Durga Krishnan's New England School of Carnatic Music - NESCM
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November 2006 Article:

Passage to Indian Music

- David Reck
Emeritus Professor, Amherst College, MA.

Everyone's first encounter with India's classical music is different. Maybe it was a radio broadcast or recording, an aunt humming a tune, a concert, a nudge from a friend, or, if you are from India, just something which children are expected to do, But you get bitten. You get a fever, a fever for music. It draws you in, pulls you in. Into a wonderful world of sound, abstract thought, emotion, and sprituality. Onto a road which you must follow no matter what, wherever it leads.

My first exposure came sitting in the 1960s in New York's Town Hall hearing Ali Akbar Khan on sarod and Ravi Shankar on sitar perform. I was entranced by a music which combined soaring improvisation, beautiful melody, complex drumming, and astounding virtuosity... intellect as well as heart. It was a different musical world, yet it seemed very familiar. I listened to every recording I could find, studied Sanskrit, and when the Rockefeller Foundation offered me a scholarship and asked where I would like to go, I blurted out, "India!".

In 1968 my wife Carol and I stepped off a plane in Madras. The heat wrapped around us like a welcoming shawl! South Indian life and culture also encompassed us little by little. Some time later we went to a concert way out on the edge of town. The singer was M.S.. Subbulakshmi and when her wonderful performance ended it was pouring rain. No taxis in sight! A man approached us and told us that he had room in his van and they could take us back into the city. When we got into the van, there was M.S. Subbulakshmi sitting in the front seat! Our host was her husband T. Sadasivam, who subsequently saw to it that I was properly enrolled in the government College of Carnatic Music and set up with a proper guru, Thirugokarnam Ramachandra Iyer.

The experience of being a well-trained professional musician in the U.S. but having to start all over again with sa ri ga ma in Mayamalavagoula raga on the veena was difficult, to say the least. My ego was erased instantaneously. My fellow students at the college -- among them Durga Krishnan (!) --seemed to learn so easily, they seemed tp me goddesses of music! They would listen to the teacher play, then imitate, and memorize with no trouble whatsoever, while I would hop onto my bicycle at the end of the day with a hopelessly blank mind. How could I ever learn a varnam or a kriti when my ear could hardly tell the difference between Ranjani and Sankarabharanam, and Pallavi and Anupallavi and charanam were....what? Most of all I missed the precise music notation which plays such an important role in Western music, and I soon learned that sargam notation (which several teachers were nice enough to write out for me) is really just a skeleton, a memory aid, of what you must really sing or play, and remember. It was all pretty discouraging!

Then one day the principal of the school, Sandhyavandanam Srinivasa Rao, called me in for a heart to heart talk. "Look," he said, "if you plant seeds in a garden will they grow instantaneously? Can you plant a seed one day and have a mango tree bearing sweet fruit the next? You have to relax and enjoy the learning process one step at a time. Be patient. The seeds you plant, if you nurture them, will grow ... but at their own pace When the time is right they will blossom and bear fruit, but only then." He was right .Now after forty years I am seeing a few blossoms.

So I relaxed from an American push-ahead-at-all-costs mind-set. I began to think, ""Let me just get one gamaka right in Begada today. That will be like like having paiyasam! " The teachers were examples of patience. They never laughed at my humble efforts, but would repeat again and again -- & again! Not one ever told me, "It can't be done." Their kindness and generosity with their time and their knowledge amazes me even today. They would take me to meet some of the stalwarts of the time-- Musiri, Semmungudi, Alathur Bros. and others-- to get their blessings. Little by little I realized that at the college musicians like K.V.N., Kalpakam Swaminathan, and T. Brinda were giants also. Going to concerts and dance recitals by living legends was an education in itself. To see Balasaraswati or hear Lalgudi Jayaraman was to get a glimpse of the deepest levels of human consciousness.

My classmates must have found me amusing. At times I would show up in bell-bottoms and colorful kurta like a hippy. On Fancy Dress Day I appeared as a Brahmin priest. (I was called "Achary" by my tongue-in-cheek classmates all day!) At lunch time we would sit under a tree while they teased me (always good-naturedly). They had biting wit, wonderful humor, and irreverent nicknames for all our gurus! If a teacher did a funny twist of the head in playing a certain gamaka in a certain kriti, they would notice it and imitate it to everyone's delight! My classmates did much to loosen me up and lighten me up. I don't know if they were aware or not of my agonizingly slow snail-like learning, but they too were always encouraging. In my brain is a "video" of playing with the class on the veranda of the College (actually a Nabob's mansion from the 18th century) while fishermen casr their nets on the Adyar River and gulls soared overhead beneath puffy white clouds.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s only a handful of foreigners were studying music in Madras. Now there must be hundreds. Then you had to go to India to learn. Now you can study South India's treasure of music and dance in Norway or Japan, in Hawaii or Boston, or Houston or Paris or almost anywhere and at a very high level. Musicians and dancers trained in the U.S. now give concerts in India! And the internet gives us resources at our fingertips! One can choose from thousands of recordings. South Indian music and dance are global now, a gift to the world.