As the anchor of a TV show on young musicians, I have had the opportunity to interact with hundreds of parents over the years. Every week at the shoot, a bunch of very tense parents would watch nervously from the sides, adjust their children’s clothes and jewellery, give them bottled water between songs, reel out instructions (‘keep the kalapramanam tight’, ‘remember to smile for the camera’, etc.) and deliver pep talks — while their children, the incredibly talented musicians that they were, would take the stage nonchalantly and perform like it was what they were born to do!
Watching the parents of child musicians, it has struck me many times how crucial their role is in making musicians out of their very talented children. In this article, I break down the role of parents into six stages, with fascinating insights from the fathers of two of the most promising Carnatic child musicians of our times — Shri T. Krishnababu, father of Keyboard Sathyanarayanan, and Shri V. Shrinivasan, grandson of Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi and father of vocalist S. Aishwarya.
Stage 1: Creating a musical atmosphere
It has been proven that babies can hear while they are still in the womb; both the ear and the part of the brain that helps in hearing are formed by around 23 weeks’ gestation. Research has also shown that newborn babies remember tunes they heard when they were in the mother’s womb for as many as four months. So a child musician’s exposure to music may actually begin well before birth!
Shrinivasan agrees. “Our home was always full of music. So when my wife Geetha was carrying Aishwarya, there used to be a lot of music practice sessions, with grandmother Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi (Ammu Paati), my mother Smt. Radha Viswanathan, Vijaya Chitti and Shri Kadayanallur Venkataraman singing many compositions, even though there were not many concerts. Also there were some North Indian students of my mother who used to learn Meera Bhajans exclusively from her.”
Krishnababu has some fascinating reminiscences. “Sathya’s mother, Lalitha (sister of violinist Embar Kannan), who sings for films, did recordings until nearly 3 or 4 days before she gave birth to him. In particular, she had sung the title song for a tele-serial titled Manidhakadhal and, when this was broadcast after Sathya was born, he would react to this particular song! Also, at around 6 am every morning when she was pregnant, she would listen to the songs that were telecast on Vijay TV those days — Malarodu Malaraga on the Mother of Pondicherry, Dolayam and Sriman Narayana. Sathya, as a toddler, would wake his grandmother up and ensured she switched the TV on to listen to these songs early in the morning!”
Stage 2: Identifying the child’s interest in music, then a good guru
When Sathya was 2.5 years old, he played the “Happy birthday” tune by himself on a small Casio keyboard that his father’s friend Smt. Jayashree Manikandan had gifted him from the US! That was when his parents realised the boy’s talent. “So we approached a violin artiste Mr Vidyadar, who lived nearby and was in maestro Ilayaraja’s orchestra; he was also a friend of Sathya’s mother as she was in that unit. When he saw Sathya play what he taught almost spontaneously, he asked us to take Sathya to Smt. Masilamani, a piano tutor. Smt. Masilamani was reluctant to accept a 4 year old as student, but changed her mind when he played a few songs. She also made him appear for the initial level practical grade examination on piano conducted by Trinity College, London. Thus we found his first music teacher,” Sathya’s father says.
“When he was 6 and a half years old, his mother Lalitha sang Enna Thavam Seidanai Yasodha, and Sathya reproduced it perfectly on the keyboard. That’s when we knew he had the ability to notate and play everything he heard. It had happened earlier on a train journey to Hyderabad, when he reproduced on the keyboard songs that fellow passengers sang during the journey — but we thought then that it was by ‘chance’!
Sathya’s initiation to Carnatic music was through his maternal grandfather Shri Sangeetha Bhushanam Embar S. Sadagopan. Little Sathya was fond of speeding trains so his grandfather would take him on his bicycle to a nearby railway crossing, all the while singing raga phrases. Sathya would then have to identify the raga when they returned, while his grandfather would repeat all the phrases. Sathya also loved to attend his uncle Embar Kannan’s concerts.
Sathya has also had the great blessing of learning from Shri Mandolin Shrinivas, Dr A. Kanyakumari (who taught him to explore gamakas on the keyboard) as well as the legend Dr M. Balamuralikrishna.”
Aishwarya’s father Shrinivasan says she began showing signs of interest in music when she was about a year old. “She would keep playing with the manual shruti box and try to match her voice with the Shadjamam note. As she grew up I taught her to sing the Dakshinamurthy shlokam “Om Namah Pranavarthaya” sung by Ammu paati and Amma before every kutcheri. I used to be amazed at how perfectly she sang in shruti!”
“On the evening of 19th October 1999, Vijayadashami day, Aishwarya was initiated formally into Carnatic music by Ammu paati and Amma. The first song Aishwarya learnt from them was the Tiruppugazh Naadha Vindhu Kalaadhi Namo Namah by Arunagirinathar. Much later in the year 2003, I remember Ammu paati telling Aishwarya the importance of akaram practice and demonstrating how one should practise jantai akarams on a daily basis. Till date Amma continues to teach Aishwarya with immense passion to ensure that the MSS patantharam is kept intact.
