart from the natural attraction was the fact that we both shared the same favourite raga - Sahana. It is now over four years since we were married and her musical skills have blossommed in Sydney. Whilst previously I had to resort to the internet to find companions to discuss Carnatic music, I now have a life long partner to share this love with. We have performed many times together and have even composed music together.

In 2000, we did attend a few concerts together. I think the first was Sanjay Subrahmanyam's Narada Gana Sabha concert where he sang a RTP in Neethimathi. In December 2002, when we returned to Madras for a visit, we attended around 25 concerts.

The Madras Music season is probably the largest musical event to take place annually - anywhere in the world. It is a pilgrimage that any Carnatic music lover must make. My burning ambition is to perform during the music season in Madras. The main problem I have been facing, however, is the weight of my instrument!

23 March 2005

What to listen to?

A comment in the previous post asked can "you recommend a good starting point [in Carnatic music] for someone who listens mainly to Western folk/rock styles?"

My initial answer would be .. whatever you seem to like. I initially found intrumental music more appealling. Probably because it may take a little while to get over the language barrier. Within the instrumental arena, the Western instruments like saxophone (Kadri Gopalnath) and mandolin (U. Shrinivas) are a good start. Then you can move on to other instruments like violin (MS Gopalakrishnan, Ganesh Kumaresh, TN Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman) and flute (Ramani, Sikkil Sisters).

It is important to check and see what raga you are listening to and what the song is called. After a while when you listen to another recording you will recognise that it sounds familiar - that is it is probably in the same raga as you have heard before. Most people would associate a raga with a particular song first So you are listening to something and you keep thinking this sounds like say "Nagumomu" - when you link it back to the raga, you realise it is in fact the raga Abheri. If you listened to music subconciously as a kid, then it is most likely that some of the songs that your parents used to play often will be remembered.

In terms of vocal music, again you should listen to what ever you can tolerate and like. In the early stages it will probably be based purely on the voice. That is for instance why Dr. K. Yesudas is so popular - he has a captivating voice. Anything is fine and as you listen to more and more you will probably find you enjoy more and more styles, voices, etc.

I think I initially started listening to people like MS Subbulakshmi, Chitti Babu and Yesudas (because that is mainly what we had at home). There is a Beginner's Listening List on Todd McComb's web site. He also has an article there on why he, an American, is attracted to Carnatic music.

For the more technical aspect, its probably easier if you can find someone to explain the basics to you practically but the plethora of information available on the net can be useful. The first few articles listed here will be of use.

Would be interested to hear what others would recommend.

21 March 2005

Hearing is learning

As I mentioned before, listening to music is the best way to learn it. Learner drivers in Sydney have to clock up 50 hours of on-the-road driving before they can even sit for their practical driving test. A similar rule is in place for learner-pilots. However, this aspect is not usually applied for students of Carnatic music. In yesterday's Thyagaraja Aradhana, I could barely see any children listening to the music of the seniors, rather they were busy playing games outside.

Often we read in artistes' biographies sentences like "she hails from a musical family". I would think such a line is true for about 80% of the musicians. The effect is obvious. Children in musical families have a headstart in music because they are constantly exposed to music. In other words, they are listening to music a lot. It doesn't have to be sitting studiously in front of the tape recorder or next to a singer. Even if music is going on in another room, or is on when some other activity is taking place it helps.

Where did I clock up my listening hours? I didn't come from a musical family and music wasn't constantly being played in my household. Well, my trip to university by public transport took one and a half hours each way. So in the round trip I had three hours to listen to music on my walkman. I could hear an entire concert recording of Madurai Mani Iyer or D. K. Pattammal.

People have asked me how long do I practice a day. The answer is – not enough, but the time I spent listening to music on the train really paid off!

Addendum: In this morning's Sydney newspaper there is an interesting article: http://www.smh.com.au/news/Technology/No-more-songs-in-their-pockets-school-bans-iPods/2005/03/21/1111253959952.html Although I suggested listening to music a lot - I didn't really mean kids should be doing this during school too!

