Thursday, 13 July 2017

Of inclusiveness and outreach in Carnatic music

‘Inclusiveness’ in Carnatic music, is a frontline topic of discussion today – and rightly so. A mridangist friend of mine recently recounted how a group of his colleagues visited the Music Academy canteen several times during the December season – but never once stepped into the auditorium, not even to sample any of the free concerts for ten minutes! Why? Because they held the perception that this was “Iyer veettu pattu” – basically, it wasn’t up their alley. And they didn’t even feel like sampling it,let alone try to cultivate an interest, or acquire a taste. 
vWhile there might be reasons social and political for the creation of such a perception – but it does seem that a reasonable population perceive Carnatic music as something outside of their “circles”. This is despite the fact that all communities have contributed tremendously, to this great heritage, and vidwans and vidushis from all communities have achieved the highest honours in Carnatic music.

Magsaysay award winner T M Krishna, has rued that he has never been approached for lessons by a Dalit student. It is indeed a matter of concern, if one of the finest Carnatic musicians of our times, does not even receive an enquiry or a request to teach, from Dalit students. 

The Magsaysay award citation for Krishna notes that he sings free concerts in the December season in order to encourage inclusiveness. However, I would be surprised if there was a statistically significant difference in community demographics, between a free concert and a ticketed concert, in the music season. Because, I don’t think the issue is affordability of the music – it is something else. As my mridangist friend said, his colleagues were not interested in sampling even ten minutes of free Carnatic music after purchasing their meals in the canteen. Why? Not affordability, but perception!

What can we do, to remove this perception, and genuinely build inclusiveness in our music? As a faculty member at the SV College of Music in Tirupati, I taught students from across communities – definitely several Muslims and Christians and I must have taught many Dalit students too. Several students were admitted through affirmative action, so I surely must have. I say “must have” because I never enquired, and neither did they tell me. But it was never even a matter of consideration in any of our discussions, and that’s how it was in our college. 

Various colleges of music such as the Swati Tirunal College of Music and the Govt College of Music in Tiruvaiyyaru (especially in the smaller towns of South India), apart from my own college, have long been catering to a very inclusive and diverse audience of students. Most of my students were from rural backgrounds, and came from agrarian families with no exposure whatsoever to Carnatic music. And like everybody else who has worked in such colleges of music, I was working at the basic level– starting with Sa-Pa-Sa on the first day of the B.Music course.

Teaching students from rural backgrounds, came with its own challenges – and its own joys. Since they had no exposure to music, I had to break down musical abstractions into something relatable. I experimented with real life imagery, to help students visualize sound. For example, I would ask them to visualize the slow blooming of a flower, while rendering a phrase in a gentle and caressing manner. My students responded well, to such attempts – and I realized that perceptions could actually be corrected by giving people something they could relate to.

The respect that a teacher receives, in rural India, is something extraordinary. My students would often hold their palms before their mouths, while speaking in front of me. Being city-bred myself, I had never seen anything like that, except when people speak to the Jagadguru Sankaracharya and others in such exalted positions. It took some getting used to!

Some students would bring me fresh produce from their fields. “Madam-gaaru, I brought you our first harvest for this season. Please accept it and bless our farm”, they would say. While I was invariably touched by their simplicity and sincere regard for the teacher, I could not possibly accept gifts from the students I was to grade and evaluate in college!

One of our students from a backward village of Kadapa district trained rigorously under an excellent faculty member of our college, and went on to join the faculty at the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society (SIFAS). When I performed in SIFAS recently, I requested that he accompany me for the concert. It was a matter of great pride to share the stage with a star of our college who rose from nothing, to an excellent position in music. I had only one challenge in performing with him: he was just too respectful to take a seat in the presence of ‘madam-gaaru’! I usually get to concerts an hour before the start, to complete the sound checks. Here, I needed half an hour just to get him to sit on stage!

A Muslim student of mine made it to the ‘big city’ – and joined a college in Hyderabad. When my own guru Sangita Kala Acharya Smt Seetha Rajan visited Hyderabad for a concert, the organizers requested him to receive her and play local host. After Seetha Mami finished her concert, he made bold to ask her, “Madam, which school and style of music are you from, your music so closely resembles my guru’s music?” Seetha Mami would often have a hearty laugh, remembering that somebody said that her style resembled mine!

My time at the music college makes me firmly believe, that these mofussil music colleges are probably the best way for us to create outreach and inclusiveness for our music. To make Carnatic music inclusive, and prevent unnecessary perceptions that Carnatic music is “not for me” or “not for my circles”, we need to go to schools. Furthermore, I would say we need our music to reach rural schools. And the best ambassadors to take our music to village children, are the alumni of mofussil music colleges. 

Several students who graduate from these colleges go on to become music teachers in rural schools. These colleges have, therefore, spawn a set of cultural ambassadors in the form of their alumni, who take our music to school children in villages. If we want to make a serious dent in achieving inclusiveness for our music, in my view, moffusil music colleges are the best starting point.

Our college in Tirupati, has had top-notch musicians such as Sangita Kalanidhis Sri Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Sri Balamurali Krishna, and other luminaries, as visiting principals for short periods. If senior vidvans of Carnatic music would similarly mentor and participate in the dissemination of knowledge in moffusil music colleges, we would be creating a whole new generation of well-trained ambassadors for our music – ambassadors who can take our music to the ultimate in inclusiveness - village schools.

If I were to make a suggestion to Sri T M Krishna, this is what it would be – moffusil music colleges are probably the best means to achieve the impact you seek. Most of these colleges have affirmative action - and while no Dalit student approached you despite your keenness to teach, you will actually find several students from socially and economically backward communities, in these colleges. The systems and structures are already in place, the enrollments are already in place. If our top-notch Vidvans and Vidushis would get involved in mentoring these colleges in a sustained manner across a few batches, we could together achieve a lot towards inclusiveness in our wonderful heritage of Carnatic music.

Dr. Padma Sugavanam is an accomplished  Carnatic vocalist, who taught in the SV College of Music and Dance, Tirupati, for ten years, before moving back to Chennai as a full-time performer.

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