Veena: In Conversation with Karaikudi S. Subramanian

Veena: In Conversation with Karaikudi S. Subramanian

in Interview
Published on: 21 March 2018
An interview conducted by M.D. Muthukumaraswamy in Chennai, May 2017

Karaikudi S. Subramanian: My music goes back—when we do the calculations right, we have the fifth-generation musician (Subbaraya Iyer), sixth-generation (Subbaya Iyer) and then the seventh (Subbarama Iyer [1883–1930] and Sambasiva Iyer [1888–1958]), my mother was the eighth generation, and me, the ninth generation. So (for the period) before that, in the rituals that we do, the devasam, you have the names of the forefathers: it goes even three generations further. So all this was available in Pudukottai kingdom, in those times, the Tondaimans were there, and they (my ancestors) were court musicians, and were given the gold shower (kanakabhishekam) by the Raja. And then of course the patronage shifted to Karaikudi. That is why they were known more as Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer (and Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer). They were known as the Karaikudi brothers. 


His daughter (Subbarama Iyer)—the third daughter—she was also a veena player, but they were all daughters and you know it is a patriarchal society, so he (Sambasiva Iyer) didn’t have any issue, so he asked my mother whether she could give me in adoption because I was the only male member playing the veena at that time. As because they believed in the hierarchy, teaching of music going down the male members, it was necessary. I needed to be adopted. So I belonged to that generation by birth and of course my music started with my mother from childhood—with me in her lap when she was teaching—so my music goes back to that as far as I remember till I was about five years of age. In 1957 I was adopted by my grand uncle Sambasiva Iyer. It was a ritual giving. So my mother became my sister—a great story—my sister became my niece, so all these confusions were there ritualistically because I had to do all the rituals for all these people being the ‘adopted’ uncle of my own sister. So I was confused in those times in 1957 but I knew it was a great time I had with my grandfather who gave me his veena—this is his veena—(showing the veena he is holding) and I started to understand from then on, maybe a little bit then, but later, clearly understood the value of carrying forward the tradition of our music. Although it is much different now. So this is the background story of my music. So it is given to me rather than me going in search of it.



M.D. Muthukumaraswamy: Okay, so your great grand uncle...


K.S.: Yes, my grand uncle. So (pointing to the photos…) he was my grandfather, and his younger brother—they were known as the Karaikudi brothers.



M.D.M.: He was Sambasiva Iyer.


K.S.: Yes, this is Sambasiva Iyer. He got the first national award in 1952 along with Allauddin Khan, the guru of Pandit Ravi Shankar.



M.D.M.: You were adopted by him (Sambasiva Iyer).


K.S.: Yes.



M.D.M.: After the adoption ceremony you were to go and live with them.


K.S.: Actually, what happened was that he had cancer. People knew that he had a maximum of only one year to live, so he wanted to pass on his tradition. So in fact, when I was in Kalakshetra—the original Kalakshetra in the Theosophical Society where he was the principal, I was adopted. For one year I was given very vigorous training by him. The foundation was given by my granduncle, from 1957 to 1958.



M.D.M.: So what was the training like?                  


K.S.: Actually he was a kind of mauna (silent) guru in a way and he sat there and I played the veena, and he would correct me wherever it was necessary. And then he made me practise. He taught me how to practise as a meditation. So when I made a mistake, he wouldn’t scold me but I had to go back. So I would go back and then practise and practise correctly for three hours in the morning. Every day I practised for nine to ten hours.



M.D.M.: When you look back what do you think of that intense training?


K.S.: I think I had a great time. Because now I teach children. I feel that I got something very valuable and that was given to me without me knowing how valuable it was. Because when I look back I see that my grand uncle gave me everything. Now I enjoy, as much as I did in those times, teaching children just the basics, just the basics, because it is as good a meditation because he taught me as a meditation. It was not something I was going to achieve as a performer or this or that. This is very important. You practice for 10 hours a day. This kind of Buddhist meditation is important and nothing else can (replace it). Simultaneously I carried out all the rituals, the sandhyavandanam and all that.


