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