D.K. Pattammal

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Connecticut and other Yankees in Carnatic music

By V Ramnarayan

 “I would have loved to hear John Coltrane explore the Pancharatna kritis,” said American writer Mike Marquesee, a man better known for his writings on politics and cricket. (The Pancharatna kritis referred to here are a suite of five songs of saint-composer Tyagaraja (1767-1847).

Marquesee is modest when he speaks of his credentials to write on Carnatic music, but his insights are brilliantly direct and praiseworthy in a westerner attracted to but hardly expert in it. He says of Carnatic music, “Its history is a history of innovation and broken taboos—relating to gender and caste, public and private. The kutcheri as we know it dates only from Ariyakudi (Ramanuja Iyengar, a famous vocalist) and the 1930s. In a single evening it can include compositions with lyrics in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Kannada, Marathi and Hindi. I can’t think of another musical culture with a comparable spread.”

Closer home, VS Narasimhan, an accomplished western classical violinist who has pioneered the performance of the great Carnatic music compositions by western musicians—his own Madras String Quartet—dreams of being around when symphony orchestras in Europe and America perform the masterpieces of Tyagaraja and other south Indian composers.

On 13 May 2012, the California-based Sacramento Youth Symphony (SYS) Orchestra collaborated with Chitravina Ravikiran to play a Tyagaraja composition rearranged for the orchestra.   According to one report, “The repertoire, carefully chosen by conductor Michael Neumann, kept the Indian spirit even in traditional Western pieces such as The Crown of India suite by Edward Elgar and Kromsky’s Song of India.”

If silence was golden
You couldn’t raise a dime
Because your mind is on vacation
And you mouth is working overtime

Versatile musician Stan Scott may not remember belting out this jazz blues number at a Mylapore home some 25 years ago, but I was in the audience during that magical jam session in which another American musician-researcher Mathew Harp (yes, Harp) Allen played an equally active part.

The day Dr. Scott arrived at Calcutta one day in the 1970s, he received the shocking news of the death of the guru he had come all the way from the USA to learn Hindustani music from. Earlier in the US, he had learnt vocal music from sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan and Sushil Mukherjee, director of fine arts at a Massachusetts school. In India, his tutelage included lessons from gurus like Krishna Chandra Banerjee, Sugata Marjit and Mohan Singh (at Santi Niketan) in classical music, and Kali Das Gupta in folk music. His stint with Vidyadhar Vyas at Wesleyan University trained him in the Gwalior gharana (in addition to the Agra gharana he had already learnt) and led him to his PhD in Hindustani classical singing.

Matthew Allen came to Chennai to learn padam singing from the family of T Balasaraswati—Bala to her admirers in two continents—descendant of the redoubtable Veenai Dhanammal. Like Stan Scott, he too was already a trained musician in a western genre before he ventured into learning the complex art of Indian classical music; he did so well enough to co-author a book on south Indian music with Bala’s brother, the incomparable flautist T. Viswanathan, who headed the ethnomusicology department at Wesleyan University, Connecticut. Allen has also written on padams and other dance music of south India as well as the recent history of bharatanatyam. 

It was with Jon Higgins that T. Viswanathan entered into his most enduring, productive collaboration. Born in Andover, Massachusetts, Higgins, a western classical vocalist who completed a double major in Music and History in 1962 and an M.A. in Musicology in 1964, from Wesleyan, earned a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology in 1973. 

He founded the Indian music studies program at York University in Toronto with mridanga vidwan Trichy Sankaran in 1971, and returned to Wesleyan in 1978 as a professor of music and director of the center for the arts. Higgins had attended several concerts of Sankaran’s with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and seen him teach an American student of Viswa. 

Sankaran had earlier turned down an invitation from American mridanga student Robert Brown—who will figure later in this narrative—to join Wesleyan University as a research scholar. 

Sankaran was apprehensive about making any long-term commitment in view of his family responsibilities and fearful of jeopardizing a flourishing concert career in Madras. “I told Jon I would go only for a year or two. The rest is history!” remembers Sankaran, who has since made York University and Toronto his home, visiting Chennai annually during the music season, to perform, teach and do lecture-demonstrations.

Viswa studied ethnomusicology at UCLA on a Fulbright scholarship from 1958 to 1960, and headed the Department of Music at Madras University from 1961 to 1966. He taught at UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts before joining the Wesleyan faculty in 1975, and earning his Ph.D. there. Training under Viswa, Higgins became the first non-Indian to perform South Indian classical Carnatic music at a high level of proficiency.  

Higgins continued his studies under Bala and wrote his dissertation on the dance music of bharatanatyam, returning to India as a Senior Research Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies, and making a name for himself in Carnatic music as Higgins Bhagavatar (A bhagavatar is an accomplished musician). 

Born in Rising Star, Texas, USA, in 1935, David Reck, a child prodigy in Western music, is a familiar figure in Carnatic music circles at Chennai. A Fellow at the Princeton Seminars in Advanced Musical Studies in the late 1950s, he pursued a successful career in New York as a composer with performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Town Hall, and Tanglewood. Drawn to Indian classical music and dance by the concerts of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Palghat Raghu, and others, he studied Indian philosophy, yoga, and Sanskrit. 

Coming to India in 1968 through a grant from the Rockefeller Arts Foundation, David and his wife, photographer Carol Reck, moved to Chennai, a life-changing decision. David studied Carnatic music theory and practice, specializing in playing the veena, an ancient string instrument—learning from Kalpakam Swaminathan among others—at the Central College of Carnatic Music. 

David Reck returned to the United States in 1971, earning a Ph.D. in World Music from Wesleyan University, and joining the faculty of Amherst College as professor of Music and Asian Studies.

David Reck continued veena lessons in the US with Karaikudi S. Subramanian and in 1991 became a student of Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, a disciple of Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, Subramanian’s grandfather and ‘founder’ of the Karaikudi bani or school of veena music, under a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies. He comes to Chennai regularly for veena practice as well as performances on the concert circuit, including kutcheris at the Music Academy. He is a well-known author of books and articles on Carnatic music.

A survivor from cancer and a heart attack, Reck believes in the healing qualities of Carnatic music and the veena.


  1. Extremely interesting.. waiting for the continuation..

  2. I would love to get in touch with David Reck. He is my sixth cousin, and I found about him when researching my family. His middle name is Stokes after his grandmother, Mary Stokes. She was born in India and she was half Indian, so this makes David one eighth Indian! Perhaps this is why he was drawn to India and Indian music.