So I don’t think I would have got that kind of a training if I didn’t have this kind of situation thrust on me.



M.D.M.: How would you characterise the Karaikudi tradition?


K.S.: The Karaikudi tradition. I have questioned that, you know. What is this style about—Karaikudi style of playing? What I played just now—tanam. They (my ancestors) were known for tanam—that is why I played a bit of improvised tanam. Tanam is very important for veena and my grand uncle’s performance, my grandfather’s performance of tanam, everyone talks about it.


And everybody, even Balachander (S. Balachander), told me he wanted to emulate that and did so in an AIR concert. So people liked the way tanam (was played). So he (Subbaraya Iyer) was a specialist in that. So the Karaikudi style as a whole has a certain rigour and religiosity about the playing, there is a certain religiosity since it has to be done like that, for example (demonstrating on veena) He didn’t explain to me why it should be alternate, why it should not be one like that (playing..) And then when I played, he would tell me, as you would have seen in the album, the techniques.


(Playing veena)



M.D.M.: So, the separating technique.


K.S.: (Demonstrating…) So, in other words what I would say, it is a clarity of tone and performance, that is what is important. So although any instrument in Carnatic style has to have that vocalness about it, the vocalness about the instrument is different from person to person. And especially, I understood later, instrument is a kind of an abstraction of the voice. It is not, it doesn’t need to be exactly the voice. What is not heard is actually in their mind. So when I play for example and I sing this (singing and playing), you see the technique lends itself to playing like voice and it is all the mind singing. So the singing is the heart of playing. It just can’t be otherwise. Even people who don’t sing and are able to play instruments, they have heard it, they have heard people sing. So, everything is transformed into a performance through the fingers. Whether it is veena, veena-gotuvadhyam, chitraveena, violin, or anything, the base is the voice which is there. The veena itself is based on the human body, the physiology of the body. There are 24 frets or 24 vertebrae—it is compared to the vertebrae. It is actually the length of the full-grown person’s vertebrae. It is almost the same length.


And in Yogasastra they talk about the seven aadhara. So this instrument is the head. So the entire thing is based on the human body. That is why you have all the talk about Ravana’s veena. So there is a close relationship with the body, this instrument. So when he (my guru) sang, he also taught me Vedic mantras, Vedic chants on the veena.


So (playing and singing) when I do that, I am not actually playing, I am singing. So although they are simple tones, the voice is not simply a gamaka. Speaking is a gamaka. I can’t speak in one tone. Then I will be a robot. So to me when people were talking about the instrument and voice, I didn’t quite understand. Later I got deeper into it, then I could understand something about it. What is vocalness about the instrument? And what is instrumental about voice? All those things were very clear the way he taught without telling me anything.


So when I go back, how he taught me, the tonal quality, the clarity and for example (playing…) it is like (singing), when I sing that, I can imitate this for the voice. So you understand, every aspect of the technique he gave me was like that. So I would say Karaikudi style is based on this. But it is a kind of an abstraction of the voice. It is not the exact voice.



M.D.M.: What do you mean by the role of word? I have heard, whether it is true or not I don’t know, that it has been a tradition in Tamil Nadu that people who composed songs would try it out on the veena first before it was adopted by singers. That means it needs to be played well so that the words are proper. The composers of those songs, the lyrics, they will test it out with the veena player first before confirming these are the lyrics. Is it true?


K.S.: People have different ideas about that.  



M.D.M.: The focus is about the preservation of the integrity of the word or the abstraction of the word.


K.S.: Actually when you talk about the pluck it is like (demonstrating): I don’t have the tongue operating here. Even that is like pluck (demonstrating). So the pluck really means a syllable of a word as well as the tone (demonstrating). I am plucking here and also touching here. So actually any instrument will have to have the word quality, syllabic quality, it is not just the veena. The reason they have said that because one thing is clear, veena brings the tonal quality to perfection if the frets are correct. So there is the tonal quality. And then veena also has the quality of depth of the voice. For example, this is the depth. This is sliding (demonstrating). So the veena has a technique of bringing the voice quality to that point. Whereas when you say what the violin can do very well, it is sliding. The chitraveena, it is by sliding. Veena has three different dimensions, sliding, the fingering technique as well as pulling. So bringing a quality like voice as an abstraction—I am saying as an abstraction because it is not voice. That is all. And it brings all the salient aspects of voice on to the instrument.


