They grow up far from Chennai, the Carnatic homeland, but their passion for Carnatic music can put the best of Chennai-bred music students to shame. They don’t have as many listening, learning or performance opportunities as in Chennai, yet they become musicians to reckon with — performing alongside the crème de la crème of Chennai’s music scene.
What is it like to learn and perform Carnatic music as a second-generation immigrant? I find out from two talented vocalists, Vidya Kausik (a disciple of Smt. Bala Narasimhan in Toronto and Smt. D.K. Pattammal and Calcutta Shri K.S. Krishnamurthy in Chennai) and Manasa Suresh (a disciple of her mother Smt. Anu Suresh in the US and Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy in Chennai).
A traditional upbringing
Vidya was born in Toronto, where she spent her almost the first twenty years of her life, before moving to Chennai briefly and then to North America. “The way I was brought up, growing up in Toronto was probably very similar to growing up in India, in terms of exposure to the traditional arts and culture. Amongst our group of friends, pursuing the classical arts was highly encouraged and there were many opportunities to learn classical music and dance. Almost every weekend was spent either at the temple, at a concert, at a bhajan or at a music/dance rehearsal for an upcoming programme,” she says.
WatchVidya perform at the Murugan Temple of North America:
Manasa is from the Bay Area in the US. “The Bay Area is an amazing place to be,” she says, “specifically with regard to exposure to the classical arts. There are so many music schools and organisations that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and incentives to perform.”
Perhaps, I ask, being away from India makes NRIs invest more time and effort in learning Indian art? “For the most part, yes. Of course, this is not always the case, but I feel that NRIs tend to lean toward the classical arts because it is a way to preserve their heritage in a foreign culture,” Vidya says. Manasa thinks it’s a matter of individual interest. “Many first-generation immigrants seem to do so, since they often feel the effects of cultural loss after moving away from their homeland and want to hold on tightly. On the other hand, those of us who grow up here initially pursue Indian art forms mostly because of our parents’ insistence. Naturally developing an interest or a taste towards Indian art at a later stage depends on the person, and does not necessarily have to do with being away from India.”
Watch Manasa perform at the Brindavani Youth Carnatic Music Festival, New Jersey:
A ‘sound’ foundation
Both Vidya and Manasa had the good fortune of having a solid foundation laid by their first music teachers. Vidya, who is also a Bharatanatyam dancer, started learning music at the age of five from Smt. Bhuma Krishnan. At the age of seven she came under the tutelage of Smt. Bala Narasimhan (‘Bala mami’ to her many students and friends) and continues to receive guidance from her even today.
Manasa started learning from her mother when she was four years old. “Truth be told, classes were not always the easiest, given the complexity of the mother–guru dynamic! I was a very naughty student and would take the smallest opportunity to run away from class and play,” she chuckles. “My mother had a lot of patience with me, and I owe so much to her for having guided me so carefully during my early years. Additionally, listening to my mother teach other music classes in the evenings gave me early exposure to the arts. At that point, our music school had many other types of music instrumental/percussion classes, and I also had the opportunity to playfully experiment with these and widen my musical horizons. Watching other students learn and practise showed me what worked and what didn’t, and has had a large impact on my approach to music and practice.”
Vidya and Manasa both also had the opportunity to learn from musicians visiting from India, and agree that it has contributed to their musical growth. “I was very fortunate to attend a workshop by maestro Lalgudi Shri G. Jayaraman in Toronto when I was about thirteen or fourteen,” Vidya recollects. “He taught me and a group of peers two of his compositions, the Bowli varnam and Mand tillana. It was a wonderful experience to learn from him. He made compositions literally come alive with his vivid descriptions of sangatis and the intonations that we should use when executing them. For example, he captured the essence of a particular sangati in the Mand tillana by likening the descending swara pattern to a falling leaf, which will not immediately fall to the ground, but rather sway side to side before it hits the earth.”
Manasa’s mother has encouraged her to learn from other teachers so that she could be exposed to the finer aspects of performance and improvisational techniques from artists who actively perform. “At different points, I had the opportunity to learn from various artists including Ms Devi Neithiyar, Shri K.N. Shashikiran and Smt. Sowmya. I also participated in the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival’s Sustaining Sampradaya initiative for a few years, and was able to learn select pieces from various senior teachers from India. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to learn the veena from Shri Srikanth Chary, which has had a large impact on my overall musical approach.”
Both Vidya and Manasa eventually started learning from veteran gurus in Chennai. “I was extremely fortunate to eventually come under the guidance of Shri P.S. Narayanaswamy, and have been learning with him for eight years now,” Manasa says. “I also learn from Kunnakudi Shri Balamuralikrishna, one of PSN sir’s senior disciples.”
