He illumined our paths
By Hemmige S. Prashanth
It is not often that one comes across a classical musician who excels equally as a performer and as a teacher. Indeed, it is something of a rarity to find an individual adept at both, since these two roles demand different kinds of expertise, focus and involvement. As a performer, the musician aims to share his experience or vision of music with the rasikas; as a teacher, he takes full responsibility for the sishya, and is even authorised to ‘sculpt’ the pupil in his own mould. Especially in the gurukula system of learning, the sishya surrenders himself to the guru’s care, and hence can learn not only music but valuable life-lessons as well. My guru, Palghat K.V. Narayanaswamy (KVN Mama to us), was one such rare musician who was not only a superlative performer worth emulating but also a deeply committed teacher we all looked up to.
I was fortunate to observe KVN Mama teach a wide spectrum of students, right from the sarali varisai to the most advanced level. The manner in which Mama taught them all, always ensuring that his teaching was pitched at just the right level, was an amazing lesson in itself. Mama’s teaching was comprehensive and included all aspects that a student needed to learn, such as voice culture, singing technique and layam.
For voice culture, Mama devised a series of exercises that he expected students to practise early in the morning. This morning sadhakam involved singing in the lower octave, beginning at the mandra panchamam and descending as low as possible; then holding each note for at least a single avartana each from the mandra panchamam to the middle panchamam; then repeating the same in akara, eekara, ukara, ekara, okara and omkara in three speeds. This sadhakam not only had to be carried out in various patterns and speeds, but also in different ragas like Sankarabharanam, Mayamalavagaula and Todi. Mama had great faith in the efficacy of the morning sadhakam and often supervised it closely.
To improve our sense of layam, Mama developed simple exercises in various talams. He made us sing geetams like Kamalajadala in three speeds, first separately and then together, helping us see for ourselves the tricky spots in the process. He also had his own system of chittasvarams in Damodara tavaka and Dattatreya with many fine nuances. Although he largely advocated and practised sarvalaghu in swaram singing, he sometimes indulged the sishya with several permutations, combinations and patterns in order to underscore his lessons on layam.
Mama, whose technique is acknowledged to be one of the best in Carnatic music, always advocated a full-throated style of singing. He encouraged his students to open up their voices and sing with energy and gusto, rather than feebly or shrilly. The manner in which he demonstrated the niraval to senior students, for instance, was extraordinary. He would painstakingly point out how the niraval had to be split and spliced across the tala, how the raga bhava was not to be compromised, how the transitions in speed from the first to the madhyama kala to the third had to be effected— and yet these instructions never amounted to spoonfeeding. In fact, Mama’s teaching methods were designed to illumine the student’s own trajectory and made him or her understand the whys and wherefores of singing rather than make him or her reproduce music mechanically, even as he was quick to point out errors and corrective measures along the way.
When Mama took up a raga like Sankarabharanam, Kharaharapriya or Nattaikurinji, he immersed himself in it for several hours. He would begin by slowly building up a raga, and then ask the half-a-dozen students around him to both repeat it and take it forward. The end result was an exhilarating shared experience for teacher and student alike, and an intense education in understanding and exploring the larger picture of the raga.
Likewise, Mama’s swaram teaching was a joyous, challenging experience. Mama would commence with a swaram, and the students were expected to continue one after the other. If it was a one-avartana swaram, you had to complete your turn within that cycle, else Mama would cut you short right there and move on to the next student! If it was Anandabhairavi, for example, we were supposed to end every swaram pattern with sgrgm. All this made for an unforgettable learning experience.
Mama was a perfectionist and did not let go until he was satisfied; if a student did not get a complex sangati right at first, he would readily split the sangati into smaller, simpler parts for the student to grasp better. These were rich learning curves not just for the student in question but the others present as well. And when the student finally sang it in the manner Mama had envisioned, a gentle smile on his face was the sole giveaway. I recall how when teaching us the Bhairavi kriti Balagopala, Mama made us sing the kriti for several hours, driving us to exhaustion. Mami had to intervene to ‘protect’ her children!
For all that, Mama was never rigid in his ways of teaching, and ever open to new ideas. If a student sang a new sangati or a phrase, he would first analyse it, and then, if convinced, wholeheartedly approve it too.
For sishyas like me, our association with Mama went beyond music. His conduct in personal and professional life, his utmost respect for and commitment to the Carnatic sampradaya, his guru bhakti, his simplicity, humility, vast knowledge, and unassuming nature — all blazed an exemplary path for us to follow.
Mama and Mami lavished tremendous affection on all their students, asking only that they sing well in return. Being a well-versed musician herself, Mami played an integral role in the gurukulavasam process, and often enriched our education with valuable observations of her own. She cared for each one of Mama’s students as if they were her own children, and often treated us to sumptuous meals through the day, encouraging us to eat well so that we sang well too. It was not uncommon to see at least four or five sishyas at mealtimes along with Mama. Truly a humbling and memorable experience for us indeed.
To have been associated with KVN Mama in any manner is to be fortunate; but to have been his sishya is to be truly blessed. Mama and his music will continue to be a beacon for us at all times, illumining our paths and helping us stay on track now and forever.