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The problem with Carnatic in the Bay

NRI parents and their children would be better off not participating in spelling bee-type Carnatic competitions

A file photo of children performing Carnatic music in Toronto, Canada. Photo: AFP
A file photo of children performing Carnatic music in Toronto, Canada. Photo: AFP

What would you like to do this Friday?" my husband asks. As I peruse the listings for concerts, I am amazed to see how many youngsters are performing Indian classical music. This is true not just in India but also in the US. From Boston to San Diego, classical music and dance schools are flourishing. And this isn’t a phenomenon limited just to big cities. Smaller towns such as Dayton, Ohio, or Nashville, Tennessee, have not only teachers but even sabhas that host performances by musicians and dancers visiting from India, as well as by US-based artists.

The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival has become the largest Carnatic music festival outside India. Smaller festivals in San Diego and Chicago are now multi-day events, providing rasikas (connoisseurs) immense opportunities to enjoy the music and dance of local and visiting artists.

On a recent visit to California, I am asked to “advise" a young music student. As a professional Carnatic musician, it’s a request I get frequently. “I can sing O Rangasayee too!" declares the girl, whose head barely reaches my waist. “I’ve learnt four varnams and six kritis." She then effortlessly sings a varnam in the vilamba kaalam (slow speed) and then moves on to the duritha kaalam (fast speed). Her struggles begin when she tries to balance singing the sahitya (lyrics) at that speed and still maintain the taalam (beat).

She has learnt O Rangasayee, a masterpiece by the Carnatic composer Thyagaraja, for a music competition. “I did win the second prize," she continues with a gleeful smile. I am torn between delight at her innocence and dismay at how a child has been pushed to learn a song far too soon—well before she is ready for it. Much as I would like to believe that this was an exception, in my travels across the US I found that this appears to be the norm, largely driven by the growing popularity of children’s music competitions.

“The competitions are part of the commercial Carnatic circus," says Ashok Subramaniam, founder of the Gandharva Vidya Center in Cupertino, California. Beginning with two students in 1999, Subramaniam now has over 100 students. He adds, “I don’t believe in competitions, as the Carnatic music that we sing is in devotion to the godhead." The number of participants in competitions, though, indicates that teachers like Subramaniam are in the minority.

Three social trends in the Indian immigrant community—each positive on its own—have given rise to a perfect storm.

It begins with parents, who are keen that their children learn about Indian culture—particularly music or dance. “At first it was a push from my parents that made me start (learning) the veena," says Guhan Venkataraman, a PhD student at Stanford University. Venkataraman, who grew up in San Francisco’s Bay Area, has been performing for nearly a decade. “My mother was my first guru," he adds. In the case of most students of Carnatic music, though, their parents are not musically trained and may not even be rasikas. Such parents find setting milestones for their children’s progress difficult.

Second, a large number of music and dance teachers have emerged in the last two decades. While this is good for the propagation of the classical arts, they find themselves hard-pressed to manage the expectations of parents on when their children are ready for public performance.

Third, these days, one can find Carnatic music sabhas in every major urban conglomeration of Indians. But they struggle to attract an audience large enough to make ends meet. “At Detroit, we have a large number of children who learn Carnatic music," says Charulatha Shankar, member of the Great Lakes aradhana committee. “We have observed that children are not great rasikas in the sense that they do not stay back to listen to their peers. That may be due to the fact that they are just simply overscheduled in various activities. We are trying to change this," she adds.

Competitions, especially those for children, serve the needs of all three constituencies. They function as a yardstick for parents to measure the progress of their children as well as that of teachers. You might hear many parents exclaim that their children have won a prize in a varnam-singing competition. Meanwhile, teachers can point to students who have made it to the competition finals. For the sabhas, the proof is in the pudding. Competitions fill the chairs, as parents who would otherwise not attend are anxious to be seen, and have their child heard.

This could have been a beneficial confluence resulting in ever more children engaged in the practice of classical music and dance. The reality, however, has largely been one of parents pushing teachers to ready the children for performances. This has led to teachers, in turn, trying to push the children to learn ever more for competitions and sabhas, often before their foundations are strong. Meanwhile, sabhas are leveraging these competitions as a means to fill seats and generate revenue through fees. While this results in a few naturally skilled young performers getting noticed, it also results in a large number of hastily trained and ill-prepared competitors.

“Teachers have a major role (to play) in immersing students in music and dance from the beginning of their training," says Ami Majmudar, a dance teacher in Columbus, Ohio. Majmudar, who was raised in California, and trained under Mythili Kumar of California and Sujatha Srinivasan of Ohio, believes that “as families attend programmes, they develop a taste for the rasa of classical art".

Music teachers, like teachers everywhere, have had to devise ways to deal with parents and their expectations. It is critical to explain that classroom lessons are only a start.

Listening to good music, preferably in live concerts, is essential to cultivate “kelvi gyaanam"—the knowledge that comes from intent (or deliberate) listening. “You can learn lots from being at a concert live; pick up ideas, try them on your own, appreciate the work that went into the delivery of the package as a whole," says Venkataraman, the veena player. The more music children listen to, the better their ability to differentiate between poor, the merely good, and great music.

So how do teachers create this shift in mindset from performance being the goal to cultivating a lifelong love for listening?

If school cafeterias, which aren’t known for their haute cuisine, can nudge students to eat healthier, music teachers can nudge both parents and students to develop a musical ear. Does this require every teacher to be an evangelist? Possibly. Of course, it would be a whole lot easier if sabhas got in on the act, helping teachers connect. One of the surest ways to achieve this is for sabhas to create an accreditation process for teachers. These two steps can set in motion a positive spiral.

A final lesson, even a cautionary one, can be drawn from the inordinate success of Indian-Americans in the US spelling bee circuit. Not only are the competitions an enormous source of stress for the children, they don’t necessarily create greater lovers of reading. And all too often, the competitions appear to be more about the bragging rights of parents than children’s growth.

Creating rasikas first and performers and competitors subsequently will serve both the young students and classical arts as a whole, better. Then, parents, teachers and sabhas would win too.

Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic musician based out of Columbus and Bengaluru.

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