Towards the end of the year 2000, Amma spoke to Smt. Suguna Purushothaman, who directed Aishwarya to her disciple Sharanya Krishnan who was to be Aishwarya’s guru for almost two years. Sharanya gave Aishwarya an excellent foundation in the basics up to geethams.
By 1999, a change in my job had taken me to Bengaluru and in June 2002, Geetha and Aishwarya moved in with me. Even though Aishwarya used to travel on weekends to Chennai to learn from Amma, I was extremely worried about finding a good music teacher as we lived far away from the city, close to Bannerghatta National Park. It was by a stroke of luck that in October 2002, I came to know that vidushi Smt. Jambu Kannan, a close friend of Amma, taught 2 days a week at Arekere, which was quite close to my place. The distance was 5 km one way but in those days there was not much traffic in Bengaluru! Today, even after 13 years, Smt. Jambu Kannan continues to teach and inspire Aishwarya and like a skilled sculptor she has shaped Aishwarya musically into what she is today.
In February 2005, on Poornima day, Aishwarya began learning the veena from Shri A. Shankar Raman, a disciple of Smt Rajeshwari Padmanabhan of the illustrious Kaaraikudi bani. This was in keeping with the tradition of my grandmother who herself was a vainika. Learning the veena has helped to greatly complement Aishwarya’s vocal music.
In May 2014, Aishwarya started her training in Hindustani vocal music from Pandit Nagaraj Rao Havaldar and his son Shri Omkarnath Havaldar of the Kirana gharana. My grandmother and mother too learnt Hindustani music from great maestros like Smt. Siddheswari Devi, Shri Dilip Kumar Roy and Shri P.S. Srinivasa Rao.
I am thankful to all her gurus for showering their knowledge and kindness on their disciple.”
Stage 3: Ensuring the child practices regularly
“Sathya had the habit of playing with the small keyboard like a toy, so after joining classes he started practising the keyboard every day on his own,” Sathya’s father recollects.
Aishwarya’s father tells me an incident from when she was 12 years old. “I once told her that in the song Bhavayami Gopalabalam (Yamuna Kalyani) she should practice the briga after the line Chatulanatana one thousand times as it didn’t sound perfect. She took my words literally and practised it a thousand times!”
“It is extremely important that what you learn from your guru is perfected before the next class. I do not make any compromises on that count and make my displeasure known if Aishwarya has not practised. I remember one occasion when Aishwarya was in her 2nd standard and had not practised her music lessons of the previous day and immediately after school she had her music class. She would have cut a sorry figure in front of her guru. So I insisted that she take leave from school that day and practise her music at home. In that sense, I may be a terrible example for other parents to follow, but that was the level of importance we gave to music.
I make a timetable for her practice and review it periodically. I go to minute details, like asking her to explore a certain ragam in the lower octave or practise a particular briga many more times. Listening to music also forms part of her music practice.
During her initial years I used to sit with her for hours together after coming back from work and make her practise various akarams and challenge her to keep increasing her speed without compromising on the clarity of the swarasthana. She would also come to me when she could not reproduce difficult sangathis. I would break the sangathi down into simpler parts and once she was comfortable with each part, I would ask her to sing all the parts combined and she would be delighted that she had succeeded! I remember telling her to spend time usefully in the school bus by doing her tala exercises during the journey! Incidentally, Aishwarya is ambidextrous and from a very young age could maintain two different talas (one on each hand) at the same time. Similarly, she can write clearly and legibly with both hands.”
Stage 4: Creating performance opportunities and publicity when the child is concert-ready
“Aishwarya began performing when she was 11 years old along with my mother Smt. Radha Viswanathan, to whom I am deeply indebted for coming out of her forced retirement due to health issues to hand-hold her granddaughter on the concert stage for a few years. This gave Aishwarya the much-needed exposure, as she was performing with someone who was a legend in her own right. In one such concert of the grandmother–granddaughter duo, Cleveland Shri Sundaram dropped in and was so delighted that he arranged a concert in Cleveland in the year 2010. That was an unforgettable experience for Aishwarya — to perform with her grandmother on a big stage at a young age.
With regard to publicity, YouTube and other social media give one an outreach wider than can be imagined. There have been instances wherein organisers have called us after seeing her kutcheris on the Internet. Similarly, there have been many occasions when, moved by her performance, people have immediately arranged other concerts. So the best publicity is in fact the quality of the music itself. Aishwarya too is conscious of this. However, she is still young and needs a balance between music practice and concerts; so except during the December/January season, she sings an average of two concerts a month.”
For Sathya’s parents, the task involved convincing people that Carnatic music could be played without compromises on the keyboard! “Listening to Carnatic music on a Western Instrument was strange but definitely interesting, so I persuaded his mom to keep singing new songs and made him play them,” Sathya’s father says. “My father-in-law, in spite of being a traditional vocalist and teacher, approached Shri Srinivasan, Secretary of Nadopasana, for an opportunity. Without even listening to Sathya, Shri Srinivasan offered him a 30-minute slot, because of his respect for my father-in-law’s experience and expertise! He asked me to make a small pamphlet that he distributed to all sabha members. The concert happened on 9th December 2001. Thus started Sathya’s journey in the Carnatic music concert arena, and it was almost a houseful event. Concert opportunities started coming through people who attended that concert; so referrals were the main publicity he had. Many mediapersons also published information on him.
