In the guru’s footsteps

    Anjana Chandramouly

    Umesh Shankar, all of 10, was crazy about cartoons. Getting back from school, he would reach straight for the TV remote, and the desperate attempts of his family heavily into Carnatic music to pass on this passion to the child remained unsuccessful.

    Till things changed practically overnight, and quite magically, thanks to a concert by Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna. “Till the previous day he showed no interest in music. But now he is ready to give up most of his favourite cartoon programmes for his vocal music training; it’s unbelievable,” says his mother who can’t stop wondering at this marvel. Umesh’s long-term goal: To get trained by T.M. Krishna!

    In an era where there is great concern over television weaning children away from arts, crafts and other creative pursuits, this comes as a breath of fresh air.

    But is this just a flash in the pan or is Umesh part of a growing tribe?

    K. Mohanan, lecturer of Dance at the Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai, says that children are taking to classical art forms in large numbers today, as parents feel this is the best way to keep them rooted in one’s culture. “I would call it an identity crisis,” says Garimella Subramaniam, an ardent music lover.

    At different stages of development in a society, the pursuits that people take up will change, and their interest levels vary. Traditional performers of these arts moved to cities a few decades ago in search of a better livelihood, but now want their children to pursue the arts so dear to them once.

    The burgeoning Indian diaspora has also contributed to this trend, having the resources to pursue/sponsor classical arts, and hence the increasing number of performances by Indian artistes overseas. Teachers, performers and audiences help classical arts thrive , says S.V. Krishnan, Convener, Nada Inbam a
    Mohanan adds that apart from NRIs, foreigners too are coming to India to learn dance, and being accomplished in some dance form or the other, pick up Bharatanatyam easily, he says. Some of them pack into just four months what normally takes two years to learn. They are highly focused; “it’s like a penance for them.”

    Subramaniam points out that some people tend to look at art as another competitive avenue and are determined to excel in it. So, it’s not surprising to see many teenagers singing very well and confidently.

    Age no bar

    But is it just young children who are getting into the “classical arts” arena?

    Not really. There are also many in their 30s and 40s who are keen to take up arts or continue from where they left off years ago. Most of them discontinue their training when they reach high school. Take the case of S. Nandhini, a 23-year-old media professional, who had to give up learning music “as the school hours were getting longer by the year, and my music teacher took classes only on weekdays.” But thanks to her 12-year-old neighbour, who practises religiously for an hour every day, her interest in music is rekindled.

    And there are those like Vaitheesh, a 38-year-old chartered accountant, who started training in violin 10 years ago. Why so late? “I learnt vocal music when I was about 10 years old for two years. I had to discontinue because my guru got transferred to another city. And I used to look at it as something forced on by my parents,” he says. His professional education took precedence. He also felt delicate to ask his father for the fees. “But once I started earning well, I started training in violin.” Having a like-minded friend who took up classes with him also helped a great deal, and each inspired and motivated the other, says Vaitheesh.

    And finally there are those who are willing to slug it out to pursue what they like. Like G. Sriranjani (21) and her sister, G. Lakshmi Priyadarshini (20). Sriranjani was about five years old, and her sister 4, when they started training in Carnatic music. Their determination to do well in music brings them almost every weekend to Chennai from Salem (about 300 km away). They now train under violin maestro, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman in Chennai, practice for at least two hours every day; all this sandwiched between studies! So what drives people like them?

    For Smitha S. Nair, a 26-year-old dance teacher, it’s “the yearning for acquiring more knowledge” in that art form that keeps her going. Her passion for Bharatanatyam started at 6, taking her to Chennai’s Kalakshetra Foundation from distant Thiruvananthapuram. Today, Smitha is a dance and yoga teacher at a private school in Chennai. But her training still continues, under the guidance of her teacher, Mohanan. “I feel there is no end to one’s learning in whatever field; there is much more to learn,” she says.

    Brand culture

    For culture to thrive, it is important to project it well, says K.N. Shashikiran, Carnatic vocal musician and Executive Director, Srishti’s Carnatica Pvt Ltd, Chennai. “Our culture has not been marketed very well.”

    Carnatica, the brainchild of Shashikiran and fellow vocalist Sowmya, runs Parichaya, which is a unique initiative that tries to get children acquainted with music. It is also trying to get music included in the curriculum. “We try to encourage children to take up music as a career whether as a performer, or art critic, a sound engineer or a teacher.”

    Krishnan of Nada Inbam lists many young and successful musicians who have given up their professional careers for classical music. Take for instance, Sanjay Subramanian (a successful chartered accountant) and Sowmya (a postgraduate in Chemistry from IIT – Madras), who have proved themselves as musicians. This shows that with serious application and hard work, one can do well in the arts, says Krishnan.

    Shashikiran adds that there are many college students, even from IITs and other professional colleges, who want to take up music. “I even have a nine-year-old NRI kid who trains over the phone all the way from the US!” Youngsters need dedication and hard work to do well. What is lacking is a proper exposure to music; “that has got mainly to do with parents and our curriculum. We have even introduced a music lab in a Coimbatore school,” he says.

    Shashikiran says it’s important to find out what youngsters want. “If a café-like ambience is what they like, why not have a culture café, culture museum, culture

    everything under one roof?” Carnatica’s Culture Shoppe, Cyber Gurukulam, tele-teaching, and a kids’ club are some initiatives that the organisation has already introduced.

    Lack of enthusiasm

    Come December, and Chennai sports a festive look with the `Music Season’ in full swing. The season sees a lot of tourist influx a significant number of them foreigners and NRIs hopping from one

    to another just to sample the whole musical experience.

    However, die-hard music lovers feel the patronage of arts is declining. At the performance level, interest among youngsters is good; but dwindles when it comes to audiences, point out Krishnan and Shashikiran.

    However, it’s heartening to see the scene changing, says Swathi Krishnan, a young music lover. Many youngsters, particularly those who learn music, do attend concerts, and you can even spot a few taking down notations/notes, she says. “The fact that some colleges have music clubs is an encouraging sign. IIT – Madras, for instance, organises concerts of famous musicians. But these clubs need to organise themselves better and create more buzz throughout the year.”

    She also feels that to woo more youngsters classical music must “get more informal shed its staid image without losing its seriousness”. And there is also another noteworthy trend that has sparked off interest in music among youngsters learning music to become playback singers. But just learning the notes won’t do; you need to know certain musical nuances, says Shashikiran.

    Enjoy the music

    To be a successful artiste, start early, says K. Mohanan of Kalakshetra. The right age to start dance training is at 6. But parents should verify the teacher’s credentials, he says.

    “Remember, there are no quick-fix methods to teach arts.” Another important ingredient for success is hard work, says Shashikiran.

    “Practising two hours a day for a minimum four years” is a must. Subramaniam stresses the need “to showcase one’s individuality as an artist.”

    “If ever there was this need to show one’s individuality to anchor himself/herself as an artist, it is today. Imitating others won’t get you anywhere.”

    The hankering after success in a competitive sense spoils the show, he says. “I don’t know how many youngsters realise that they have to enjoy their music first, if they want others to do so.”


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