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Conversation Between Two Classmates

Guest : Dr.SAK Durga & Padma Subrahmanyam

Dr SAK Durga is a well-known musicologist with two PhDs to her credit. Dr Padma Subrahmanyam is a dancer and teacher who is also a well-respected research scholar. They got together to talk about their days as post-graduate students in music at Madras University. Jayalakshmi Sekhar and V V Chellappa listened in on their conversation.

Dr SAK Durga : I read your interview of Smt. Vidya Shankar and found it to be very good.

V.V.Chellappa : We play a small part. It is the words of the interviewee that makes the difference between an interview being good or mediocre.

Dr SAK Durga : Paddu and I were classmates in the MA course in Music at Madras University. We always used to find seats to sit together in class; we were so close. We used to have such fun, gossip all along, while sitting in class learning music. This was in 1965 when we completed our degree course. Nowadays we have to be formal with each other in public.

Padma Subrahmanyam : f we say ‘vaango pongo‘ and pretend to be formal with each other, the charm of our long-standing friendship and camaraderie will be lost. So let us talk like the good friends that we are and let others worryabout how to write up this conversation!
Those were golden days. Prof Viswanathan was incredible. The more we listened to him talk about music the more we wanted to attend his classes. We had so much admiration for him. I feel that if one has a lot of knowledge, then respect will be given automatically. We don’t have to go looking for it,nor order students to stand as a mark of respect when the teacher passes by, etc.
Prof Viswanathan was strict and at the same time very kind too. Even while we waited for our transport to return home after our classes, he would not allow us to wait outside but used to make us wait inside the buildingfor our safety till the car came and he would be around too. There was a personal touch in everything he did. If he taught usa particular phrase, he would wait till all of us got every last little detail right.

Dr SAK Durga : He taught us padams such as Kuvalayaakshi, Payyada; and some Syama Sastri Kritis too which we will never ever forget. If teachers were more dedicated today, students would learn better and also won’t go on strike so often. There would be no question of students disrespecting their teachers. There was Dr S Sita too who was extraordinary in music theory. When we say that we don’t know something quite well, Viswa Sir would say, ‘If you know that you do not knowsomething, that itself is a big thing. It is better than pretending that you know and carrying on in error.’ Then he would take more pains to make sure that we got that sangathi or that phrase of the alapanai right.

Jayalakshmi Sekhar : Once he knows that a student is weak but the student doesn’t recognize his weakness, how would he teach that student?

Dr SAK Durga : He would advise to practice repeatedly, listen carefully and many times, etc. and the students benefited by this advice. Such dedication in a teacher is hard to come by these days and we have not come across many teachers like him to this date. That is how he could train a foreigner John Higgins so well in Carnatic music.

Padma Subrahmanyam : We used to be in the same class too. He would teach us how to sing pallavis also.

Dr SAK Durga : When we needed some songs of a particular composer, usually for some performance or program, he would oblige us and teach those too. It may not be in the course syllabus but that didn’t matter to him. When he needed to play somewhere any particular song, he would tell us that he was going to teach us that song so that he could perform better. He was that open with his students. He didn’t mind showing that sometimes he didn’t know something either.

Padma Subrahmanyam : That is how sweet a person he was.

Dr SAK Durga : In teaching there is lot of giving and learning. It was all so enjoyable. We did our MA (Music) in Stella Maris College.

Padma Subrahmanyam : There used to be inter-collegiate university classes. It was only half an hour of classroom session a day at Stella Maris.

Dr SAK Durga : We spent a lot of time at the Woodlands Drive-In restaurant. Balu Anna (S. Balakrishnan, brother of Padma) would come and take us there. They used to make fun of us eating ‘thayir vadai’and ‘basundhi’ all the time. We went our separate ways after the MA program. Paddu took up a PhD in dance and I did my PhD in music. We used to meet at seminars or some common classes. And it was back to our college days;we were like kids!

Padma Subrahmanyam : I have to say we have experienced the best and so cannot accept or tolerate mediocrity anymore. I won’t say anything if something in dance or music is not good; I will keep quiet and won’t really give my opinion but I do not know how to say words of appreciation about sub-par performances just to be polite. I would say that only those who can sing well, will dance well. Dancers should learn how to sing.I sill remember how Balasaraswati would sing and dance.. I will never forget that all my life. I think music is the mother of dance. It is the most essential thing for dance. If this generation wants to be serious dancers, they should learn how to sing.

Dr SAK Durga : I met Bala Amma in the US at the Wesleyan University. We became close. She would ask me to see her in the evenings as we lived close to each other. She would do padams and sing the words. Simply dressed and with absolutely no makeup she would even dance to English-worded music. I learnt music and cooking too from her; I had not learnt how to cook when I went to US. They had bought all the provisions, etc for me. Then I had to admit I didn’t know how to cook, so Bala Amma would send food for me and taught me how to survive – she taught me how to live life there. She was just divine. ‘Learn how to survive,’ she would say, teaching me to make tomato rasam and brinjal curry.

