Helping People Appreciate The Beauty Of Music Better: Here's What Carnatic Musician Chitra Srikrishna Is Coming Up With Next
Known for her creative experiments for taking music closer to people, Carnatic vocalist Chitra Srikrishna is on a new journey with her programme ‘Vivartana’ that will be based on the works of poets and philosophers.
Carnatic vocalist, writer, music educator and author Chitra Srikrishna is known for her melodic thematic productions that make the non-initiated connect to the seven notes better and understand music from multiple perspectives.
“Music is such a bridge-builder, across languages, regions, religions and certainly professions. Appreciating music of every kind is just the beginning to change the way we think, feel and act,” believes Chitra who has created a music appreciation course for the Ahmedabad University. Her students there are primarily engineering, business or other majors who are music listeners and not necessarily students of music. “It’s a challenge for me to make teaching more learning-focused, rather than being exam-oriented,” she says.
Popular programs of Chitra conceived and sung by her include HumRaag (classical roots of popular music), Bhakti (musical journey of the mystics of India) and Antah Prerna (a musical telling of an entrepreneur’s journey).
She has had interesting podcasts/radio programmes in Columbus, Ohio bringing out explanations of Carnatic ragas.
Chitra’s long-lasting bond with music lovers though has been her widely appreciated newsletter ‘Music Matters’ where people consume her interesting observations spanning the music world. “My newsletter allows me to curate my listening, and inspiring activities that impact our broader lives,” says Chitra announcing her latest project ‘Vivartana’ that debuts at the Bangalore International Center on June 13, 6:30 pm.
Vivartana becomes more relevant during these troubled times of the pandemic too.
Through the last two millennia, Indian poets and philosophers have addressed existential questions surrounding the individual’s role in society, dealing with inequity, discrimination and outright oppression. Their answers have ranged from a philosophical acceptance to outright call for revolution. Yet others didn’t wait for a crisis to occur before calling for a ‘change’ or a complete overhaul of the system, says Chitra
‘Vivartana’ is a thematic musical assemblage – the melodic architecture has Chitra bringing the works of social revolutionaries, poets, politicians, philosophers and sants in an exploration across time and territory - from Kerala to Kashmir. The program is anchored by a live performance of songs in multiple languages, interspersed with short narration to provide the audience both context and a thread of continuity.
In a detailed interview to Swarajya, spoke of her childhood days in Hyderabad and initiation into music; factors that influenced her to get more persevering and bring melodies closer to people for appreciating human values and her cherished assignment that led her towards creating a music curriculum during the pandemic.
Since your understanding of music is expansive to encompass being a singer, teacher and writer, you perhaps have had a motivating childhood followed by comprehensive music learning?
I began learning music from my mother when I was barely five, in Hyderabad. This was followed up with many gurus in Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai in my growing years. While SN Chandrashekar was kind enough to take me into his fold of students in Mumbai after he heard me sing during Navaratri, post my graduation I moved to Chennai and learnt from OS Thyagarajan and subsequently from Lalgudi Rajalakshmi in Bangalore.
When I moved to the US after marriage, winter and summer breaks came in handy when I took lessons from V Subrahmaniam who taught me Kritis in the Semmangudi styling. My return to Bangalore later saw me learn from vocalist Seethalakshmi Venkatesan.
Outside of music, I graduated in commerce and accountancy (Sydenham College, Mumbai) and did the technical writing program at San Jose State University (US), worked as a tech writer in the Silicon Valley even while continuing my concerts. Now I teach at Ahmedabad University with a focus on music appreciation and music and society. I have been writing articles on culture, music, travel and personal essays in different publications for more than 20 years.
Coming to your latest offering Vivartana, how did you zero-in on such a musical exercise and what is the takeaway for audiences from this concert, since there is a reference to transformation?
Vivartana (Sanskrit) which refers to transformation or a turning point is about the search for answers as we deal with the personal, social and global upheaval happening around us. Self reflection is the first step towards transforming oneself. While working towards being a better version of ourselves and dealing with the harsh realities of everyday life, we look for inspiration from the poetry and lived experiences of people. Poets, philosophers and politicians have addressed humanity and its tribulations. What is an individual’s role in society? How can individuals and communities make an impact at a global level? The pandemic had me reflect about life in general and music can be a medium to process and transcend personal, social or global upheaval.
The idea began to form in the early part of the year and once the semester got over at the Ahmedabad University I had more time to think about this concept and look at the works of Indian poets across centuries. At the urging of my children I got more comfortable exploring further afield as my daughter put it to "make the familiar strange and the strange familiar."
What kind of a list are you bringing in for ‘Vivartana’ from the whole of India, and what are the thoughts and philosophies you have chosen that talks of transformation?