19 March 2005

Sydney's Aradhana

Let me digress a little to write about a local event. This weekend Sydney is celebrating Thyagaraja Aradhana. Today we had performances by students while tomorrow will commence in the traditional manner with the group rendition of the Pancharatna kirtanas followed by a short dance drama using one of Thyagaraja's compositions and then individual performances by adults.

It is a huge community event in Sydney. Food has become a large part of the event as Saturday night dinner and Sunday lunch are served. Most of the food is cooked by volunteers. My mother, a living dynamo aged 72, was up at 4.30am this morning to start making chole for 300 people. Similarly, so many others will be up before the sun rises to start on the lunch.

The standard set by a lot of the students today was very high. Despite being born and bred overseas, these kids are able to perform so admirably. The challenge, however, is in taking the music to the next stage of manodharma. In the individual krithi rendition, the students excel but I feel more emphasis should be paid in teaching students the other aspects of our music - such as kalpana swaram and raga alapana. A lot of people will suggest that these aspects cannot be taught, but still students need to be encouraged to try these aspects early and and give equal importance to practicing these elements instead of just krithis. Those students who are able to achieve that aspect are the ones who really love and understand the music.

18 March 2005

On site

Carnatic Corner was initially just a way for me to organise the various Indian music sites which I visited often. There were the articles on music which I found useful, lists of compositions, Carnatic music organizations around the world, etc. Back in 1994, apart from perhaps a small Yahoo section on Indian music, there was no place which brought together all the information available on Carnatic music. In a short time the site contained quite a lot of information, thanks to the help of some regular contributors.

In parallel I had started the Hindu Gallery section as a way of organising my images of Hindu deities. Initially the site was hosted through my Sydney University account. This site in particular was extremely popular and Microsoft requested that they use some an image from the site in their publicity (in print and television) for Internet Explorer. When I left university, I moved the site to a local ISP but they sent me a warning about excess traffic on the site. A few years later I actually registered the carnaticcorner and hindugallery domain names and rented space on an US based server to host the files.

Carnatic Corner has continued to grow. Some of the early sites have disappeared as the students who made Carnatic web sites as part of their MS degrees left university. In their place, the professional sites which carry advertisements and are backed by professional musicians have come up. There are so many artistes with their own web pages nowadays too. Some, however, seem to get started with much enthusiasm but do not get updated and in a year or too we find that they are now longer active.

A lot of people asked me to upload music onto Carnatic Corner. I had always resisted this move as I considered it breach of copyright. Nowadays, of course, there are several sites where you can listen to Carnatic music.

I have wanted to give the site a complete redesign as it essentially has kept its same look for more than ten years. Unfortunately, I haven't found the time to devote to this task. Hopefully, the next time I have a long stretch off work, I will devote some days to the redesign.

17 March 2005

Inspiration is better than perspiration

Learning vocal music is a valuable asset to any budding Carnatic instrumentalist. Carnatic music is essentially vocal music and the predominant style in instrumental solos is the gayaki or vocal style. While learning krithi-s, I did not generally learn the swara notation. Only for difficult sangati-s would I write down the notation. This is not very uncommon for vocal students, however, for instrumentalists, the challenge is to convert the sangati-s into swaras. In some ways this has been a short-coming for me. When I play a song I remember the words and then play it. The problem is the next time I play it, sometimes I would play slightly different notes. Now when I teach my students to play a krithi, there is a need to write down the notation for them!

Getting back to my musical journey … after learning several varnams and a few krithis from Smt Uma Ayyar, I had to switch gurus and started learning from Smt Prema Anantakrishnan. She was new to Australia, recently graduated from the Swati Tirunal Music College in Trivandram. She was an enthusiastic teacher and I got a solid foundation of music under her.

