Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Babu Parameswaran

By Anjana Anand

Babu Parameswaran is a versatile musician who has made his home in Irvine, California, and has been actively performing in the United States for more than 25 years. His two-decade stint at Bharatakalanjali run by the Dhananjayans has made him a sought after Bharatanatyam vocalist in the US. An artist who always has a word of encouragement for peers and students alike, Babu Parameswaran is the director of Keerthana School of Music and Fine Arts in Los Angeles. He speaks to Sruti about the journey that has brought him to the United States.

Can you tell us how you started your musical training?

My father Parameswaran Namboodiri is a mridangam artist who used to accompany stalwarts like  Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, S. Kalyanaraman, L. Subramaniam and many others.  I had my initial training in Chennai with Udupi Gopalakrishnan. Later I had the good fortune to train under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. I also received advance training under T.M. Thiagarajan, K.V. Narayanaswamy and B. Rajam Iyer.

How did you decide to settle in the US?

I was trained by Dhananjayan Sir and Shanta Akka to sing for Bharatanatyam and to do nattuvangam. I am indebted to them for giving me such sound training. In 1989, I went on my first US tour with them. Later I worked with Viji Prakash for almost ten years. Gradually I began to spend more time in the US. At one point, I was working for eight months at a stretch in the States. The work was satisfying but I found it difficult to be away from my wife Indumathy and my son Vijay Krishna for such long periods.

I decided to migrate to the US. I was lucky to find a leading immigration lawyer who facilitated the visa process. I am proud to be the first south Indian musician to get a green card on my own merit.

Do you mainly sing for Bharatanatyam? What other collaborative projects are you involved in?

I sing for most classical dance forms -- Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Odissi,  Kuchipudi, Mali. In Chennai, I have sung for the Dhananjayans,  Vyjayanthimala, Adyar Lakshman and actor-dancer Prabhu Deva. As I have some knowledge of Hindustani music, I have sung for legendary Kathak dancers like Moulik Shah, Bhairavi Kumar and others. 

I have collaborated with many artists but performing with Pandit Ravi Shankar for the musical theatre Ghanashyam was a high point in my learning curve. I learned a lot working with Pandit ji. Thanks to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Sukanya Ravi Shankar’s generosity, I sang in the popular album ‘Chants of India’ by Panditji and George Harrison. 

What challenges do you face as a musician living in the US?

To make a living as a full time musician was not easy in this country, but hard work and a supportive community made music a viable profession. My weekends were busy with performances. I started teaching music in Irvine, California. Over the years, I have made Irvine my home and am overwhelmed with the encouragement I receive here.

I don’t have any regrets about moving to America. Of course, I miss the interaction with artists in India but today with all our fancy gadgets, we are more connected than ever.

In what way has singing for Bharatanatyam changed your musical style or performance?

As I spent so much time with the Dhananjayans, I am fortunate to have learnt the nuances of singing for Bharatanatyam. That training made me understand the importance of sahityam and enunciation. Singing compositions like Varugalamo, ashtapadi-s and padam-s improved the bhava in my music.

The Dhananjayans were such an inspiration. I will never forget the training I had with them during our travel. It was not just for performance or a rushed memorizing of compositions. The learning was ongoing – in trains, airports and hotel rooms. I miss those years of performance because it was those intense periods of interaction with them that moulded my music. I meet them when they perform in the US even now.

Are there more youngsters who are serious about classical music in America today?

Of course. The very fact that I am making a living as a classical musician in the US  is  proof of  that.  I am very proud of  this generation of  US born artists like Sandeep Narayan, Ramakrishnan Murthy, Mythili Prakash and many others. They are an inspiration to the young students here and have given culture and art in the US a big boost with their talent and dedication. 

In what way have you changed your teaching methodology for students there?

I have explored a different method to teach basic lessons. I teach the swara-s with the help of a keyboard.This is of course only for the beginners, to help them understand and visualize the swarasthana-s. I have found that the young students are able to sing pitch perfect because they are able to see the progression of notes on the keyboard. I allow them to use this method till they develop an awareness of the notes.

Many people have criticized my methodology, but I have seen positive results with my students over the years. 

Tell us a about an interesting experience you had while singing for dance.

There have been many, but the one which me very happy was when my singing made an impact on a layman in the audience. Recently after an arangetram, someone came to me when I was standing in front with the dance teacher. He said that sitting in the audience for an arangetram was always a torture! I was embarrassed as the dance teacher was present when he spoke. However, I was saved the discomfiture when he said that this was the first arangetram that he had watched fully. He had enjoyed the music so much that he felt the dance and music came together beautifully. Getting such feedback from people is always gratifying. It is an assurance that my music is reaching and warming hearts!

(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)

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