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Helping hand from a master

Perfecting Carnatic Music
Level 1
Chitravina N Ravikiran

Students of Indian music, both Karnatak and Hindustani, depend a lot on what they hear. The great gurus have always frowned upon written notation. The gurukula system favoured learning through listening. That meant spending long years with the guru, diligently imbibing his knowledge.

In the pre-radio era, there was no way of learning a composition except by hearing someone sing it live. Technology helped us in the 20th century to record the human voice and distribute it widely. Gramophone records and cassettes, and in more recent days digital devices like the CD, have made the music of the great masters more accessible.

As Ravikiran acknowledges in his foreword, stalwarts like Sambamoorthy, Panchapakesa Iyer and T K Govinda Rao have brought out books to help musical knowledge-seekers. Several books have been published, and continue to be published, in the southern languages. But books have a shortcoming: they are not sound enabled.

Ravikiran has come out with a project that tries to address this problem. He combines his books with audio cassettes so that the learner has both written notations and a recorded version to go by.

Ravikiran's Level 1 starts with the basic lessons of Karnatak music. It was the great saint Purandaradasa who first systematised the teaching of Karnatak music. That was sometime in the 16th century, and Purandaradasa has remained pedagogue supreme even to this day. Ravikiran did not want to create a new set of exercises. "Was I going to play the role of Purandaradasa II? Was I going to redefine the theory of Karnatak music?" he asked himself, and his anwer was a firm "No".

What he has done is explain basic concepts, like melody and rhythm, after which he moves on to time-tested exercises like the sarali varishai, janti varishai and the datu varisahi. Then come the slightly more advanced alankaras.

Purandaradasa pioneered the geetam genre and composed many lovely lyrical pieces. His Lambodara lakumikara, Kundagowra, Kereya neeranu kerege chelli, and Padumanabha (all in raga Malahari) lead you into the world of short compositions. Ravikiran presents 21 geetams, which include very widely sung compositions like Varaveena (Mohana) and Kamalasulochani (Anandabhairavi). Three swarajatis, including the evergreen Raravenugopabala (Bilahari) find a place too.

Ravikiran's book, in English, paraphrases each song. It provides a list of parent scales and popular ragas. Another helpful section gives the addresses of music teachers in various cities. Chennai musicians get pride of place, and places like Mysore and Hyderabad are not listed at all, although Ravikiran has taken pains to include teachers, with their e-mail IDs, in countries like Malaysia, South Africa and the USA. The book comes with a recommendation by Semmangudi Srinivasier.

The first book of Perfecting Carnatic Music is well thought out. Ravikiran is a great liberal in matters of aesthetics, and it would be interesting to see how he approaches manodharma aspects in the higher level books.

Ravikiran is not sure how many books he will bring out. "I would like to think this is Level 1 of infinity," says the chitravina master.

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