Especially in those days, even now it is possible, it is there in Srirangam, Araiyar Sevai for example, they have the veena for the chanting. So veena is not different from chanting. So there was an association of the pluck, the words and this, but the veena’s pluck is not necessarily a pluck, it is also between plucks.


So for example, I make it very soft to denote it is not a word. And when there is not a word, it still became pluck but the way in which you pluck the word matters. So that is where the style becomes different in certain styles. Say the Mysore style. In Mysore style you have no plucks and no slides—of course now it is different. I am talking about, let’s say '40s, '50s, '60s and even '70s. Now there are many mixtures. People learn from here and there. So there is no distinct regional styles, like Trivandrum style or Tanjore style, or even Karaikudi style. We have some characteristics in common but I wouldn’t say I am just Karaikudi style. To me I am veena style. And also I am a singing style.



M.D.M.: But in your thesis you have distinguished four different kinds of styles, Thiruvananthapuram, Thanjavur, Mysore and Karaikudi—four different traditions. What are the salient features of a tradition as such in the context of Indian music or south Indian music?


K.S.: When you talk about tradition, the way in which I try to approach the tradition, it is as a huge term—tradition includes everything. It is not simply a classical tradition as you say 'the traditions'. So it is the way it is done that is respected and that has to be respected. And there is no hierarchy there, but we created those hierarchies. That is what I later understood, that this is what happens. For example, to be able to sing like the folk, I need to understand the folk—that is also music. So it is not any different from playing classical music except that classical music has more complexities, you add more complexities. But even a simple folk song cannot be played like a folk song by a classical person unless he understands that music. In other words, to me classicism can be anything but to me it is the grammar that which makes it classical rather than anything else. The Bhakti aspect we have also in folk music, so every style has that. It is not just Bhakti which distinguishes the classical music, but that has become a tradition because of people like Thyagaraja, Dikshitar. So they also attributed that to the music but anybody can sing like a folk musician if they want to try to do so, or film music.


So to me when you talk about style, style is not simply, 'this is different from that'. It is different, that is all. There is nothing special about being different. You are different. So basically the geography, the quality of the sound which comes out of the veena made in Trivandrum is different, because of the wood which is used there, the wood in Kerala is different that in from Tanjore. In Tanjore they used to say that the jackwood should be near the temple. And it also absorbs the sound of the temple. That is the belief. It is also true because the vibrations are there and vibrations are absorbed by inanimate objects also. So I think the veenas made with jackwood—this is jackwood, it is different from rosewood—because of the quality of the wood, scientifically speaking, it brings a different quality of sound, and that way Mysore veenas are different. And what adds more is the way in which they perform.


So with the veena definitely the most complex details of the technique are discrete tones.  (Playing…) so that comes of putting your finger correctly on the fret. So everybody has to do it. So it is not Karaikudi style.


(Playing…) Here I am sliding.


(Playing…) So that is a different quality of sound. So the same thing I can do in three different ways. I separate. And plucking here, I am also plucking here. It is a very intricate technique.


(Singing and playing veena) So I can do it in so many different ways but the way in which I use it—the technique I use more—it makes the sound a little different. So when you talk about the style, then the way in which they also can sing, like the way they play, the singing will be different also, it is not exactly the way of singing everybody does. You know what I mean. So the way in which you play, the singing can also be different.



M.D.M.: We were discussing the different styles you had explained in your thesis, and you were explaining to me about your Karaikudi tradition and the Mysore tradition. Could you please elaborate all the things you analysed, the story. There was one song which was played by your great uncle which you have a recording of from the radio, and you played it.


K.S.: Not the same song. Another song in the same tradition.



M.D.M.: ...Then you compared both of them with Doraiswamy Iyengar’s playing of it and also Mr. P. Viswanathan singing. So could you please elaborate on what you have found through this comparative analysis?


