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 T K Govinda Rao, acknowledged as one of the finest teachers of Karnatak music, says, "It is true that the system has its advantages. I enjoyed the privilege of being trained by Musiri Subramania Iyer. But at that time, we had no other go. We had to be in the teacher's house and learn"
Quick links:

Review of TNS Tamilisai concert in California

Carnatica, the site Sowmya runs with N Shashikiran


A gurukulam
in digital times

T N Seshagopalan has embarked on a project that's so special it could well be the only one of its kind in the new millennium 

This is a bit of a scoop! I stumbled upon the information that T N Seshagopalan is doing the spadework for a gurukulam.

This is big news because no popular performer has launched such a project in recent memory, and also because some of the most respected names in Karnatak music feel the gurukulam -- a system where the student lives and learns for several years in the guru's house -- is outdated.

Seshagopalan has spoken on many forums about the greatness of the gurukulam, and his exceptional guru Sankarasivam. He now plans to choose three or four students, give them a place to stay, foot all their expenses, and hone them in the art of singing.

T K Govinda Rao, acknowledged as one of the finest teachers of Karnatak music, says, "It is true that the system has its advantages. I enjoyed the privilege of being trained by Musiri Subramania Iyer. But at that time, we had no other go. We had to be in the teacher's house and learn".

In his opinion, it is not correct to say that gurus wore down students by asking them to run errands. "That notion is absurd. We considered it our home and helped in their daily chores", Govinda Rao says, laughing.

But he is not convinced the system can work today. "Such a lifestyle is now impossible. With the advancement of science and technology, the guru sings in your ears. Why chase him?" he asks.

Mani Krishnaswami, another senior musician and, like Govinda Rao, a Sangitha Kalanidhi, says, "At that time boys used to be left in the teachers' home, while for girls like me, the teachers came home. Our teachers were never time conscious. Their interest in students was amazing. I have learnt music in Kalakshetra with many great artists like Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal, Mysore Vasudevachar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tiger Vardachariayar and T K Jayaraman. All of them were strict disciplinarians and benevolent gurus," she says.

Younger singers have discovered that new media, like the Internet, can be used as teaching aids. But surely, long-distance methods can't hold a candle to the old system in which the guru sat right there?

Says popular vocalist S Sowmya, "My days as a tiny tot in my guru Prof S Ramanathan's house were special. I used to learn, sing and play the veena even in the late hours of the night and early hours of the day. I remember watching the great guru practising, teaching and guiding his students with special care and attention. That system has the advantage of teachers knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each student".

Sowmya, however, is one of those acutely aware of changing needs. "I have developed teaching aids for the Internet, and interactive CDs and cassettes. They are a boon to people who live in different parts of the world, and for those to whom time and accessibility to a particular guru are huge constraints".

Mani Krishnaswami feels that listening to a recording is not enough. Thanks to the cassette boom, students learn music only peripherally; learning directly from a teacher has many more advantages, she says.

R Vedavalli with Lalgudi: Popular teacher Seetha Rajan conducts a modern gurukulam, refusing to entertain students who want to learn music just to pass time. She says an emphatic 'no' to them.

"However little you learn from a guru, it sinks into your mind. I wish students really serious about music would follow a good teacher," says R Vedavalli, considered a great teacher herself.

Bombay Sisters C Saroja and C Lalitha, who learnt first from Musiri and later from Govinda Rao, relate an interesting anecdote. When their teacher asked them to sing three kalams of an Ata thala varnam, they always struggled. Before he came in, they would go around his empty chair and pray that he spare them. But he would invariably ask them to sing that very composition. "We realize the benefit of that rigorous exercise in keeping our rhythm and singing kalpanaswaras", they say, almost in unison.

"Yes, that sort of personal touch is impossible in a distance medium," agrees Sowmya. But, she maintains, "the present generation is smart enough to grasp things faster".

Another problem students face is that many well-known performing artistes avoid teaching.

A common explanation is that performers have no time. As performing artistes constantly travel to give concerts, they find it difficult to give any time to students. Adjusting the teacher's pitch to the students' pitch is another problem.

As the Bombay Sisters say, "We will be doing injustice if we ask the students to change their pitch. If we keep changing ours, it will affect our voice".

Sowmya asks adolescent boys learning from her to find a male teacher because of the pitch problem, and says it is true that teaching may not be the best thing for performers.

It looks like T N Seshagopalan is striking a lone path. His gurukulam may be the only one to be launched in the 21st century, but that only makes it extra special.

Ambujam Anantharaman
(with inputs from G Swaminathan)

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