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VOL. XXIV NO. 5, June 16-30, 2014
Carnatic music and the Americans
(by V. Ramnarayan)

”I would have loved to hear John Coltrane explore the Pancharatna kritis,” said American writer Mike Marquesee, a man better known for his writings on politics and cricket. He was referring to Tyagaraja’s five gems.

Marquesee, is modest when he speaks of his credentials to write on Carnatic music, but his insights are brilliantly direct and praiseworthy in a Westerner attracted to but hardly expert in it. He says of Carnatic music, “Its history is a history of innovation and broken taboos relating to gender and caste, public and private. The kutcheri as we know it dates only from Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, a famous vocalist, and the 1930s. In a single evening it can include compositions with lyrics in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Kannada, Marathi and Hindi. I can’t think of another musical culture with a comparable spread.”

Closer home, V.S. Narasimhan, an accomplished Western classical violonist who has pioneered the performance of the great Carnatic music ompositions by Western musicians – his own Madras String Quartet – dreams of being around when symphony orchestras in Europe and America perform the masterpieces of Tyagaraja and other South Indian composers.

On May 1, 2012, the California-based Sacramento Youth Symphony (SYS) Orchestra collaborated with Chitravina Ravikiran to play a Tyagaraja composition rearranged for the orchestra. According to one report, “The repertoire, carefully chosen by conductor Michael Neumann, kept the Indian spirit even in traditional Western pieces such as The Crown of India suite by Edward Elgar and Kromsky’s Song of India.”

Dr. Stan Scott

The day Dr. Stan Scott arrived in Calcutta one day in the 1970s, he received the shocking news of the death of the guru he had come all the way from the USA to learn Hindustani music from. Earlier in the US, he had learnt vocal music from sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan and Sushil Mukherjee, director of fine arts at a Massachusetts school. In India, his tutelage included lessons from gurus like Krishna Chandra Banerjee, Sugata Marjit and Mohan Singh (at Santiniketan) in classical music and Kali Dasgupta in folk music. His stint with Vidyadhar Vyas at Wesleyan University trained him in the Gwalior gharana (in addition to the Agra gharana, he had already learnt) and led him to his Ph.D. in Hindustani classical singing.

Matthew Allen

Mathew Allen came to Chennai to learn padam singing from T. Balasaraswati and other descendants of the redoubtable Veenai Dhanammal. Like Stan Scott, he too was already a trained musician in a Western genre before he ventured into learning the complex art of Indian classical music, he did so well that he co-authored a book on South Indian music with Bala’s brother, the incomparable flautist T. Viswanathan, who headed the ethnomusicology department of Wesleyan University, Connecticut. Allen has also written on padams and other dance music of South India as well as recent history of Bharata Natyam.

Jon Higgins

It was with Jon Higgins that T. Viswanathan entered into his most enduring, productive collaboration. Born in Andover, Massachusetts, Higgins, a Western classical vocalist who completed a double major in Music and History in 1962 and an M.A. in Musicology in 1964 from Wesleyan University, earned a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology in 1973.

T. Viswanathan

He founded the Indian music studies programme at York University in Toronto with mridanga vidwan Trichy Sankaran in 1971, and returned to Wesleyan in 1978 as a professor of music and director of the Centre for the Arts. Higgins had attended several concerts of Sankaran’s with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and seen him teach an American student of Viswa.

Sankaran had earlier turned down an invitation from American mridanga student Robert Brown – who will figure later in this narrative – to join Wesleyan University as a research scholar.

Sankaran was apprehensive about making any long-term commitment in view of his family responsibilities and fearful of jeopardising a flourishing concert career in Madras. “I told Jon I would go only for a year or two. The rest is history!” remembers Sankaran, who has since made York University and Toronto his home, visiting Chennai annually during the music season to perform, teach and do lecture-demonstrations.

Viswa studied ethnomusicology at UCLA on a Fulbright scholarship from 1958 to 1960, and headed the Department of Music at Madras University from 1961 to 1966. He taught at UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts before joining the Wesleyan facility in 1975 and earning his Ph.D. there. Training under Viswa, Higgins became the first non-Indian to perform Carnatic music at a high level of proficiency.

Higgins continued his studies under Bala and wrote his dissertation on the dance music of Bharata Natyam, returning to India as a Senior Research Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies, and making a name for himself in Carnatic music as Higgins Bhagavatar.