Padma Subrahmanyam : here is some rare information about Bala Amma which I have never disclosed to anyone before. My brother Chandru, who is now a ‘big shot’ in Canada -- at present President of Asian TV network -- when he got married, I was making the flowers for the bride’s hair for the reception. I had gone to the flower bazaar and wasbuying the flowers I thought would be appropriate. As I was standing there, Bala Amma passed by. She asked what I was doing there and when I said I was buying flowers for the wedding reception, she came along with me to buy the flowers, chose everything I needed and insisted on tying the flowers, sitting on a stool right in the flower bazaar. I can never forget that kind act.

Dr SAK Durga : She was very spiritual. She was so simple, a simple black sari and white blouse was all she would wear when she would dance for the University students and faculty. She never said anything ill about anyone -- even if they were no good. We never knew what she was thinking as she was silent and never commented but if they were good, she would praise them. If anyone has to be mentioned as promoters of music and dance in a big way, they were Bala and Viswa; no doubt about that. They have trained so many foreigners as musicians and dancers.

Padma Subrahmanyam : Even now they have that atmosphere in Wesleyan that they created.

Dr SAK Durga : Only lately people in the US have come to know about Carnatic music. Everyone knew of the existence of the music and dance of North India. They think in many places that Hindustani music is the only Indian music. When Viswa moved to the US East Coast, they set up a school, which taught the Dhanammal style of music. There was somecriticism about that but, in my opinion, the Dhanammal style is a good bani so there is no harm if it ends up as a predominant style in the US East Coast. Ramnad Krishnan’s coming to Wesleyan University too was due to Viswa.

Padma Subrahmanyam : I was in Wesleyan to perform my dance program on Bhagavad Gita. He was so moved, so moved. Lakshmi sat and watched it too, inspite of being very ill. She said she would come in for ten minutes but stayed till the end. She was crying that she had seen Krishna himself and needed nothing else in life anymore. I will never forget the blessings I got from him. He was terminally ill at that time. Durga and I have great respect for another one of our gurus – Dr M Balamuralikrishna. His way of voice culture was excellent.

Dr SAK Durga : Actually, it was Prof Viswa who suggested that I take up the topic of voice culture for my research study. There was this notion that Carnatic musicians had no voice. Viswa said people were saying the same thing 30 years earlier too. It is not that it had deteriorated, he would say.He suggested we could try the scientific method and suggested I study Western techniques of voice training and not merely practicing “sa ri ga ….”.
I studied human anatomy. I went to doctors and studied Cunningham’s and Grey’s anatomy, etc. He would say that without knowing the background one should not venture into voice culture and so suggested that I study physiology.Getting a diploma as proof of acquisition of knowledge was important to the western world, he would say. He added, “If your voice is good, they will listen to you but will question how it is that without a good voice one would do voice culture?” If anyone asked me that, I was supposed to say that if one had a natural voice, then we would do voice culture with it and cultivate the voice.
Many opera singers would come to him too when he was in Chennai; that was the beauty of Viswa’s teaching. someone would tell me about it and and I would meet them to train and get involved in discussions too. Even before he went to the West, people would seek him out and do this.
Nowadays teachers do not like students going to other teachers for anything for fear that the students might think their teachers do not know much. He was different. He would encourage us to go get knowledge from others too and ask what it was that we acquired etc. He was really committed that way.
Balamuralikrishna was great too. I learnt music from him too.He and Viswa belonged to two different schools of music. When I went toBalamurali sir, I would sing the way he would want and differently in Viswasir’s class. Songs like Payyada, I would sing the way Viswa would render them and Brahma kadigina padhamu from Balamurali sir.

Padma Subrahmanyam : Likewise I belong to the Vazhuvur style of dancing originally and did my arangetram through his school only.
For research purposes I collected all adavus from different schools (paddhathi). Though there are more than 100 adavus, no one teaches more than 70. Everyone those days learnt only by rote so many of the adavus were not preserved.I learnt all the adavus of Dhandayudhapani sir and Kuppaya Pillai who was already about 90 years old then from whom I learnt all Tanjavur style adavus .
If I rehearsed a Vazhuvur style piece, I would dance the way he wanted it. If I was dancing in front of Dhandayudhapani sir, I would dance the way he would want me to. Now I am doing an amalgamation – collected all thestyles and put it under one umbrella, classifying each adavu. I have also prepared my students that way and prepared a pedagogy for my students because both are relevant. We can’t leave one for another.

Jayalakshmi Sekhar : How then would you know how to create a balance?

Padma Subrahmanyam : That’s not difficult – for instance there is a variety of ‘tha thai tha tha’ slike you have in gamakas. No one actually does the everyone of the ‘Dasa vidha gamakas’ fully. If we collected all the gamakas that people did and sang it in the same song, how will it be? One has to use them correctly but should know all of them. Similarly, my body was trained in such a way, it can manage any step.

Jayalakshmi Sekhar : When will you know which step is to be used?

Padma Subrahmanyam : When I choreograph a dance number, I will teach it to all my students so it is established for that particular dance. If there are 4 Tha Thai Tha Tha in one style, I will add in another 4 and teach them 8. There is no question ofmixing anything up as it is an amalgamation as I said earlier. This is the first thing I did with regard to research.

