S.A.K. Durga, four decades ago, stepped into a territory that was totally unknown. After conventional training in Carnatic and Hindustani music streams, she specialised in voice culture. She is among the earliest ethnomusicologists

Ethnomusicology, intercultural music, voxology… even in these days, many musicians find these terms bewildering. So, four decades ago, when Dr. S.A.K. Durga, renowned musicologist, ethnomusicologist, and classical musician, ventured into then almost-unknown territory, it was a leap of faith.

Her initial training, of course, had been entirely conventional. And exceptional. Her gurus were stalwarts like Madurai Mani Iyer, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, T. Vishwanathan, Ramnad Krishnan, and M. Balamuralikrishna. Later, she learnt Hindustani music from Mohammed Munawar. After completing M.A. (Music) she enrolled for M.Lit. in Voice Culture, a subject suggested by Vishwanathan.

At that point, there was skepticism, even derision, from leading musicians and critics, reveals Durga “because voice culture was considered a fancy term. The argument was that the voice, with all its characteristics, is something one is born with. It's God-given.” A voice cannot be cultivated, they insisted. Even her own teachers Madurai Mani and Maharajapuram scoffed at the idea.

However, she persisted with unshakeable conviction in her choice of study. She earned a doctorate (Opera in South India) from Madras University, another from Wesleyan University on ethnomusicology, followed by a post-doctorate from Yale University for the thesis: Gregorian Chants and Chants Vedic and Thevaram.

Much recognition followed. Her paper “Voice Abuse and Misuse” was adjudged best paper at the International Institute for Experimental Research in Singing, Colarado; she won the Eleanor Roosevelt International Fellowship; and the British Council Visiting Fellowship which enabled guidance from Yehudi Menuhin; and was invited by Rockfeller Foundation for research on creative ethnomusicology. She was named Skylark of India by American Theatre Group. She became Indian representative of the Commonwealth Music Association. Durga's name figures among several international who's who lists of musicologists. She is recipient of the Omkar award. Madras Music Academy gave its first musicologist award to her. She is currently Professor Emeritus, Madras University––the first in its music department.

Durga, the pioneer of voice-culture studies in India, founded the Centre for Ethnomusicology in 1986. Her she conducts voice-counselling for singers. In that sense she is a healer, but like any good doctor, she won't reveal her patients' names. However, she lets you in on the typical problems she encounters. “They have difficulties in reaching the upper octave. Some have problems in breath control especially in sustaining a note. Others can't sing fast passages. There are issues with voice-quality. Also, inability to give right breath-force at the right place.”

So, what are her remedies? “I fix their ideal shruti (pitch) which is often unnecessarily high thanks to teachers who have not guided them properly. And this optimal pitch I find through the speaking voice. This might take several sessions. When I notice that they shout on the upper register, I train them in proper breathing on upper octave. For those who can't sing fast, I teach how to sing fast passages using the metronome.”

However, the most important thing is to clear mind blocks, she says. “It is the mind which controls the voice. Often the problems are to do with psychology rather than physiology. So I first tell them to believe they have a good voice, that there is nothing really wrong with it, and to let go of worry. I also recommend dietary changes. I insist on singers keeping the voice moisturised by drinking plenty of water.”

One singer could not go beyond thaara shadja, and could sing only middle octave. “She was taught correct breathing techniques and her adhaara shruti was changed. She was first trained to reach the upper octave and then lower. After one year of training, she now sings freely two octaves –– middle, plus half each of upper and lower. Her voice quality has also improved.”

Durga also teaches ethnomusicology though “from the late 20th century, the subject is renamed ‘intercultural music'. Earlier, westerners used to consider unwritten music as ethnic music and hence labelled the study of Asian and African music ‘ethnomusicology'. Later, findings about these systems' grammar made them correct this misconception,” she explains. The 10 books she has authored indicate the breadth and depth of her knowledge: Vallalarajan Yakshaganam (Tamil), Voice Culture, Opera in South India, Ethnomusicology –– A Study of Intercultural Music, Research Methodology for Music, Indian Music in the Context of Independence, Music: Intercultural Aspects, Isaiyin Edir Kalam (Tamil), A New Approach to Indian Musicological Methodology: An Ethnomusicological Perspective, Divine Melodies of Thevaram. Under publication is the 11th:––Gregorian Chants.

However, Durga says modestly: “I am only trying to stay busy and productive”.

This is the next in our series on women who have walked unbeaten paths.