Born in Rising Star, Texas, USA, in 1935, David Reck, a child prodigy in Western music, is a familiar figure in Carnatic music circles in Chennai. A Fellow of the Princeton Seminars in Advanced Musical Studies in the late 1950s, he pursued a successful career in New York as a composer with performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Centre, Town Hall, and Tanglewood. Drawn to Indian classical music and dance by the concerts of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Palghat Raghu, and others, he studied Indian philosophy, yoga, and Sanskrit.

Coming to India in 1968 through a grant from the Rockefeller Arts Foundation, David and his wife, photographer Carol Reck, moved to Madras, a life-changing decision. David studied Carnatic music theory and practice, specialising in playing the veena, learning from, among others, Kalpakkam Swaminathan – at the Central College of Carnatic music.

David Reck

David Reck returned to the United States in 1971, earning a Ph.D. in World Music from Wesleyan University, and joining the faculty of Amherst College as professor of Music and Asian Studies.

He continued veena lessons in the US with Karaikudi S. Subramanian and, in 1991, became a student of Ranganayaki Rajagopalan, a disciple of Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer – Subramanian’s grandfather and ‘founder’ of the Karaikudi bani or school of veena music – under a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies. A regular visitor to Chennai for veena practice as well as performances on the concert circuit, including kutcheris at the Music Academy, he is a well-known author of books and articles on Carnatic music.

A survivor from cancer and a heart attack, Reck believes in the healing qualities of Carnatic music and the veena.

Robert Edward Brown (1927-2005) was an ethnomusicologist credited with coining the term “world music”. He was also known for his recordings of music from Indonesia, which inspired several musicians to study Indonesian gamelan music.

Robert Edward Brown

Brown grew up in Clinton, New York, studied music theory and piano at the Utica Conservatory. Playing the piano and organ and performing popular music with his own band Bobby Brown and His Swingsters through his youth, Brown started his doctoral studies at UCLA as a piano major in 1953. He eventually received a doctorate in ethnomusicology from UCLA. His dissertation was titled “The Mridanga: A Study of Drumming in South India.” In 1964, Brown founded the world music/ethnomusicology programme at Wesleyan.

One of the organisers of the American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA), Brown also founded the Centre for World Music in 1973. He remained president of the organisation until his death and bequeathed his extensive collection of instruments, recordings, books, paintings and artefacts to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Robert E. Brown Centre for World Music opened there in April 2008.

How did the interest in Carnatic music take root in the West? Hindustani music spread there mainly through the efforts of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, though there had been others before them. Possibly the first Carnatic musician to make a major appearance in the US was the iconic vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi. Her most celebrated concerts in America were at the United Nations General Assembly (1966) and Carnegie Hall (1967).

After her UN concert, The New York Times said: “Subbulakshmi’s vocal communication transcends words. The cliche of the voice used as an instrument never seemed more appropriate. It could fly flutteringly or carry on a lively dialogue with the accompanists. Subbulakshmi and her ensemble are a revelation to Western ears. Their return can be awaited only with eagerness.”

Dr. W. Adriaansz, Professor of Music, University of Washington, wrote, “For many, the conert by Mrs. Subbulakshmi meant their first encounter with the music of Sourth India and it was extremely gratifiying that in her the necessary factors for the basis of a successful contact between her music and a new audience – highly developed artistry as well as stage presence – were so convincingly present ... without any doubt (she) belongs to the best representations of this music.”

The late James Rubin, a close associate of MS and her family, was an American who travelled to India several times to attend the annual music festival at Madras. Rubin who, with the help of C.V. Narasimhan, Under-Secretary of the UN, arranged MS’s UN concert and two coast-to-coast tours of the US, donated his impressive collection of Indian classical – mainly Carnatic – music to the Archive of World Music, Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.

No account of Americans interested in and performing Carnatic music can be complete without mention of the rising number of young Americans of Indian origin, born and brought up in the US – many of them speaking no Indian language – who are making rapid strides as musicians and dancers. The hugely popular festivals of South Indian classical music and dance, such as the Cleveland and San Diego festivals, annually showcase some of this outstanding talent along with some of the leading lights in the field from India. The dedication of these first generation Americans is to be seen to be believed. They must be among the best products of Indo-American cooperation. (Courtesy: Sruti)

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In this issue

State's sad, sad tech colleges
Madras Landmarks - 50 years ago
Guindy National Park under threat
Decentralise waste management
Carnatic music and the Americans
Remembering Kalki
A member of the I.A.S.
Car loan for the asking
From Upper India to Madras

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Dates for Your Diary
Readers Write
Quizzin' With Ram'nan


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