Dr SAK Durga : I find voice production used differently in different pieces or kritis. It is just like Padma trains her body so well; the voice has to be trained to be flexible. For padams we use the voice differently and for Tyagaraja’s divyanama kritis, Purandara Dasa or Annamacharya pieces in a different manner too. In Hindustani music it is known as Talim. So for Tumri the Talim is different and for Tharana the Talim is different. Unfortunately we do not train that way in the South. There is no differenceand everything seems the same. Those who perform should cultivate an identity and it has to retain the aesthetic beauty too.

Padma Subrahmanyam : That’s the reason when Shyamala Balakrishnan sang for me, everyone said we were ‘made for each other’…we used to fit so well together, for each gamaka she rendered , it was like my dance was made for that. I gave her full freedom. It i an art by itself. Nowadays they are singing niraval for dance too. They can do so, but not like they do in a musicconcert. Then it will never match. I see a lot of that in the younger generation where they want to show off their talent and knowledge.
It has to be spontaneous too … not prepare a bit at home and come to the stage and give out everything. That goes for both dance and music.

Dr SAK Durga : That’s what I think creativity is. Nowadays, CDs have become gurus and creativity is lost..

Padma Subrahmanyam : “Guru brahma, Guru Vishnu,Guru video namo namaha” is what I call it. They view a video of a dance and copy the whole thing.

Jayalakshmi Sekhar : When students come for a short stay, teachers do give out the videos for a hefty fee….

Padma Subrahmanyam : Yes, a lot of them especially those from abroad have lots of problems, language problem, etc etc. In fact, because they come only to learn the art, they are willing to work 24 hours a day and are very dedicated. Notation is only a guide for music and for dancers the videotapes are just a guide. My research guide was Padmabhushan Dr TN Ramachandran, a walking encyclopedia. I studied under him for 12 years. If I took down notes, he would scold me, saying if I wrote notes, I will not remember and it should be absorbed bylistening and memorizing. Nowadays it is not the same; no one has the time too to learn this way.

Dr SAK Durga : We had no notation either. Gurus used to just teach us one part of a song and one of my gurus used to say that if a student wrote things down, they wont get music and only learn hand writing. Nowadays, musicians learn from recordings of several artistes and so they sound like different musicians in different parts. Viswa sir used to arrange concerts in the University for us students to listen. We could listen and absorb many details. And we were questioned the next day. Nowadays there are lots of artistes, but not enough depth. Just watch how they raise their hand if they go to the higher octave. Even if the voice does not reach,the hand does.
We do not know why all the irrelevant, unnecessary things are absorbed faster by students.

Padma Subrahmanyam : There is so much talent but it is not channelised correctly. If students think they need to learn and what they know is insufficient, then it can get channelised. We were learning about the ancient mythology: Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc. But nowadays they want to interpret Valmiki themselves. People want to re-interpret Valmiki instead of appreciating him. Some will dare say that Valmiki made mistakes. That has become a fashion. I sincerely hope this aspect will get controlled, then the future of Indian art will be much greater than now .

Jayalakshmi Sekhar : How would you suggest things can be improved?

Padma Subrahmanyam : I can only suggest that budding artistes should have humility. There should be a responsibility to the art, and to the rasikas . An Indian artiste has an address. We cannot really feel we are doing anything new. If it comes on its own as Kriya Sakthi then it can be called new or creative. In the name of creativity, one cannot do anything on their own. One cannot forget the past and start something anew. Our strength comes from the history of our ancestors. That’s why I keep saying we should approach the art with humility.

Dr SAK Durga : I agree. Humility in all aspects is the only thing we should have to improve on, not ego. The younger artistes do not know what it was like for the older vidwans and so they think they can do anything and think they know much more, and do things differently too

Padma Subrahmanyam : Another thing is that we did not have unhealthy competition in those days. The reality shows that they show on TV these days are very unhealthy. The way the winner cries on winning is not a good thing too. Or the judges make the children cry and the parents too and then the media highlights this. This kind of thing is not good whether in music or dance. The attitude of children changes for the worse. I feel that we pick all the wrong things from the West. Whatever they discard we bring and respect that.

Dr SAK Durga : I agree with that totally too. And it ruins the attitude of the children.

Padma Subrahmanyam : There should be Bhakti, and without that there can be no art. Music without shruti or with apaswarams and dancing using the wrong moves can be very harmful to the society and a curse too. It will bring about bad vibrations to the society. One has to use incense powder (Sambrani)to ward off the bad vibes.

V.V.Chellappa : We cannot get enough sambrani for this. (Everyone laughs)

Dr SAK Durga : Similarly in music, the way in which some artistes sing these days, sometimes itis alarming.., the way in which the breathing technique is not looked into…(She sings the Bhairavi varnam and shows the spots in which the breath has to be inhaled). Without spiritual beliefs, our art will never be perfect.

V.V.Chellappa & Jayalakshmi Sekhar : Thank you very much for your time.

As told to V. V. Chellappa and Veena Vidushi Jayalakshmi Sekhar. Nadabrahmam thanks SAK Durga and Padma Subrahmanyam for their time.

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