Vidya moved to Chennai for a year initially and learnt from Smt. D.K. Pattammal, and then later for about four years. “The first time we came to Chennai for an extended period of time, I was fifteen years old and about to enter the tenth grade,” Vidya says. “My mother had always wanted to move back to Chennai to be closer to family, so my parents thought that we should have a trial year to see how we adapt. Once we arrived in Chennai, I joined the St. John’s School in Besant Nagar. Little did I know that being a CBSE school, I had to take a tenth standard board examination! Hence, apart from intense music classes with Pattamal Mami, I went to rigourous tuition sessions to help prepare for the board examinations!”
Was the training abroad inadequate? “Far from it.” Vidya is emphatic in her response. “In fact, it was the strong foundation that my guru in Toronto, Bala Mami, gave me that paved the way for me to be able to receive advanced training from such esteemed gurus in Chennai. Mami, who resides now in Ottawa, Canada, is an ardent follower of the Pattamal/Jayaraman school, so many of the kritis that I learnt as a child were taught to me in their style. In fact, it was Mami who suggested that I approach Pattamal Mami for further training.”
“It was Bala Mami who introduced me to KSK Mama also,” she continues. “KSK Mama and Bala Mami had had a long association, having both lived in Calcutta for some time. Bala Mami also had the opportunity to learn a few songs from him. I began learning from him in the summer of 1995 and then again from 1996 until he became ill and passed away in 1999. He was like a grandfather to me and treated me with immense care and affection. I will never forget the two months I spent with him and his wife Parvathi Mami in Ooty. Some days we would have class for hours on end! One of my most vivid memories of KSK Mama was during his last days, when he was in the hospital. ‘Mokshamugalada’ was the last song he had taught me, so I began to sing it to him while holding his hand. I made an error in one of the sangatis, and even in his condition he squeezed my hand to let me know that he was listening with full attention and that I should correct that sangati!”
For Manasa, trips to Chennai were initially over summer to learn and occasionally during December. But for the past 5–6 years she has been in Chennai twice each year — learning over the summer and performing during December. How has being in Chennai impacted her music, I want to know. “One of the major points was that, for a concrete period of time, I didn’t have to balance music with academics or work,” Manasa says. “Being able to focus solely on music helped me work on many improvements and changes that I needed to make musically, but did not have the time or mindspace to implement while home in the US. I also had the opportunity to attend concerts almost daily, and to listen to and interact with India-based musicians. Most importantly, I was able to learn from PSN mama continuously rather than for just a few weeks in the summer. This helped me tremendously in increasing my repertoire as well as imbibing his feedback and suggestions in my perspectives on manodharmam. I am greatly indebted to him, his family, and his other students and their families, who were so gracious and affectionate during my stay in India and made sure that I never felt like I was away from home.” For Vidya, in addition to learning from stalwarts like DKP and KSK, being in Chennai meant having the opportunity to listen to many concerts, take part in competitions and perform in different sabhas.
Cleveland, the new Chennai
Both Manasa and Vidya talk about how the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival has contributed to the growth of Carnatic music in the US over the years. Besides providing opportunities to learn and perform, the Festival has connected Manasa with other young people who are similarly passionate about Carnatic music. “My musical peer group in the US is quite large, and most of my close friends are a part of this circle as well,” Manasa says. “In this regard, I am extremely thankful to the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival and Sundaram mama for providing us with opportunities to meet, perform, compete and socialise. I am quite sure that without the social incentives involved, I would not have pursued music so seriously when younger, though I have grown to love it with time and age. Most of us are spread throughout the US now, studying at various colleges or working in various cities, so jam sessions are not very frequent. However, we share musical thoughts and recordings on a daily basis, via whatsapp, Facebook and other modes of social media. In many ways, I am truly lucky to have such amazing peers and owe a lot to their constant support over the years, both musically and personally.”
“The scene has definitely changed compared to when I was growing up,” Vidya says. “All you have to do is take a look at the Cleveland Aradhana to see the growth! When I used to attend the Cleveland Festival in the early 1990s, the competition was very small, with just a few participants and categories. To see the number of children participating now with such an incredibly high standard is absolutely mindblowing!”
There are more people taking to Carnatic music than before, she says. “I feel that one of the reasons is that Carnatic music has become so accessible. If you cannot find a teacher in your area, you can learn on Skype or even by watching YouTube videos. There are plenty of concert videos and lecture demonstrations available online and television shows based solely on Carnatic music. Also, different organisations both in India and abroad are reaching out to youngsters and students of Carnatic music and giving them a platform to showcase their talents.”
Vidya now teaches music in Baltimore, where she lives with her husband and three young daughters. Manasa goes to graduate school in the US and pursues music alongside. “I’m quite happy with the study–life balance that I am able to find,” she smiles. Having evolved into respectable musicians and living as they do in North America, it definitely seems like Vidya and Manasa have the best of both worlds.