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 …