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"A Personal Note - Gurukulam and Curriculum" South Indian Music Learning Series (Vol. 2)

I have come a long way in my journey as a student of music. Nearly 72 years! Gurus changed, from my mother Lakshmi Ammal to my legendary grand-uncle Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, his prime disciples my sister Rajeswari Padmanabhan and Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, and many others. They gave me all that I am capable of in my nomadic life across the globe in search of experience in music, learning, teaching and performing for the last 45 years! Of all these dimensions, what continues to fascinate me is teaching music to people of all backgrounds, age, gender, race and culture. In this phase of my life, it is a demanding discipline to pull together all my experiences as a musician and a human being to communicate the best to all who come to learn from me.

The gurukulam I enjoyed at Kalakshetra premises in the 1950s, when my grand-uncle was the principal, was heavenly. It was an idyllic place full of fauna and flora, a divine live Art museum of traditional dance, music, and crafts, reverberating with cross-rhythmics of feet, musical speech, chants, musical instruments, birds, animals, sea waves, my grand-uncle's gentle vibrations of his pooja, the rhythmic beats of his preparation of vettilai-paakku in his leisure time, my grandma’s superb traditional cuisine, the aroma of the ritualistic fires, prasadams, all pleasantly filling the air with such beauty as if orchestrated! I used to pick flowers, all sorts of flowers, draw water from the well for my grand-uncle's morning puja, all with a piece of paper in my pocket with vedic chants for me to memorize that day. What a life I enjoyed as a boy of 12!

My musical experience continued with modern methods of learning, performing, listening and teaching around the globe. How am I to convey my experiences, a composite of gurukula and studio? Technology comes to my aid, in the form of the interactive platform Patantara, which hosts well-researched studio quality recordings of may major lineages (patantaras). This has to be enhanced by peer interactions, where I share the best of my experience to suit each one's potential, and each absorbs in their own unique ways, and expresses in a way that can connect to their peers. For example when I was teaching the kriti Vanajasana in the raga Sri to advanced students, I described a gamaka with the imagery of successive hops of a frog! Here is what that seriously engaged mathematically inclined student created graphically to illustrate his understanding! I was very happy.

Here is another example of creative engagement. One of my senior students Mrs. Usha Narasimhan took charge of a boy to teach him singing from the scratch. While tradition governs the musical content of Brhaddhvani, the COMET system encourages freedom in teaching and learning, and the expression of one’s feeling about the music. One day Usha asked me to evaluate the progress of Sankarabharana varnam. The little boy was all action while he sang, moving his hands as if he were playing cricket! I asked him "Where are you going after the class?", guessing that he might perhaps go to play cricket. I was right! I asked him to show me how he would play cricket with Sankarabharana varnam. He demonstrates so beautifully, full of feeling and enjoyment!

One more example is Srikrishna M. Subramanyam. He was one of the third generation students at Brhaddhvani, trained in the COMET method under the guidance of Mrs Usha Narasimhan. My firm conviction is that whoever learns Karnatak music systematically during the school days from the 1st standard, they would be able to give a reasonably good concert by the time they finish their schooling. He was under the guidance of Mrs. Usha Narasimhan. As a test of his understanding and learning at Brhaddhvani I gave him 10 audio tracks of Thiruppalliezhucci, the Tamil hymns of Manickavacagar for him to self learn. He successfully learnt all the 10 songs with good grasp of the melodic and rhythmic details. He went on to give a good concert accompanied by a violin and mrdangam. I was proud that he had absorbed the correlative focus of COMET - he later published a picturesque book "Traditions" with the portraits of great Karnatak music maestros. He also gave a TED talk incorporating cross cultural creativity.

Here is an excerpt from Srikrishna's concert at VDS Arts Academy.

Advanced students teaching the beginners is the spirit of gurukula; linking their learning to their current knowledge and understanding is the best of modern education. Each method reinforces the spirit of the other.

The global gurukulam I envisage would have my students foster each other with creativity rather than the general competitiveness superiority. It is my wish that this spirit of cooperation will be nurtured at home and wherever they are in the world.


This article is assisted by Dr. Ganga Srinivas

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