Indian classical music is being taken out of air-conditioned halls to the country’s backwaters, because vocalists and musicians have discovered a new rasika—one that lends an ear and shows keen interest in this traditional art form
As she sings ‘Enakku vendum varangalai’, written by Tamil poet Bharathiyar, 10-year-old Vaishnavi Krishnamoorthy seems to become oblivious to the world around her. Her language is precise, her rhythm intact and there is soul in her voice. Seated in her one-room house in Manjakkudi village, near Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, her audience comprises her parents and elder sister. Her father works in the fields for a daily wage, her mother stays at home, her sister is in Class VII and Vaishnavi has just earned herself a scholarship for her good academic record.
“Nobody in my family can sing. I can. I also perform in the school events,” beams the Class V student at Swami Dayananda Matric Higher Secondary School in the village. “Bombay Jayashri ma’am taught me this song. But when she sings ‘Ramachandraya’, I forget myself,” she says and quickly adds that of all the ragas, she likes Kalyani the most. Vaishnavi, who has been learning Carnatic music for the past two years, is excited to speak about her Friday music class conducted by Hitham Trust at her school. There are 250 other students from over 120 neighbouring villages who have signed up for these classes.
“Considering the fact that these children do not have any background in Carnatic music, they have surprised us with their grasping power. In these parts of the world, coming to school itself is still an ordeal. Yet, they make it every week with the same level of enthusiasm,” says Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, Oscar nominee and the founder of Hitham Trust. Since this outreach initiative began in 2013, every week Jayashri or her students have been visiting Manjakkudi to teach classical music to sons and daughters of farmers, lorry drivers, domestic workers and many more. The whole idea was conceptualised during a casual interaction with the students in Manjakkudi. “We first announced a two-day music appreciation course, and to our surprise 60 students signed up,” says Jayashri.
There is no shortage of venues to perform classical music in urban India. In fact, there are comfortably designed halls with pushback chairs and great acoustic, which are eager to host these performances. Yet musicians such as Jayashri, Dr L Subramaniam, Warsi Brothers, Shashank Subramanyam and several others are setting aside time from their busy schedules, to travel to rural pockets to sing, teach and inspire a lifelong connection to the classical arts. They travel where no road exists, simply for the joy of teaching and performing to eager listeners at village squares, government schools and temple courtyards. From places of worship, Indian classical music shifted to the royal courts; then finally in the metros it made way into halls, auditorium and parks. Technically, it cannot be called a shift, but artists seem to enjoy performing for audiences in rural India, sometimes under the open skies.
“In rural areas, the mind is not distracted. In cities, children have many things to do, and learning music is a tick in the box. In villages, the children look forward to our visit and give us their undivided attention. Because of this they pick up the lessons really fast. It is a rewarding experience for all of us,” says Swetha Sriram, one of the students of Jayashri who takes classes at Manjakkudi. For the last three years, Swetha, Chaitra Sairam, Abinaya Shenbagaraj, Vijayashri Vittal and Chitra Poornima Sathish have been taking turns to get on the Uzhavan Express from Chennai to Kumbakonam week after week. “We’ve not missed one Friday. In fact, we look forward to our visit and come back to the city refreshed,” explains Chaitra.
Indian classical music has the power to connect and leave a lasting impression on the listener, believes sitarist Vidur Mahajan, based at Talegaon in Pune. Under his project ‘Taking raga music to rural India’, Vidur has completed 85 concerts in eight districts of Maharashtra, reaching out to over 43,000 schoolchildren and 12,000 villagers. “There is a tendency to categorise Indian classical music to a particular genre of people. Over the years, music has been mystified, and this project is a small attempt to demystify it, and share its beauty with more people.” While in his farmhouse in Mangrul village in 2013, Vidur was invited to perform at the local temple festival one evening. “They just knew that I was a musician and they had never heard of a sitar. I entered the temple area to find it filled with 1,000 people from Mangrul and neighbouring villages. I performed, and there was intense silence, cheer and amusement—all at the same time,” recalls Vidur who decided that night to perform in villages.
In Chennai, musician N Vijay Siva explains that only the fine arts can effortlessly weave the finer elements in the brain to make a better human being. “For this to happen, we need to open the art forms to everyone.” Through his ‘Build A Rasika’ project, Vijay and his team have been reaching out to schoolchildren in villages around Chennai, Madurai, Trichy, Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu through a one-hour concert interspersed with commentary. “Initially, the students would view this art form as something ‘scary’ and one that is not meant for them. They hardly responded or interacted with us. But we soon found ways to cut this ice,” says the vocalist who has so far reached out to over 150 schools since 1994.
Swetha recollects that for the first batch of students at Manjakkudi in 2014, everything was completely new. “As much as it took a while for the children to warm up, it also took time for us to understand them and create a programme for them”. With a syllabus designed by Jayashri and compiled by Vidyalakshmi Sunderaraj for three batches, the classes attempt for children to learn more than just music. As part of the programme, Hitham Trust invites several musicians, including Delhi Sairam who conducts regular rhythm classes.
Vidur, on the other hand, has created a structured format for his performances in village squares and government schools. “I use storytelling as a way to connect with the audience; there is a lot of question and answer, and then I perform. At the end of the performance, children want to get an autograph on their school notebooks, and touch and feel the sitar. I let them strike a chord,” he says. He adds that he does not expect the children to understand the technicalities of the raga, but he just hopes that they listen to it and embrace.