At the same time I was learning other compositions on my own from cassettes. I was particularly attracted to two artistes. The first was M. D. Ramanathan (MDR). His music offered something different, something unique. The voice was bass and full of gamakam. MDR's music offered something different – something unique. He was in no hurry; he repeated lines over and over, playing with the words, sometimes adding his own extra words to the composed lines. His Sahana raga alapana was divine and from listening to this I developed a love of this ragam. It still is my favourite ragam! I learnt Giripai and Endaro Mahanubhavalu from listening to MDR's renditions on cassette. Indeed, I was quite obsessed with his music and would proudly proclaim that I hailed from roughly the same place in Kerala as him. My father went to the same college as him! Many years later I was very happy to get an e-mail from his son saying he appreciated the article I wrote about MDR.

The other favourite artiste of mine is G. N. Balasubramaniam (GNB). Like MDR, GNB's music offered something out of the ordinary. His elaborate raga alapana-s could cover the whole gamut of a raga and his speedy passages (briga-s) just flowed like a rapid river. I am still a big fan of his music and his bani – carried forward in the music of my other favourite artistes M. L. Vasanthakumari, Trichur V. Ramachandran & Sudha Ragunathan.

Apart from the music, I developed a keen interest in the theoretical aspects. On every trip to India I would buy as many books as possible on Carnatic music. I was also interested in reading about old artistes and the like. Since I can't read Tamil – I was limited to choosing the English books of course. The keyboard proved a good instrument to learn the basic structure of melakartha ragas, etc.

I had moved on from my Casiotone to a Yamaha synthesizer which had full sized keys. In 1993, after a lot of research into the best possible keyboard for Carnatic music I purchased an Ensoniq TS-10 synthesizer. The most useful feature this had was the portamento or glidemode. It allowed the gamaka effect of sliding from one note to another to be emulated in a keyed instrument. It also allowed the user to set the glide time, which is the time it takes to slide from one note to another. Unfortunately, this feature is only available in the more expensive synthesizers. The TS-10 also had some good sounds of instruments like violins and flutes. I still use this instrument in concerts and recordings, especially when accompanying.

In the early 1990s, I had few people to discuss Carnatic music with in Australia. Here, the internet became a great boon. I discovered the newsgroup rec.music.indian.classical and this became a great source of information to me. The newsgroup still exists but is now largely a forum for Hindustani music while the Carnatic lovers have moved to web-based forums like Sangeetham Talk. Back in those days there were only a couple of web pages devoted to Carnatic music so armed with my notepad edit and limited knowledge of html I started Carnatic Corner …

16 March 2005

Learning to swim in the ocean

Although I probably first heard Carnatic music at a very young age, the frequency of listening to it was rather limited. We had a few cassettes at home but our family collection of Carnatic music comprised of not much more than a LP of Chitti Babu and another of Lalgudi Jayaraman. None of my elder siblings had formally learnt music of any form. There were no Carnatic music teachers in Uganda and we didn't know any in Sydney for a long time. Hence, the music which was played in the car or on the home system tended to be Hindi film music (Lata Mangeshkar, Mohd Rafi, etc) and Western pop music (Neil Diamond, The Eagles and the like).

My brother had been on a trip to the US back in 1984 and he returned with a few copied cassettes of MS Subbulakshmi - I think it was the Annamacharya krithi collection and the tape which has the Ganesha Pancharatnam and Nama Ramayanam on it. By this stage my sisters (who are a much elder to me) had left home and this small collection of Carnatic music got more airtime in my house. Just by listening, my brother and I got more and more interested in this kind of music and the collection gradually started to grow. Soon we had exposure to GNB, Semmangudi, MDR and the like.

