As teacher, mentor, scholar, composer and vocalist, Seetha Rajan is in a class apart. A disciple of Kittamani Iyer and Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, Seetha made her mark as a singer by winning several prizes and top scholarships during her student days. Marriage, motherhood and family responsibilities did not stop Seetha from studying and practising music as a researcher, teacher and performer. But once she settled in Chennai, Seetha decided to focus more on her teaching. Unlike several performers who crave popularity and stages, this award-winner's endeavour has been to create a generation of Carnatic musicians who maintain and transmit the high standards of excellence she has set for herself as performer and teacher.
To achieve this, Seetha, who is trained in both Carnatic and Hindustani music, founded Bala Brundnam Sangita Gurukulam in 1992 in Chennai, where she carefully chooses and mentors a select group of aspiring singers, many of whom have already won her laurels for their pristine musicality and profound scholarship. Honoured with the Music Academy's Sangita Kala Acharya award, among several other awards for teaching, Seetha Rajan belongs to a rare and diminishing class of teachers who believes that teaching is a vocation and not a method to earn a living. Excerpts from an interview with this teacher of excellence when she was in Thiruvananthapuram for the Swati Sangeetotsavam…
Bala Brundam Sangita Gurukulam
My desire was to set up a school that would be on the lines of a gurukulam in every sense of the word. Students are carefully selected to ensure that they see music as a vocation and not as a stepping stone to shine under the arc lights or win competitions and sell records. Parents are interviewed so that they also understand that music is a way of life. We take an undertaking from the parents that they would not be grooming their children for a career in engineering or medicine.
I insist on the students staying with me for at least 10 years. I feel music, like medicine or engineering, needs all of a student's concentration and attention to study its theory and practise it too. Until I feel the child is ready, we do not permit the student to participate in a competition or a show. Moreover, how can a child of 10 do justice to a padam?
Seetha's methodology of teaching
As soon as my students finish school, they come to my house and stay there till it is time to go home. Once, they enter college, they do their graduation by correspondence and study the intricacies of ragas, lyrics, akara sadhaka, laya, musicology and the subtleties of Carnatic music. They stay with me, learn yoga, Sanskrit and, eventually, I insist on each of them learning an instrument. For instance, violin vidwans Embar Kannan, V.V. Ravi and the late Trivandrum R. Venkataraman used to teach some of my students the violin and the veena respectively. Even if they don't become full-time concert performers, each student would be a competent teacher by the time she/he finishes the 10 years.
We have experts guiding them on technical aspects of music and on languages and diction too. I feel it is essential to understand the lyrics of what is sung. Only then can the composition be sung with the right bhava. We have workshops and music camps and concerts are arranged by us to help the students gain the experience of presenting a programme and facing an audience.
Journey in music
My parents, N. Subramaniam and Lakshmi, spotted the innate talent in me. Growing up in Pune, I was a great fan of M.S.Subbulakshmi's songs in the film ‘Meera,' M.D.Ramanathan and Madurai Mani Iyer. While my parents were in Hyderabad, I was able to study Hindustani music from Bhimshankar Rao. In Chennai, I was lucky to get the opportunity of learning from mama himself [Semmangudi]. By then he had left the hectic concert circuit and he was at his peak and in an introspective mood. So I was fortunate to be able to spend a great deal of time with him, learning, discussing and thinking music. He encouraged me to delve into the music that was being taught and not just skim the surface. He guided me to imbibe, think and develop my own style without imitating others.
I had won the Central Government's National Talent Scholarship and the All India Radio competition in 1967. Marriage to an army officer helped me gain exposure to different kinds and styles of music as we posted to places all over India.
There was a huge break till we settled in Chennai in the Nineties. When I look back, I doubt if I would have made it in the concert circuit as you have to be savvy about a lot of things.
Training for the future
Now we have four students doing their doctorate in music; six were given the title ‘Sangeetha Sri' by Rasika Ranjana Sabha, Trichy; two are lecturers in college. So, within a short duration, we have seen the results of the focussed teaching and guided freedom. My students teach in three branches in Chennai. I have also planned a syllabus that guide the students towards the higher echelons of music. I follow this system as visiting professor in Kalakshetra as well. We plan to include French and German in our curriculum so that students can also opt for those. And, for me, my students' well-being is my biggest blessing.