As the Internet gets faster and better, and the roads riddled with bumps and potholes, it is definitely time to go online. If shopping, games, education, banking, documentation, taxation and what not can go online, why not learning music? It may not be similar to the hoary heritage of guru-shishya parampara but still, it can spread the 'joy of music' across the world from America to India to Australia.
Shankar Mahadevan Academy, in Bangalore, has begun a new journey in the traditional world of classical music by bringing high quality Indian music education online. Offering its students, the flexibility to 'master the art' of singing different styles of Indian music, be it Hindustani, Carnatic, devotional or Bollywood numbers, in the comfort of their homes, they want to simplify the learning process and make music a joyful and soulful experience for the young and the old.
As its founder, renowned musician and composer Shankar Mahadevan says, "The Academy opens a completely new side of the world for me to do things that will change lives or the ways of living. Music came to me very early in life and I have been blessed in realising the benefits of music throughout my life. While music can be a soothing reliever after a stressful day, it can also be a vehicle to inspire generations. The mission of the Academy is to spread the joy of music across the world and it also lets me pursue my dream of helping create a better tomorrow."
The Academy's savvy technocrat director Sridhar Ranganathan says, "When teaching is simplified and is done in correlation with day-to-day terms, children enjoy and follow it easily. Music is supposed to be fun and not a serious business as it was once. Otherwise, you cannot expect children to learn music as they would prefer to bunk classes and play cricket. Our curriculum too has been devised in such a way, be it Hindustani or Carnatic. We have strived to take the vast curriculum of classical music and demystify it, define milestones and impart learning using some great techniques and tools that are both fun and effective."
The Bangalore edition of the Academy took off in September 2011 but with lot of pre-pilots and post pilots that included aspects on how to teach online, keep a student's attention and further, how to simplify the process of teaching, reaching everybody and creating awareness on online techniques in view of the guru-shishya parampara. "We worked with experts like Sawani Shende, Vinayak Torvi, Mala Swamy, Nedumuri Krishnamurthey and T R Balamani, and even pedagogy specialists, to make it easy for students. Offering certificate courses, assessments are done at the end of each module and after the successful completion of a module, a student receives a certificate signed by Shankar Mahadevan," adds Sridhar.
Mapping of swaras
The academy has taken up an extensive programme for swara mapping of every genre of music, be it rhymes, folk, Bollywood, devotional and others. Even the nursery rhyme Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder... has been mapped to attract tiny tots in the age group of three to six years. "Like for instance, M S Subbalakshmi's famous renderings of Meera bhajans like Mere toh Giridhar Gopal, Pag ghungaroo bandh Meera nachi...have been mapped for a reason. We want to create a wave about Carnatic music in the north as exposure is the key, if you have to grow with music and also get kids to appreciate it. Apart from this, we want to familiarise kids with the ambiance of a song, be its relevance or geography. Last year, we got Giridhar Udupa, a percussionist, to tell school kids where the ghatam is made, its influences, the history behind it, and in turn, the children rallied around to get more of such unknown aspects of the instrument," says Sridhar.
Presently, the academy in Bangalore has 170 students learning Hindustani vocal while 90 are leaning Carnatic, spread across countries including the US, India, the UK, Japan, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and UAE. Creating detailed content, the Academy has more than 4,000 video recordings, all in HD video, which have been done by Online Music (OM) book artistes as well as other musicians in their own studios. Once a month, Shankar Mahadevan talks to a select few students to get feedback, clear their doubts between 7 and 7.45 am and experience a connect with him.
With the country's Internet connectivity getting better and better, bandwidth improving albeit slowly, the Academy holds 12 classes of 45 minutes each, in a beginner's course, where one teacher and three students meet via video conferencing. Using CISCO's Webex which is used by professionals, every class is recorded so that a student and teacher can go back for practise or reference. Each teacher coaches up to three students, and students are able to see each other, interact and imbibe skills like in a real classroom. This is extremely effective as it not only helps one to learn from the teacher but also from fellow students across the globe.
Every class has an OM book which is specific to the course. The OM book includes a rich set of content from which students can practise and learn, including instructional videos from renowned artistes that are designed to make it easy for students to learn complex music concepts. If need be, gifted students can learn more and can even opt for add-on classes. Even one-to-one classes are provided to address shortcomings in a student.
Since its inception, the academy has gained popularity far and wide through word-of-mouth and in fact, as its director says, there was no fanfare when the Academy began its classes. Operating in 18 geographical time zones, the academy is operational from 4 am to 10 pm. They have also been teaching music in seven schools of Bangalore and if need be, they train music teachers too.
Chaitra Sontakke, a Hindustani classical musician and a teacher developing the teaching methodology for the Academy, has been hooked to online teaching for the past one year. She has 25 students from the US, UK and UAE. "I conduct 20 classes in a week. Sometimes, a class starts at 6 am, other times it is in the night. Although, a bit different from the traditional ways of teaching music, still we develop a bond with the students who are from different parts of the world. Maybe the physical connect is missing but one saves a lot of time and energy and there is no break in learning."
The first teacher at the Academy, Padma Shankar, teaches 20 students from different countries. A disciple of Lalgudi Jayaraman and Dr Balamuralikrishna, Padma, who is a violinist and Carnatic musician, opines that the field of online music teaching that took birth five years ago, is already saturated. She says, "Here, though, we have broadened the format and are trying to bring music to children with a whiff of fresh air. It is not the traditional way of teaching but continues the tradition, like administering medicine with a touch of honey. The curriculum has been designed to make it more interesting for children, drawing comparisons from life and nature so that they pick up nuances of classical music easily and happily."
The Academy has many celebrity students on its rolls including Bhaag Milkha Bhaag director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra, master chef Sanjeev Kapoor and professional singer Arnab Chakravarthi. A very dedicated beginner, Rakesh has a deep desire to sing but being completely besura, as he calls himself, he has been enjoying his classes with Chaitra Sontakke. "The teachers are patient with me and as I discover sur, my life is beginning to take on a new meaning," he says.
"Despite being busy with studio work in Chennai during the making of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Rakesh used to make time for his classes," Chaitra says. Sanjeev Kapoor is enrolled in a self-study course in Bollywood songs at the Academy. Arnab has been with the Academy for the last two years and feels it a convenient way to learn classical music and improvise his performances.