The sway of tradition

When the media flashbulbls were shining on youngsters singing Bollywood hits in Voice India and and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, a little-known five-women Delhi team was ranked second in the finals of Sankara TV’s “Bhajan Samrat” Season-4 (seniors). Sruthilayam Group is trained by Shankar Bhagavathar and includes vocalists Meenakshi Deepak, Sneha Krishnan, Deepa Raman, D. Saraswathy and R. Radha on violin and vocal support accompanied by N.S. Krishnan on mridangam and N.V. Ananthakrishnan on harmonium.

IN TUNE Students learning violin at R. Sridhar's class in New Delhi

Surprised at the connection between Carnatic bhajan singing and Delhi? The Capital, over the years, has become the confluence of different cultures thanks to migration from various parts of the country. This diversity comes out in full bloom in terms of performing arts. So it is not unusual to witness a Bhojpuri play being staged along with a Rabindra Sangeet concert or a Chhau dance recital in the city. Among the communities which have settled in Delhi, the presence of south Indians in large numbers has made performing arts of that region a familiar feature of the city’s cultural scape. This is manifested in the numerous Carnatic music concerts and Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathakali dance recitals being held in the city round the year but also in terms of a large number teachers and students devoted to these arts. That both the teaching and learning is of considerably high order is evident by the Delhi team’s ranking in Sankara channel.

Describing their journey to the finals as exciting and an enriching experience, Sruthilayam members cite their basic training in Carnatic music and singing bhajans since childhood as the reason for having made it to the top. “Familiarity with this genre greatly helped us,” says Meenaskshi who is currently being trained by Hyderabad-based guru B. Vaidyanathan through Skype. Her team mate Saraswathy claims their performance was an eye-opener for many groups from South. “They were pleasantly surprised with our knowledge of bhajan samprayada and traditions.” While Saraswathy learnt at Delhi Tamil Sangam (DTS) for five years, Deepa picked up the finer nuances along with her son at the same place. Sneha on the other hand pursued violin with Radha for 11 years, looks forward to performing and learning once her children grow up. Remarkably, these women despite their preoccupations have neither lost the zest for music nor inclination to pursue it further. According to Meenakshi it is due to their background and upbringing. “Early exposure to Carnatic music helped us to develop an affinity for it.” In one sense these women represent the evolution of this genre in the Capital.

Those who have been privy to the developments over the years recall the dearth of students and teachers in the Capital in the past. Violinist R. Sridhar, reminds that in the 1960s O.V. Subramanian, father of the well-known vocalist, O.S. Arun had no more than seven students. “Today, you see hundreds of students learning vocal and instrumental Carnatic music. It has come a long way.” Teaching violin at his Gurukulam Foundation for the past eight years, Sridhar adds, “It started with a small number and now has more than 50 students attending the Sunday morning classes. The immense interest of people in Carnatic music is because it helps one to become familiar with sahityam, stories about Gods and Goddesses, life of great composers, history and customs enabling one to stay connected with one’s culture and traditions.” Moreover, many parents view learning music and dance a sure way to keep their children in touch with their roots. Vaidehi Pasupati who along with her daughter Gayathri learns music from Meenakshi states, “Living in Delhi, my daughter will surely gain knowledge about different cultures but at the same time I do not want her to lose out what is hers.”

Over a period of time, Carnatic music has been able to attract non-south Indians too. At DTS, one can find many of them attending classes. “Appreciative of the music, they have great regard and respect for the art and the artists,” says Sridhar. He cites the example of his student, Deepak Negi. “He was punctual and hard working and I was dismayed when he left.”

With south Indian population in Delhi going up, there has been a significant increase in the Carnatic music events in the Capital. Highlighting its importance, Prof. T. V. Manikandan of Delhi University’s Music and Fine Arts Faculty, says, “Concerts by artists from Delhi and other places provide exposure . This coupled with performances on YouTube has played a creditable role in popularising this genre.” However, Manikandan whose Rasikapriya promotes music through workshops and concerts laments the tendency among youngsters to learn the art in quick time. “They want it in a capsule form failing to realise that it is an unending ocean which requires a lifetime of exploration and learning.”

Meenakshi, who teaches 15 students in her weekly classes, finds the youngsters very enthusiastic and dedicated. “I marvel at their ability to multi-task. Occupied with studies, tuitions, sports and other activities, they are able to take time out to learn music devotedly.” Sridhar too is impressed by commitment and calibre of his students and points at the large audience turnout at the recently held arangetram of his two students, Siddesh Ganesh and Vaishnavi Nathan. “Besides listening to other artists it is imperative that they should get a chance to perform. Facing the audience helps gain confidence and learning finer nuances.” It is here he finds Delhi lacking. “Even though several concerts are held, organisers hardly give a chance to Delhi-based artists preferring those from outside. Support by them is must to develop local talent,” he emphasises.

Siddesh and Vaishnavi found their arangetram a fulfilling experience. “Initially, we were nervous but as the concert proceeded we became confident,” says Vaishnavi. Denying that pursuing academics and music together as tough, the two aver that time management is the key. The Delhi students are equally at home with other genres of music. Siddesh likes to watch Coke Studio India and its Pakistani version, Vaishnavi prefers Sufi music and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. Their favourite is, of course, A.R. Rehman. “Being trained in music we are naturally drawn to good beats and melody,” says Siddesh. The Sruthilayam group members like to listen to trendy music.

On balancing passion for music with academic pursuit, Sridhar has a pragmatic view as he advises his students to pursue a profession other than music . Citing his example, he explains: “A steady monthly income ensures a decent living allowing pursuing of music with devotion and passion. Moreover, with complete dependency on music there is tendency to be exploited.” While Siddesh is studying chemical engineering, Vaishnavi is a business administration student. Keen to continue their music they are clear about seeking employment in their academic field. Supporting Siddesh, his mother, Sita Ganesh says, “While his degree will provide bread, his passion for music will give him solace.” Prof. Manikandan feels those wanting to become professional musicians need to pursue higher levels of training. “It is a tough grind as it requires years of toil. Those desirous to attain this should not be worried about the remuneration.”

Significantly, neither the teachers nor the students are overly worried about the effect of popular music on their art. Prof. T. V. Manikandan regards Carnatic music as pristine feels that its will continue to attract people. Sridhar observes that there is an urgent need to promote it in systematic manner by giving fresh talent training and chance to perform. Meanwhile, Delhi waits for how their home team performs in the finals the date for which has not been finalised so far.