Teachers' Day Special - A Conversation with Vidwan P. S. Narayanaswamy

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In this conversation with Carnatica's Geetha Iyengar on the occasion of Teachers' Day (Sept. 5th), renowned vidwan P. S. Narayanaswamy talks about his guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and his own views on teaching and concert presentation.

Tell us about your gurus, your experiences with them and what shaped your career in music?

I started learning music in Konerirajapuram at the age of 8. In those days Carnatic music was used in film music and the local teachers used to teach music and I also got involved in these sessions. Although my father was a doctor by profession he was deeply interested in music and it is he who made the first move to start my training at the age of 13, under Tiruppambaram Somasunadra Pillai (brother of the famous Swaminatha Pillai), Mudicondan Mani Iyer and later under Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer for 4 or 5 years. Once my voice changed I learnt Veena for a while. My father and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer were great friends and this led to my going to Trivandrum and staying in gurukulavasa at Semmangudiís house for 4-5 years. When Semmangudi decided to move to Chennai I moved with him in 1952 and have been in Chennai ever since. It was this gurukulavasa that helped me to learn at close quarters from the great master and I would say I got all my gnanam from him during this period.

Tell us about your experiences as a sishya of Semmangudi...

I was one of of his few early disciples. Semmangudi was mostly a patient teacher but unless you learnt quickly he could get angry. You had to be full of what they call veri, a thirst for knowledge! Your primary focus had to be music and listening to the guru with great concentration was what mattered. There were no innovations like tape recorders, cassettes and CDs and you had to rely on your memory and receptivity to retain the essence of the raga. We used to write down the notation but it was only an aid, not a prop. The earlier gurus taught those who had the knowledge and yearning, but had no time or inclination for mediocrity. I consider it quite a privilege that such a great vidwan decided to teach me.

How different is the learning/ teaching process now ? 

The doors are always open for students to learn under a teacher. Even if a student has mediocre ability but is fired with a deep interest, we nurture this interest by teaching easier ragas like Mohanam and Kanada, then progress to ragas like Surutti. Some are natural singers and they are certainly a pleasure to teach. Nowadays the reliance is on the notebook and tapes and unlike in our student days, kirtanas are not committed to memory. When music flows without such props there is greater scope for quality, finesse and creativity. As students we learnt 15-30 kirtanas in a year, not more. The present day aspirant wants to learn 15-20 in a short span of a few months while he is on a short trip to Chennai during the holiday season, a thing unheard of in our days. We were encouraged to listen to concerts which were also not plentiful as they are now. Semmangudi used to perform about 5 concerts during the season and I would sing with him on the stage and each concert was a different experience. For example, Raga Shankarabharanam would be different in each concert and this is what we imbibed by listening and exposing ourselves to the various nuances. Such an attitude is not too prevalent and there seems to be an urgency to perform on the stage as soon as possible. The desire to learn is great but the importance of intensive practice is played down.

The music season is jam-packed with concerts. How do musicians deliver quality when the pressures are so high? 

This is also a deviation from the pattern of concerts in our days. The aim of musicians like my Guru was to give few concerts but to give depth and there was hardly any thought about popularity. If it came, it was considered to be Godís grace and perhaps that explains the utter humility of all the stalwarts that strode the music scene in yesteryears. This is not to suggest anything negative about the present-day musicians of whom I am one. I agree to about 8-10 concerts during the music season. In the early days there used to be about 3 concerts in Perambur and T. Nagar and apart from these, AIR gave opportunities to artistes and these were the chances to listen to good artistes.

What guidelines do you lay down for your programmes? 

I have never sung the main raga for more than 15 minutes. To me, more than that smacks of repetition and the raga loses its grip and effect. The senior musicians had a repertoire of about 200 kritis and repeated it at concerts and each rendition had its own sparkle. Nowadays the audience clamours for variety and so there is a search for new songs. My observation is that the knowledge has improved but the atmanubhava is less. Vidwans have changed, so have the audience and its expectations.

You belong to the Thanjavur style. What distinguishes it from other styles of music?

There is nothing radically different. Thanjavur gets its importance because it was the nucleus of Carnatic music when the Trimurtis lived and brought music to its zenith. It is not much different from the North Arcot school of which Brinda-Mukta, Veena Dhanammal, Naina Pillai among others are a part. Three disciples of Sri. Thyagaraja lived in three different places and each evolved his own style of singing.

Now to the oft-repeated question. What do you think of Fusion?

If you talk of rhythm, then fusion makes some sense. When it comes to vocal music, it doesnít seem to be possible to mix the two different schools of music. In a typical concert, the Carnatic musician sings Hindolam and the Hindustani musician sings Malkauns. It usually ends up with the Carnatic musician singing the Hindustani raga as he is more comfortable with the switch rather than the other way around. Where is the fusion in this case?

What is the philosophy of life that makes you what you are?

Never hurt others, be friendly without having any ulterior motive and do your best without waiting for titles and honours. If they come, they are Godís grace. More importantly I would like to live up to the principle that my guru Sri. Semmangudi advocated: "I am a student too!Ē

Geetha Iyengar

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