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VOL. XXII NO. 7, July 16-31, 2012
A music academy for the future
Manna Srinivasan

Young professional practitioners of Western music from across the globe coming to the bastion of Carnatic music for cross-cultural exchanges and upgrading their skills may sound like a 'vivadi' swara. The Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (SAM), an initiative of the real estate outfit MARG as an integral component of the Knowledge Park at its township about 75 km from Chennai, is just such an unlikely enterprise.

SAM's president, Prasanna, a well known guitarist who performs classical Carnatic music, symbolises the institution's motto: 'Live Your Dreams'.

According to the academy's brochure, SAM is the first professional college for contemporary music. Fully residential, it is designed and equipped to provide world class music education through six-month diploma programmes and workshops in music performance for vocal, guitar, bass, drums, piano and Indian percussion majors. It has a rotating faculty of top class professional musicians from several countries with expertise in "every contemporary genre of music." The curriculum seeks to integrate Indian classical and other world music traditions with contemporary jazz, rock and other Western music systems.

During the long drive to the sprawling complex our enthusiastic escort, Kripa, did her bit to prepare us for the exposure; still there was no clue to what was in store. The first impressions were, except perhaps for the 'upma' breakfast, somewhat unfamiliar, a concrete island in the wilderness. In the initial conducted tour, a sense of 'awe' was sought to be created by the posh infrastructure, array of imported drums and other Western instruments. Our guide said, "Any student of percussion here can swallow Sivamani for breakfast!" Presumptuous?

Things cooled and cleared a bit at the long interview with Prasanna regarding the genesis of the project, the basic approach, response, and the academy's plans.

A visit to a class in session gave us further insights. It was a disparate, casually dressed gathering of nearly 30 students, including a few Indians, marked by an informal exchange of ideas rather than a teacher-student interface in the conventional sense.

When 'Ghatam' Karthick, a regular as visiting faculty, explained the nuances of tisram and chatusram, korvai-s and mohra-s, joyous and involved participation was quite evident.

(This was confirmation, if indeed needed, that the appeal of the rhythmic dimension of music is universal and that the Carnatic system has so much to offer in this field. In fact, some of the rooms are named after percussion legends Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai and the like.)

Facilities like individual practice huts, halls for chamber concerts, and weekend functions open to the public are still in the augmentation stage, perhaps a continuous process. Greening is among the priorities.

The residential block has separate well-provided units ensuring the required privacy as well as an insulated ambience for a 24x7 musical exploration in a secure environment. Prasanna's passionate articulation conjured up visions of a passionate guitarist sitting in a lonely spot on moonlit nights strumming his emotions in a carefree manner.

So much for the intentions and the possibilities. As for the effectiveness or the success of the endeavour, howsoever defined, we will have to wait and watch. Just now, the second batch is on; in itself an encouraging sign considering the fee of 7000 dollars for the course (Rupees 2.5 lakh for citizens of India and neighbouring countries) – (Courtesy: Sruti)

Bringing the joy back into music

Excerpts from Prasanna's conversation with V. Ramnarayan

Right now SAM is non-profit. It has been set up as part of the Swarnabhoomi development, and the entire infrastructure is theirs. The Chairman of Swarnabhoomi, G.R.K. Reddy, is keen that we run the college as an educa-tional institution and not a company. We hope to make it self-financed in a few years through the idea of corporate or philanthropic funding on a long-term basis. Art cannot exist without patronage. It never has and, without unconditional patronage, never will.

We want to award merit scholarships to students. Our fees are extremely low at the moment. We only charge 2.5 lakh rupees for five-star food thrice a day, AC apartments, and world-class facilities and faculty. But we cannot sustain ourselves on tuition fees. No college in the world can do that. Endowments are a must, so that we are not strapped for cash all the time. We want to pass on the advantage and, yes, it's going to be more expensive soon, naturally.

We want to have work-study programmes, where students can come here and work (in my office, or take care of graphic design) as they study, and get paid for the work they do on an hourly basis. We have a lot of plans – we want to make it a viable system, but we need help from people.

* * *

International students come here because they know that the faculty here are as good as or even better than any members in the top schools in the US.

In June, we had a drummer coming here to live and teach for three weeks at a very reasonable cost. He is one of the top drummers in the world and usually does only half-day or one-day seminars. Last year, we did a five-day workshop. The first session was by M. Balamuralikrishna. When I introduced him to the class, some didn't know who he was, and the others couldn't believe he had actually come. He said he would teach them his composition, and for two hours he taught them his four-note raga.

For senior musicians like Balamurali, I think it's a question of wanting to give back. This is the spirit we are seeing among musicians. Our faculty has some of the busiest musicians in the world.

* * *

Recently, we had a class on the history of Swing in the African American tradition. Each semester is different; so many students come back and have a completely different experience. Last time, the focus was on African music in the second half of the programme. We had three top end African players on our faculty. Two were from Suriname in the Caribbean. The emphasis on music was, therefore, quite high. But it changes every year. This time, for example, we are focussing on Brazilian music.

Everyone learns everything. People listen to Carnatic music too. Whether you play the piano or the guitar, you learn other things as well. There are students from Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh who learn konnakol. – (Courtesy: Sruti)

– V.T.


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In this issue

First in bus accidents – a dubious status for Chennai
Whither VP Hall's restoration?
Nostalgia – Memories of Madras
Looking back – Goldingham and the Madras Observatory
Cricket in India stands for hope & opportunity
A music academy for the future
Ismena Warren – documenting Madras in water-colours and sketches
Better use of city spaces
Garden gloom

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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