K.S.: I understood that although Doraiswamy Iyengar and I shared the vocal tradition, we were different because of the technique. The emphasis on slide is more, or emphasis on fingering is more, less of pulling. And then use of the side strings, for example, for different purposes, for tala purposes as well as for effect. So combining all this, there is a certain aesthetics which come out when we are playing, it is not simply the song itself. So when I compare with the singing of Viswanathan—that will be quite different. When we compare the same song—Doraiswamy Iyengar’s and mine and my grandfather’s—they were all different very strictly speaking but they sound the same for a normal listener because of the basic skeletal quality—the skeleton of the song is shared by everybody. The embellishments given are individual. Therefore the differences are the individual, what you call patantara (subtext). So he belongs to his tradition, repeating what his teacher said or what he copied from his teacher, added to his own individual technique to interpret that song.



M.D.M.: You classified the techniques into three categories—sliding, pulling and the fingering.


K.S.: Yes, sliding (demonstrating…). Pulling (demonstrating…). This is fingering (demonstrating).  That means I am plucking here, I am also plucking here.


(Playing…) That has a slide, pluck, slide.


So the combination of this is only slide, the fingering and pulling.



M.D.M.: So these three techniques are a combination of which contribute to the style. And the purpose of the style is to bring vocalness to it and also reach a certain tonal clarity. This tonal clarity is what you call the musical truth.


K.S.: Yes, the musical truth.



M.D.M.: So how do they approach this principal truth in these four traditions?


K.S.: Added to this is their own contribution with respect to their imagination. So that is their originality, so they can be different from the master. Oh! It is nice! I would call it a kind of embellishment. The embellishment and decorations. And then the speed, for example, technically they may be more versatile and they can go in tremendous speed because speed adds to the enjoyment in a different way in different people. All those are to me extraneous to the basic truth of music. So when you have the truth of music come out of a musician, they have reached that. The other things to me are secondary. Secondary, but nevertheless significant from the individual’s point of view, (is how he sings) as an individual. So that is where we say he is talented. So some people might simply bring out the essence of the quality of the original music and be contented. For example, Karpagam Swaminathan, you see she is not excitable (when) performing, but has earned a name as a very austere performer. And my style is also like that.


So I should say these people have this name, a purity, so-called purity in sticking to certain things and not exploring further than that. And those who want to explore, you may call them romantic. So our music also has these balances and proportions. For example, if you have a long taanam or long alaapana followed by a short composition—that lacks proportion. So a classical artist would have proportion. And for example, I am going to have the varnam in the middle—that is romantic. And there is a structure, where after the varnam you have to have a couple of very fast compositions. These are all some of the ‘traditions’ followed through the concert tradition which was created by the great masters.


And some of the younger people, they break that and are creating something different. I don’t think they are ultimately new, but the newness comes from being different.



M.D.M.: You were talking about your great uncle’s chittaswarams. Will you please explain?


K.S.: According to me, these musicians have not composed songs because they believe it should be done only by the inspired bards like Tyagaraja, Dikshitar etc. So they are not supposed to even compose. They will not say, 'I have composed'. So I think it is a satisfaction they get composing new structures through the swaras. So that is chittai. 'Chittai' means you have to play that exactly like a composition in every concert. You can’t change it. So such chittaswaras, there are certain compositions, about 10 compositions around which my grandfather has composed chittaswaras. And others have also composed chittaswaras.


My grandfather composed a chittaswara for a Dikshitar’s composition, Ramachandram Bhavayami, but this chittaswaram was used for Seethamma Mayamma by M.S. Subbalakshmi. So it is the same chittaswara which fits both.


And I am going to play a little bit of the Vasantha composition from Ramachandram Bhavayami and then go to the chittaswara.  


(Playing… and singing…)


That is the song. The pitch is very high.




So what I can sing, I can play. So the clarity of the playing comes from the right fingering, the tonal understanding and the right practice. So the chittaswaram is like that. He has done in another composition, Shobhillu Saptaswara which is quite famous, this is another chittaswaram. About 10 chittaswarams like that.