“In our education system we teach reading, writing and arithmetic. The fourth aspect—heritage—is being neglected,” says Dr Kiran Seth, Delhi-based founder of SPIC MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth). He adds that when children are exposed to the sounds and visuals, they find an innate power in them which will be reflected in the things they do. “We have just trained 300 playschool teachers in Davanagere, Karnataka, on the effective mechanism that they could use to ensure children grasp what they hear. This is the effort of four years of research. At this age, catching their attention for an hour is difficult. By the time you finish a session, the children have a completely new look in their eyes,” Seth says.
Accomplished artistes such as Vidwan Lalgudi Jayaraman, Prof T N Krishnan, Vidwan T V Sankaranarayanan, Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt Shivkumar Sharma, Pt Rajan and Sajan Mishra, and many more have travelled to the smaller places to perform as part of SPIC MACAY events. “The artistes perform in the corridor of a local school or in its courtyard, with young eager eyes keenly observing them,” says the 68-year-old Seth.
Vocalist Sumithra Vasudev, 35, performed recently for SPIC MACAY for 200 tribal children in Koraput, Odisha. “The performance was for one-and-a-half hours. We presented ragas such as Shanmukhapriya and Kambhoji, and compositions with alapana, niraval and kalpana svara. Varnam, tillana and mangalam were also presented,” she explains. Once the concert started, she remembers, it was evident they were eager to know what this music was and were open to allow themselves to appreciate it. Sumithra went on to stay in Koraput and teach a group of eight children as part of the workshop. “At the end of four days, they presented a gitam and a divyanama kirtana! The children were keen to sing, correct their mistakes and importantly practice the songs till they got it right,” she reveals.
Dr. Seth reflects on the era of the Raj when the arts were encouraged and the zamindars, who were the wealthy people, realised the importance of it. “From the temples and village squares, over time it came into sabhas. When it became popular, the quality came down. From a personal experience, music and dance became entertainment,” he opines. He points out that the children in rural India are far less exposed to classical performances. “Children in the metros are distracted and the schools take the performing arts for granted. This wave has not yet swamped rural India and hence, we feel the importance of the work being done there”.
Bindhu Malini Narayanaswamy, 35, who sings songs of the weaver poet Kabir, explains that during her first year with the acclaimed Rajasthan Kabir Yatra in Bikaner, she didn’t know what to expect. “We were blown by what we received. We received lot of love, joy and celebration,” says the Bengaluru-based Carnatic and Hindustani classical vocalist. Through the first Yatra in 2012 held at an open public ground, villagers got an opportunity to listen to and interact with over 13 artistes and 200 yatris from across India and abroad. “We sang many of Pt Kumar Gandharv’s Kabir compositions such as ‘Nirbhay Nirgun’, ‘Naiharwa’ and ‘Kaun Thagwa and Maya’. The villagers were far more open to something new that they were not used to and watched us with a strange wonder,” reveals the vocalist.
At the second edition of the Rajasthan Kabir Yatra in November 2016, “the district police came forward to support it and use the community network created by Lokayan for outreach in specific and a tool of social change in general. They suggested locations which saw communal flare-ups recently. The response was outstanding,” explains festival director Gopal Singh Chouhan, 34.
Seth hails the contribution of the performers. “They travel to rural India, despite all the hardships they have to face. From the organisation’s point of view, we have to carry everything from a generator set to water, to ensure the one-hour experience for the students is elevating,” he says.
Vidur agrees, and says he first found the speakers used for political campaigns in the villages. “I carried all my equipment in a minivan. After a few shows with the village -owned speakers, I invested in my own,” explains the artist who is now documenting his project and hopes to complete 100 concerts by the first quarter of 2017.
For the Kabir Yatra team, the challenge was to choose the right village. “We travelled to almost 200 villages on a bike before selecting only six. The journey was so overwhelming. Villagers were ready to feed 300-odd people and take care of all logistics. I think this is the power of community we have forgotten to praise,” Chouhan says.
The girls at Hitham Trust say the challenge was to match up to the children’s enthusiasm each week. “We have to keep innovating to make the classes interesting for the children,” explains Swetha. The trust is now working with another group of students in Thillaisthanam village of Thanjavur district. Dr Rama Kaushalya, retired principal of Government Music College, Thiruvaiyaru, who provides support to the children there, roped in Jayashri and team to teach Carnatic music once a week via Skype.
“We can see that they are clearly excited. They dress well and come into class early. Though we meet them once a week via Skype, Dr Kaushalya works with them throughout the week and they practice the songs that we have taught them, the team echoes.
“Children develop not only musical skills but singing also helps with language development, small and large motor skills, that helps in increased coordination,” explains Farahanaaz Sohrab Dastur, Honary Director – Education Programmes, Mumbai-based Mehli Mehta Musi Foundation.
Through the foundation’s outreach programme, over 920 non-fee paying students from low-income families studying in government schools are taught. “There are a few challenges we face. The first is the student’s irregularity in class; the next is convincing the parents and teachers of the benefits of music training.”
Seth says that there are accomplished musicians such as T V Sankaranarayanan performing today, but when you take a closer look at the audience, you find very few young people in it. “We need much more of government and private support to change the current scenario. The key lies in promoting these events and workshops in the schools and colleges.”
The outcome of taking classical music to rural India may not yield tangible results. But it is abstract, subtle, inspiring and mystical. “Who is a rasika? Only when you have been able to touch the listener, do they become a rasika,” opines Seth. Evidently there are more rasika in rural India, who encourage musicians to catch a train or hop on a bus to reach a corner of India that is still undiluted and appreciates music at its simplest.