Each poet or philosopher brings something unique to the table - whether it is Tagore from Bengal who saw inspiration in nature or Basavanna in Karnataka who not only wrote about social reformation through his vachanas but followed through with direct action - personal and social. There were some like Annamacharya where faith was the cornerstone for coping. Others such as Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded brought about the much-needed women's perspective.
Can you give us a few examples of Akkamahadevi or Basavanna or the Vakhs of the Mystic Lady of Kashmir, Lal Ded?
In classical music as in many other fields, the voices we hear primarily are male. Many of the battles women face personally, professionally, socially even today are many that continue from the past. Well over a thousand years ago women such as Akka Mahadevi and Lal Ded (or Lalleshwari) were challenging gender norms, patriarchy and religious orthodoxy. Their poetry (Lal Ded's vakhs or Akka Mahadevi's vachanas) seems all the more relevant in these uncertain times to process personal, social and global upheaval.
I remember the first time reading the translation of Lal Ded's vakhs by poet Ranjit Hoskote (I, Lalla - The poems of Lal Ded) and becoming teary-eyed. It reminded me so much of the vachanas of Akka Mahadevi and the travails that she had undergone. We need to remember how difficult it was for these women and revering them today without acknowledging or addressing the issues they raised only reinforces orthodoxy.
Are you taking across ‘Vivartana’ by making it lesser-classical with accompaniments, or having it classical since you are a Carnatic specialist? Any explanations too before each item?
The programme is going to be in the Carnatic idiom where I will sing with violinist Vaibhav Ramani and percussionist Adamya Ramanand (mridanga) accompanying me. One of my lifelong goals is to make classical music more accessible to a more diverse crowd and I try to do this through various theme-based programmes. Now that performances have opened up I would like to collaborate with musicians across genres and varying instruments. Using a short explanation between each musical piece, I will weave the overall narrative — primarily a visual with a single line of text during the performance makes the core theme of each song (in nine languages) accessible.
What are your future plans to address music students/any special classes for the ever-in-demand lesser known bhajans/vachanas?
I have been getting a lot of requests to teach short items or tail-enders referred to as 'tukkadas' - bhajans, ashtapadis and the like from rasikas and friends. I am presently working towards starting these master classes with bhajans. Even the courses that I teach at Ahmedabad University have triggered an interest in people across various age groups, so I hope to bring at least one of those to a wider adult audience.
Coming to your exceptional assignment (music teaching) for Ahmedabad University: that was a befitting bridge built for students to work on musical ruminations, it proved to be a perfect pandemic interval. Can you explain something on the Musical Traditions of India that you addressed in 2021?
‘Musical Traditions of India - An Introduction’ is a course that I taught in 2021 to introduce students to a wide range of musical genres from across India such as bhajans, bhakti, classical, folk, ghazal to popular film music. In addition to Indian music the course exposed the students to music from other traditions and their influence — both historical and current. Through live demonstrations by guest artists and curated musical collections, the students experienced music across traditions to augment their conceptual learning. The role of musical instruments and various languages in shaping distinctive regional identities even while creating a pan-Indian tradition through common themes was explored. Students also considered how music could be an agent for social and cultural change.
What are the other developments that followed at the University, especially making music learning inter-disciplinary with sociology and urban studies…
The course that I teach currently at the university (How Music Shapes Cities - Varanasi to NYC) exposes students to the roots and progression of different genres of music, from Western and Indian classical, folk, hip-hop to blues, country, jazz and popular. It examines how music has shaped cities such as Varanasi, Chennai, NYC, Vienna and more. Students understand the evolution of musical genres - from their origin to the present - and the impact of their migration across regions. It encourages them to consider how music influences the identity of a city including its architecture, social life and economy.
During the semester I had invited Naresh Narasimhan (architect and urban designer), V Sriram (entrepreneur, music historian, heritage activist and one of the secretaries of the Music Academy of Madras) and Shruthi Rajasekar (Western classical music composer and vocalist) to speak to my students about their journeys. The students learnt a lot from such sessions.
For instance, one of the many things that Naresh Narasimhan talked about was how one could find navarasas in different architectural monuments across the world; V Sriram spoke about how music played a significant role in the cities that he had lived whether it was Calcutta, Delhi or Chennai; Shruthi Rajasekar spoke about her training in Carnatic and eventually as a Western classical composer (a rarity as she is a woman of color in a male-dominated white space) and also how she composed a piece of music called "Numbers" inspired by the ways numbers influence our lives.
Details for Vivartana premier are:
Date: 13 June 2022
Time: 6:30 pm
Venue: Vivartana, Bangalore International Center, Domlur II Stage.
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