M.D.M.: So going to Wesleyan (Wesleyan University) gave you the path to do the analysis of this.


K.S.: Yes. I should say up to 1975 I performed quite a lot I should say, from my circumstance, I performed with my sister Ranganayaki in different parts of the country. And we performed, me and my sister performed in Museum Für Völkerkunde in Germany which won an award. So 1975 marked my entry into music as a different kind of musician. So actually I should say till then I didn’t know what I was doing. I just played—what she wanted me to play, I just played. What she wanted me to play, I just played. Of course I could sing the songs and things like that but I didn’t understand much.


The Germany experience was the first thing when they brought this beautiful documentary for music, two different recordings, and full commentary on this, that brought me a new hope, that is a beautiful way of documenting it. Then I was more interested as a scholar. I began enquiring into it and it was that which brought me to Wesleyan to study ethno-musicology, that is music from an ethnic point of view, from the westerner’s point of view. Whereas to me it is an insider's and an outsider's point of view. So I was allowed to study my own music, my own style and that is not possible here in India. Because they were there to bring an outsider’s point of view and comment on whatever I am doing. Actually it was a learning in that respect to understand my own style that is quite unique in that respect. To study the veena for Karaikudi style and also bring out a document which is based on that.



M.D.M.: That analysis led you to developing notations.


K.S.: Yes. I experimented with new and different kinds of notation which was triggered by my study of Gregorian notations. For my MA thesis I started what is called neumatic notation, they are neumes, they are all called neumes. So I brought a neumatic notation for the Shankarabharanam for my MA thesis and developed that for my PhD. I brought what I call EGR—Emotional Graphic Representation—and the descriptive notation which T. Viswanathan had already done very well and brought good results to students, one of the foremost students is Jon Higgins. So I was watching him, I was reading his doctoral thesis. Now that is why I have brought in this descriptive aspect as a very important aspect but the difference between what he did and what I did was that I brought the swarasthana notation as a very important symbol to be able to study any kind of music whether it is film music or folk music or classical music. Whereas the kind of notation normally used in classical music, even though it is roman script, it is not based on the swarasthana. Swarasthana notation, what I call Sa, Ri1, Ri2, Ga1, Ga2, Ma1, Ma2 (there are Sanskrit names for these, I am avoiding those), Pa, Dha1, Dha2, Ni1, Ni2, Sa. There are 12 tones. The 12 tones, what I tried to do is make it simple for the computer (or the typewriter in those times), I created a small ‘r’ representing this, the uppercase R and small, big, that is all for which I tried different kinds of notations before I came to this swarasthana. I thought that is the best. That is now used in the patantara, I will talk about it a little later, how this kind of notation is helpful now to transfer this music by touch of a button into western notation, western-style notation.  


So this notation has helped also, that is a starting point for my son. And now any language can be used in the notation. So we have tried to programme it in such a way that in all the Indian languages it is possible to access this. When I write in the swarasthana notation it can be changed to any kind of notation. So the work there at that point has its effect now. People don’t know yet. The one person who used the swarasthana notation was Dr Pinakapani who died just before he was 100 years, and he used this pallavi, there is a book he published where he has used this notation, the swarasthana notation. He is the only one who has used it as far as I know.



M.D.M.: There are two other things in your thesis which has quite a provocative conclusion, I would say. One is about the classicism of this music. What do you think, how classical is this music?


K.S.: That was actually a literary question as well to me as a literature person. What is classical? So generally the classicalness is the proportion, balance and proportion make something classical. So in other words you give a kind of a structure to what you do. There is a structure in, for example, during the Prabandhas period in those times and later, the kriti format, we have three structures, you have three parts to the structure: pallavi, anupallavi, charanam. And pallavi has A, B, C. Let us say the whole structure is AA, BA, CA. There is a structure, it is similar to the western concept. So it is not much different in that respect.