Sathya went on a concert tour to South Africa in 2003. It was a turning point in his career and happened through the recommendation of one of his admirers Mr Paneerselvam to Ms Vasantha Naidoo, Deputy Director Indian Academy, Durban.
Mr Dinesh Naidoo, SA, who was also impressed by Sathya’s talent decided to make an album when Sathya was just 8; it received a lot of media attention, and that in turn led to more publicity.”
Stage 5: Helping the child have a normal childhood
“Probably because of his early exposure to performances, Sathya has always had the ability to handle academics well. He would always be the first student in his class to finish all activities. His school was very appreciative of his capabilities, letting him skip a few 8th standard year-end exams when he had to visit USA for concerts. He is currently in the final year of his BSc Visual Communications course and continues to be a topper.
During his trips to other Indian cities and abroad, his fellow artists — usually much senior to him — treated him like a child off the stage, and played games, cricket, etc. with him!” Sathya’s father says.
Not surprisingly, Aishwarya’s father says that her life revolves around music. “Aishwarya is very clear that music is her life. She is doing her Bachelor of Arts from the Karnataka State Open University through correspondence. This means she has a lot of flexibility in her time management. Her day is tightly packed with music sessions with her grandmother and gurus. She also spends time in training her sister, Saundarya. She listens to concerts of yesteryear stalwarts. To that extent she does miss out on the “normal” life with friends she would have had if she had studied in a day college. However she does enjoy the occasional trip to the mall and movies with her friends from school. On the academic front she will, after her degree, continue her higher studies in music.”
Stage 6: Insulating the child from reviews, but ensuring continuous improvement
“Fortunately for us, we haven’t had to deal with many negative reviews other than those dealing with his choice of instrument! But,” Krishnababu puts it very simply, “Sathya has been in love with the keyboard since he was 2.5 years old, so he has an unshakeable, intimate connection with it.
We always record his performances and play them back so he can evaluate and review his own performances. We help him identify songs to expand his repertoire, make him play thematic concerts and also listen to other musicians’ concerts and learn from them.”
“A review is essentially a feedback. Any feedback is always welcome,” Aishwarya’s father says. “My advice to Aishwarya has always been to focus on the fundamentals of good music irrespective of positive or negative reviews. Hard work and talent speak for themselves. Though still young and with age on her side, she is mature enough to understand whether the feedback is constructive or not and in case of the latter she ignores it.
To ensure continuous improvement, the key word is ‘learning’. Keep an open mind. With a slight twist to what the Rig Veda says, I say ‘Let musical thoughts flow to us from all sides’. When there is a flow, there can be no stagnation!”
As I wind up, I ask these pita’maha’s of Carnatic music if there are other ways they have contributed to their children’s lives and careers. “Yes, by teaching her the good values of life, and that there is a life beyond music too,” Aishwarya’s father says. “So when Aishwarya takes care of my mother who is completely wheelchair dependent, I tell her that it will stand her in good stead later in life. Ultimately there will come a time when Aishwarya’s music will reflect the life she lives. But more than me, my wife Geetha has been a big support for Aishwarya and my other daughter Saundarya, including taking them to school, making them concentrate on their academics and their music/dance classes and driving them long distances in Bengaluru’s traffic!”
“It was our dream to get Sathya perform on All India Radio (AIR) but we were shocked when we learnt that the keyboard was not recognised as a lead instrument,” Sathya’s father says. “Also, one needed to complete 16 years of age to apply for a grade. But with the help of Sathya’s guru Dr Balamuralikrishna and the then Information and Broadcasting Minister for State Shri Jagadhrakshagan, keyboard was admitted as a lead instrument on AIR and Sathya was allowed to appear for audition as an exception at the age of 15. He passed the audition for B grade and graduated to become a A grade artist at the age of 19. He is also is a B grade harmonium artist with AIR.
We also have a forum, KBS Inculcation, in which I am the coordinator and Lalitha is the tutor, wherein we guide people to present their Carnatic music thoughts through the keyboard, in Sathya’s style.”
But it is his final words that have the most impact on me. “When Sathya got the opportunity to tour South Africa at the age of 8, I had to choose between the career I had built for myself in the travel industry and the prospective, not yet assured, music career of my child. I chose the latter. My wife and child supported me, and we decided to scale down our style of living and started re-building our lives from scratch. We are thankful to the Almighty for the way our lives have panned out since then.”
To all parents of child musicians like Sathya and Aishwarya who think nothing of making huge sacrifices or giving up their own careers for their children’s, I have only one thing to say — Carnatic music is deeply indebted to you. May your tribe increase!