Also in the 1980s, the number of South Indians in Sydney started growing. A lot of IT professionals had come to Australia in this period and they brought with them awareness and appreciation of Carnatic music. An informal circle of Carnatic music lovers was formed and they held house concerts by local Carnatic musicians in Sydney. These were an informal event – sometimes just vocal concerts without any accompaniment. As the popularity of these concerts grew, a hall was hired for the occasion and Sydney Music Circle was born. My family (which now consisted of my parents, brother and I) started attending these concerts on a regular basis. Looking back, apart from a few new born babies, I was probably the youngest to be attending these concerts – at least the youngest to be voluntarily attending them!

But why? Why did I like Carnatic music? I have often asked my self this very question. Although I didn't realise it at the time, Carnatic music brought with it something divine – something which touched some nerve deep inside me that led me to want more and more of it. Later on, when I started to learn more about it, it provided an intellectual stimulation but I am not sure what exactly it was that made me fall into the ocean! I can't say I was pushed into it like a lot of children these days. I was already in my mid-teens. I didn't understand any of the words that were sung but it was something about the music!

If you have read the earlier posts, perhaps you are thinking what happened to my keyboard career. Well, this was continuing. I still played Beatles songs and the like but my collection of bar-coded books was limited - I think technology had moved on past the bar-code reader by then - the new cards started having rams cards you could insert!

I started trying to play krithis on the keyboard on my own. I learnt a few compositions and in 1987, aged 17, I had a debut performance (on the Casiotone keyboard) at the Canberra Thyagaraja Aradhana. I played Banturithi in Hamsanadham and Raghunayaka in Hamsadhwani. This was a big success with the small group of rasikas present that day despite me confusing the mrudangam accompanist that day because I started both songs on samam instead of the one-and-half eddupu. Being just a pimply teenager with no guru, I was excused and indeed encouraged to learn more. On a subsequent trip to Madras one summer vacation, I picked up some books with swara notations and when I returned, I set about learning how to swim in the ocean.

Being genuinely interested and enjoying a subject something makes learning the subject so much easier. So from the books I quickly grasped the basics. I think it was in 1988 or 1989 when I decided I wanted some formal Carnatic music training. Of course, there was no one to teach me keyboard so I settled for vocal music. I remember my first class with Smt Uma Ayyar. I caught the train to the station near her house and she picked me up from the station. When the lesson began she started with the Sarali Varisai then asked me to sing some of the more advanced lessons. Managing this easily she suggested that I started learning varnams. I could already play Ninnukori in Mohanam on the keyboard so she started teaching me Jalajaksha in Hamsadhwani.

Ga, Ri, Sa

Casio tones

Alright, so I am in Australia now. I went to primary school in a small government school near my house – Marayong South Primary. One of my earliest child hood memories is my first day at school. Not having gone to pre-school, it was a new experience to me but what sticks in my mind is seeing all these other children crying as they parted from their mothers. I remember being one of the few who didn’t cry!

Despite being the only Asian kid in my class (and possibly the only one in the whole school) I didn’t feel any different from the other kids. Of course I insisted on taking sandwiches to school instead of idlis or tamarind rice. All in all I had a very happy school life. Indeed I ended up being ‘boy school captain’ in that school in the 6th Grade. Music at this stage was not a big part of my life. Sure, we had music part of the curriculum but it did not involve playing any instruments. Music largely involved singing Australian folk songs (with themes about the outdoors, kangaroos and sheep shearers) and Christmas Carols. Nevertheless, it was something I loved immensely and later on in school I was part of the choir which had a few public events like visiting Old People’s Homes and singing to them!

In 1981 I was presented with my first musical instrument. It was a Casiotone Keyboard. It was small keyboard but had a bar code reader pen attached. This allowed you to scan special bar coded books that contained music. Once a song had been scanned in from the book, the keyboard would guide you to play the song – it showed a light above the key, which needed to be pressed. Hence, my very first guru was indeed the Casiotone!