So then the tessitura, what they call the tessitura, the anupallavi second part imitates, the charanam also imitates the second part from the anupallavi, A, B, C. C has two sections. The second section imitates the anupallavi section before going into the pallavi. So it is a kind of cyclic concept. So that kind of a structure is given to the Carnatic music. It is not even this much when you talk about northern music. That is more improvised in many respects. Whereas here it is strictly governed by this kind of a structure so that if you want to call (something) classical, that is classical. And can we have folk music like that?—why not? In other words, the structure makes this classical and then there is a grammar behind that. Raga, for example, that is why (we have) what we call derivative ragas. Also even the 72 melas were only from the later period. Before that the raga existed, many ragas existed, (then) they tried to classify it. In other words there is a scientific aspect to this, when the grammarians and the people who thought about music, they wanted to question. So that is the grammatical aspect, to me that is what is classical, if you want to think about it.


Now in that respect you can even approach folk music as being classical. We have to be pure, it should be nice, so there is a grammar behind that. When you can study that, it becomes also classical in that respect. So to me, whether it is classical or not, music is music. So what I try to do is to open my mind to music as such. What are the musical ingredients? Basic ingredients. They are the swaras. You may call it swaras, you may not call it swaras. Do re mi fa so la ti are swaras, the seven notes. And they have 12 tones, we have 12 tones. So I tried to go to the very basics of this—the movement. They will call it melisma, moving from one note to another. We may call it more complex things such as gamaka, how we move. So how you move makes it a particular raga. It can have the same basic scale structure but how you move makes it a particular raga.


For example (playing the veena) when I do it, it is Sri (Sriraga). Same notes (playing) this is Madhyamavathi. So you begin to really attribute the movement, the quality of movement to a particular raga. It brings an emotion. And then that is the grammar. So I can’t play Sriraga when I want to play Madhyamavathi.


So when you think about these ragas, ragas will have to have this—kind of oscillation—kind of rhythmic structure in the raga that also determines a raga. Very few people talk about that. It is not simply the movement but also the rhythm in the movement. So all this is part of any music.


For example, when I have film music, it has its own rhythm and has its own range of movement. So in other words, when we scientifically begin to understand then these kinds of distinctions vanish. But when we all say it is classical music, it is classical music in some way. And if we want to really call it, Rama, Krishna and Govinda…What are the common characteristics we all know?


So I began looking at the one, the similarity where they come together. That was my perspective more than how they were different, because being different is not something great because you are already different. The uniqueness is something which you are already. Unless you want to imitate somebody, or somebody has made the same. So we are all unique. So to me, more than the differences, (the question is) what are the characteristics where we can come together. Then we begin to understand the fusion which also has a different meaning. So we may be two different things but where can we come together. That understanding of the two different styles of music can make you boldly attempt some experiments.



M.D.M.: So you mean to say that the melodic structure makes classical music classical music.


K.S.: The structure is there also in folk music. And a structure which is talked about and that has also a written tradition beginning to evolve. So with many folk musicians, now you have a lot of recordings but there is no notation. For instance, when we see that (singing…), then does it make it classical or does it make it folk. (Singing…) That has its basis in Carnatic music or have we borrowed it from folk music? Both can be true. In other words when we begin to question how it is played, then it makes the difference. Without the questioning, it is a congregational music, it is communal music, and you don’t question, you just sing, enjoy. The more and more you do that, then it begins to have a structure. The structure is by increasing acceptance by the whole community. So it is a community thing basically.



M.D.M.: That is the basis for the collaboration in fusion music.


K.S.: Yes, definitely. Because that is why they come here, the jazz musicians come here to learn certain things, because they think they can embellish their music, learning this which is not their jazz. So we can really borrow from each other.



M.D.M.: Teach the rhythm.


 K.S.: Also melody. So I tried to prove this point to the jazz musician who came here. He came to learn the rhythm. Yes, there are numerous rhythms. I can tell you, for example, I don’t need to teach you one rhythm just like that. (playing) Does it make any sense? (playing…) So a dialogue can be a rhythmic one. This is poetry. Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural. So I can teach Thirukkural with this. If they learn this rhythm, there are numerous rhythms here, it is not simply what exists in classical music. Thirukkural, of course we borrow that also in classical music. So to me, classicism is actually borrowed from so many different things and then made into an intelligible or an intellectual work.


