Teaching music at Harvard University has not prevented Prof. Richard Wolf from visiting India often. Commuting between Madurai and Chennai is a routine for him to pursue his studies in both Tamil and Carnatic music.

Sitting cross-legged on a new mat with the veena held close, Prof. Richard Wolf is playing Tyagaraja’s ‘Raghunayaka’ in Hamsadhwani. Accompanying him is Umayalpuram Mali on the mridangam with Tiruvallikeni Govindarajan keeping the tala. This is a practice session for Professor Wolf for his performance at Shri Natesan Vidyasala Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Mannivakkam, near Tambaram, the following day.

Following ‘Raghunayaka,’ Wolf plays ‘Srijalandara’ in Gambira Nattai. Between ‘Ramachandram Bhavayami’ and ‘Janani Ninuvina,’ Prof. Wolf plays Ritigowla, on request. It is a perfect flow of alapana for about ten minutes.

Accent on alapana

“When you play raga alapana, do you ever think of kritis of the same raga, to help with manodharma or improvisation?” I ask. “No” says the Professor. “I concentrate only on the alapana. I do not think of anything else.” Similarly, while playing the kritis too, he does not think of the sahitya per se, but only the musical form or the sound of the veena.

Meanwhile Mali observes that ‘Namaralakinchi’( Dhanyasi), that Wolf just finishes is rarely heard on the concert platform with the chittaswarams being unique to the Karaikkudi School.

Richard Wolf is Professor of Music at Harvard University. He visits India often and commuting between Madurai and Chennai is a routine for him to pursue his studies in both Tamil and Carnatic music. While at Madurai, he learnt Tamil from the scholar K. Paramasivam and vocal music from Kamala Ramamurthy, a disciple of Vidwan T.M. Thyagarajan. “She taught me raga lakshana and theory. She pushed me very hard and taught me to sing ragas and swarams in different speeds,” acknowledges Prof. Wolf.

In Madurai, he learnt the veena from Karaikkudi Lakshmi Ammal, daughter of Subbarama Iyer, until her demise in 1985. Thereafter he came under the tutelage of guru Ranganayaki Rajagopalan with whom he is continuing lessons whenever he is in Chennai. Wolf’s maiden performance was at the Tiruvaiyaru Tyagaraja Aradhana (1985). He remembers playing Tyagaraja’s ‘Varanaradha’ in Vijayasri.

What about the notion that Carnatic music is complicated and not easy to learn? “Yes, it is difficult,” responds Wolf. “You need real interest and perseverance.” He does ‘saadhakam’ every day.

His musical research...

Prof. Richard Wolf spent a couple of years in the Nilgiris, researching on the music of the tribes. The book ‘Theorizing The Local – Music, Practice & Experience in South Asia and Beyond,’ edited by him is yet to be launched her e. (For copies log on to the website of Oxford University Press). While he has written an interesting introduction, Wolf has also contributed an article, ‘Varnams and vocalisation – the special status of some musical beginnings.’

Other articles ‘Listening to the violin in South Indian Classical Music’ by Amanda Weidman and ‘Disciple & Preceptor/Performer in Kerala’ by Rolf Groesbeck serve as food for thought. (“In the 1930s and 1940s, two violin and piano experiments were released in Madras. One was the brothers Muthu and Mani playing the Tyagaraja kriti ‘Nagumomu’ for violin, piano and mridangam. The other was Dwaram Venkatasamy Naidu playing a set of raga alapana improvisations with the American pianist and composer Alan Hovhancess on the piano” – Amanda Weidman.)

Wolf’s other book ‘The Black Cow’s Footprint: Time, Space and Music in the Lives of Kotas of South India’ was awarded the Edwin Cameron Dimock Jr. Prize. It is available in leading music stores and Landmark. Prof. Richard Wolf has spent a year in Lucknow and a year in Lahore, for his studies on music. He can be reached at 97908 20419 and rwolf@fas.harvard.edu.

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