Of course, there were no bar-coded books for Carnatic geetham-s or varnam-s. With the help of the flashing lights on the Casio I learnt to play Beatles songs, songs from TV Themes and other pop songs. My fingering was ad-hoc as I had no formal coach but from listening I learnt how to play the tunes without the lights. Looking back, this probably was an excellent way to learn music – it encouraged me to listen and showed me the notes I needed play.

In high school, music classes were a bit more formal. Still there was no formal coaching but students were encouraged to concentrate on one instrument – naturally I chose the keyboard. I continued playing the keyboard with my ad-hoc fingering but it served the purpose. Our school music teacher (Mr Neil Winter) was graduate from Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music. He was an enthusiastic fellow who had some innovative ideas about teaching music. He used to have listening tests where the class would listen to a piece music (either Western classical or rock) and we had to write down what instruments were used in the various parts of the composition and to comment on the music. I remember reading somewhere that Palghat Mani Iyer said learning music is 80% listening and 20% practice.

I studied music in school till the 10th grade and was encouraged by my music teacher to go further with it and study it for my Higher School Certificate. I would have loved to but the traditional Indian values of studying high level mathematics with physics, chemistry, English and economics told me otherwise. That was effectively the end of my Western music education.

In the next instalment, I will write about how I made the leap into the ocean of Carnatic music.

15 March 2005

How I ended up in Oz

One of the most common questions I get is "How did you get so interested in Carnatic music?"

Before I answer that, it would be useful to give a bit about my background.

My parents are both Kerala Iyers. My Dad was born and raised in Palghat, Kerala, while my mum is from Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. Neither of my parents learnt music but as it was an essential part of the culture, they did have an exposure to it. My father often speaks about attending concerts by old stalwarts like Chembai Vaidyanathar Bhagavathar or Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, not to forget the all-night Kathakali events. My paternal grandfather, Sri G. S. Srinivasa Iyer, was a respected headmaster in Palghat (Alathoor) and has translated into Malayalam and provided commentary for a number of religious texts such as the Ramayanam and the Bhagavatham.

Before I digress too much, my father got a job in Uganda in 1957. Uganda was essentially a place with no scope for Carnatic music. Literally out of Africa, the Indian population there consisted largely of Gujaratis and quite a few Malayalees. I was born in Uganda in 1969, the youngest of five children. Actually there is a large gap, almost 10 years between my brother (the fourth born) and I. Alhough I can't remember it, my parents and older siblings fondly reminisce about the relaxed lifestyle, the comfortable weather, the vegetables and the excellent conditions they enjoyed in Uganda.

Due to the civil unrest caused by General Idi Amin, my family decided to leave Uganda in the early Seventies. A lot of Indian families migrated to the UK or Canada during that time. The initial plan for my family was to return to India as my eldest two sisters were by then studying college in Madras. My father got news from a Ugandan colleague who had migrated to Australia that it wasn't such a bad place and maybe the Ayyar family should give it a chance too. Hence in May 1973, my family and I, then aged 3, moved to Sydney.

This was indeed a new experience. For a long period Australia had a racist White Australia policy where non-whites could not migrate here. By 1973, this policy was totally removed. Nevertheless, there were very few Indians in Australia at that time. There was one only shop in Sydney where one could purchase basic lentils and that was located quite far from our house. My father was supporting a large family on a school teacher's income. Unlike in Uganda, there was no subsidised accommodation for Government employees nor was home help affordable.

...In the next post I will continue and get into more musical aspects!


Hi there
You may know me from my web page, Carnatic Corner. Since the page hasn't undergone any significant change for quite a while I decided to enter into the world of blogs and give the Carnatic Corner patrons something new to read once and a while.

My idea is to share my thoughts about the divine art of Carnatic music with other lovers of similar interests. Yes, there are also discussion forums out there but I haven't come across any dedicated, active carnatic blogs. If you don't know what Carnatic music really is then you should probably check out my web page and dive into the reference library section

Hope you enjoy reading and feel free to leave your comments and suggestions!