So I think all our music and poetry and language, everywhere is enriched with rhythm. Tamil to me is more rhythmic than Sanskrit. Sanskrit can also be rhythmic. The endings for example. So here it brings the Tamil, when they learn Tamil, Tamil brings all the intricacies of a rhythm. All the intricacies. So we have the richness not because 'this is this, and this is this', we are everything. And naturally a musician will have to borrow from everybody. In other words there is nobody who is pure in that respect, we belong to this, we belong to that. It is the way we have gone, it is the way we have grown which makes us classical or whatever.


So it all came from when you were talking about rhythm, yes, they are fascinated by the rhythm. It is so fast. Then when they do is very interesting. So we want to do all this because of the rhythm. When they do that, the tongue becomes a beautiful rhythmic instrument. So they want to learn all this and incorporate it in jazz. So what they are trying to do is to take a varnam for example (singing…) So I can teach a varnam and then give them very interesting different rhythms. By the end they can learn a varnam. So it is not simply rhythm, every aspect of our music has the rhythmic quality.


Even the raga, I can develop a rhythm which will fit. That is a kind of—what I can say—a grid. Rhythm is a kind of a grid which can be made into a song. So what I need to do is to get to the grid of every aspect of music. So rhythm is also music. People think that rhythm is different from music because rhythm is part of a gamaka.



M.D.M.: Western musicians and the jazz musicians—later on when they were introduced by Pandit Ravi Shankar and others to Hindi music, they also introduced basically the konnakol. They were attracted to the konnakol and solkattu as a form, they were fascinated by the rhythmic pattern.


K.S.: It is not just the rhythmic pattern. It is the way you recite it. So konnakol is making your tongue the instrument. Whatever you can play on the drum you can speak. So it is a speaking drum. So in African music, you have got speaking drums. So that is part of speech. Rhythm is part of speech. So the way in which you can interpret the rhythm through the voice is what is konnakol.



M.D.M.: So that is one of the qualities that attracted them the most.


K.S.: Yes. You are right. So what I am trying to open up is not just that, it is also, for example, (how) the varnams are études of the west. And they have all that you need. Varnams, if you learn so many varnams, you can sing very well, you can sing raag alaapana, you can do a lot of things and then it also gives a pattern, a structure of how to do the swarakalpana. Swarakalpana is the manodharmic (improvisational) aspect. Charanam for example, the charanam line and then what they call chittaswara. There are two parts in a varnam, the first is muktai swara, the second is a line and chittaswara, a line and two avartas (cycles) of chittaswara, four avartas. So that is how you really elaborate the manodharma. So it is actually for the manodharmas, swarkalpana. That is the basis. When you go on learning more songs, you may not do that. But when you learn more varnams, you have a better understanding of how to improvise. So the improvisation is very good when they learn varnams. So I have experimented with some jazz musicians. So they are now very fascinated about learning varnams.



M.D.M.: The second conclusion of your thesis is on the gayaki style, as we say in the Indian music traditions—that the instrument imitating the voice is considered to be the greatest achievement—but you are saying in your thesis that it is not necessary that the instrument should be imitating the voice, the human voice, but it should also explore what is possible within the instrument itself.


K.S.: Yes. I see the violin as an instrument from the west, it is not really ours, although we want to prove that it was we who gave it to westerners. We always like that. But the present structure of the violin is from the west. And as a structure and the way in which it is played and everything, all the tools given to play, it is all western. And that has also brought a different skill to our performance. In the same way veena can also be used but it is not used like that, not that much. Some people try to do it, but the veena actually equals the guitar in some respects.


So for example, my grandfather, he is very famous for that (playing…). That is a piece in Sahasranamadhana (singing and playing). So when you do that, you can’t sing like that because they are different notes but they combine very beautifully like a chord. (Playing…) So that is a chord quality. So the veena has the quality of transcending the classical, or whatever you call the tradition. But the veena also has a quality of being very traditional in a good sense. So when we really understand the voice and the instrument veena, I think both can take from each other. That is why my teachings are generally for, I call it, voice and veena. So every veena student has to sing, not as a compulsion, they do sing whether they want it or not. And those who sing, when they understand for example, this (playing…)—these are what you call chromatic notes, one after another.


For example, (playing…) when you do it, it is all really beautiful, you can go on and on, for which the veena frets need to be perfectly fretted. What I try to see in my research is how this can sound perfect in every part of this veena. Now almost no veena would be like that. We mostly play on the first string. And we can use the other strings, but we can use this veena like a guitar—not every veena, because I try to bring this without sacrificing, without bringing what you call the equal tempered intonation in the west. Ours is just intonation. Just intonation is based on harmonics. So I tried to develop a fretting in such a way that it is absolutely beautiful, and still just intonation.


So for example, this ga, in western pitch pipe and all things, this ga will be different. This ga will be actually 15 cents less than the western. So this Ri will be 6 cents less than the normal thing you will have on the western scale.(Playing…) That will be minus seven cents from the western model. So in other words, I try to absolutely perfectly calculate all this and then bring a fretting which the veena makers can’t do. I can’t do it for everybody but I help people if they want to do that. When you start doing this, then your power of listening (increases): the differences between the 12 notes, one note and the other, will be absolutely clear.


I am sure when they sing they have this, but they can’t show it except when we have a veena. So that is why I bring the veena and voice together. So every vocalist should learn the veena not just because it is a tradition, it is because there is so much there in the veena to understand the 12 basic tones. When you understand the 12 basic tones, you will understand the way the gamakas are made. Then you go beyond what is tradition. You can go beyond. Because every music has its own movement. So it is actually the movement from one tone to another in a certain way that makes our classical music classical.


So this way I think there is a greater chance of really transcending our own tradition to where we will have a purely global music coming in the future. I don’t mind if your style changes. If something is better, we will always go for that. And if the tradition has to change, it will change whether you want it or not. It is not as though a Todi is sung the way Todi was sung 50 years ago. I can prove that. And Todi has more lustre and people have brought more body to it—the way in which it should be sung, it should not be sung, all discussed in the academies—all these have added to the richness of the whole. In other words, changes will have to happen. It will happen whether you want it or not.


And the tradition, when you talk about the tradition, the tradition is good as long as it doesn’t restrict your talent and originality. And for example, you will be surprised, my grandfather (playing…)… this is what he composed. This sounds like a band music from those days—a marriage band. That is how the band music, western music came. He must have enjoyed it. He is considered to be a very puristic person but how did he like that, he played this in a concert. It is not classical music. How did he do that? Why did he do that? That is the question.


So in other words, there is an inner urge, a curiosity. Curiosity is very important for anyone. Without curiosity you can’t live. You have to have that curiosity. And that curiosity cannot be stopped, 'You can’t have this because it is not right. You can’t do that. I don’t think it is right.' See, in spite of all my understanding, I will play Todi exactly the way Todi is. I can play varnam exactly the way the classical singers sing. I would say that with this understanding and this freedom, you can preserve your tradition much better than without knowing it. So the understanding of all this makes one more traditional in a way. That is what according to me, T.S. Eliot talks about—changing the past. The present will change the past. The whole perception will be different.


And if I am going to say, I am going to interpret Dikshitar from Sangeet Sampradaya Pradarshini, then we can do that. Anybody can do it. But is it what he conceived? Is it from that paper? It is okay, it is one interpretation, it is fine. So in other words, there is nothing wrong in doing that. But at the same time, that is not sacrosanct either. That is my point of view.


So music to me is music as long as you are excited about it. As long as it affects you positively. To me the negative thing, which music does not have, is there in a kind of a rock music. They say the rock music vibrations even surpass the jet vibrations. In Canada they did a study. So that is detrimental to people—the vibrations.


So as long as music vibrations have a certain limit, it is salubrious for the human beings, the mind, the body. And it also excites the body and if you go to drugs, that also is capable of doing this. Just like good and bad human beings; music also has that quality. So in other words, to me what is important in music is to go to the quality of music, how well it is played. You will be able to enjoy more by losing prejudices, for which a scientific base of understanding music is very important.