There is scientific way to teach Carnatic music, believes Akella Malikarjuna Sharma.
‘Controversial’ and ‘blunt’ are adjectives that could well be used for Akella Mallikarjuna Sharma, retired Principal- Government College of Music and Dance, Hyderabad, and this year’s recipient of the TTK award from the Music Academy. An untiring critic of the teaching methods in Carnatic music, he is unsparing of himself too. “I was totally clueless about the proper method of teaching. So for 20 years, I must have ruined the career of many promising youngsters, through my wrong approach,” he says candidly.
He blames the system for this. He says the whole selection process for teaching posts in music colleges is flawed. “Simply because a person sings well or plays an instrument well, it does not follow that he will be a good teacher,” he avers. But it’s not just the academicians who face Sharma’s ire. He thinks performing artists outside of academic institutions too have failed to be good teachers.
But what about the vidwans who have been successful? Does he mean to say that their gurus did not employ the right methods of teaching? How did these people become so successful then? “They have done well because of their native intelligence. It’s not due to the teaching of their gurus. A teacher must simplify things for his students, and make it easier for him to learn. Has anyone bothered to do that?”
It was while Sharma was a student at the Music College at Vijayanagaram that the seed of his future research work was sown, albeit quite by chance. A seller of books from Thanjavur who was visiting the college, asked Sharma if he wanted any book from his catalogue. Sharma ticked two books in the list, for no particular reason. This choice was to change the course of his life, although Sharma didn’t know it then.
The two books he chose were ‘Tala dasa praana pradeepika’ by Poluri Govinda Kavi, and ‘Gaayaka Lochanam’ by Thachur brothers. “These two books turned out to be the inspiration for my four decades of research, which has resulted in bringing out all facets of tala prasthara,” he says.
Sharma takes pride in being a teacher, rather than a performing musician, although he has accompanied on the violin, almost all top ranking vidwans. A proper assessment of the rhythmical abilities of every student must be made at the inception, he feels. If a student is an aspiring violinist, Sharma gives him bowless exercises just to train his fingers. “There could be anywhere between 20 to 30 such exercises,” he explains. There are 170 video clippings of his violin and laya exercises available on YouTube.
He insists on symbolising everything, including the oscillations, to make things easy for the student. He has symbolised 60 oscillations, of which Kaisiki Nishada alone accounts for 27. After a student, whether of vocal or instrumental music, has finished the initial exercises like sarali, janta, gitas, alankaras, etc, he begins by teaching the student Natakurinji varnam, followed by varnams in Khamboji and Darbar. There is a reason for this order. With these three varnams, the student would have learnt at least half of the 60 oscillations. He can then graduate to Sankarabharanam, Kalyani, Begada, Thodi, Saveri and Bhairavi varnams.
“You have to slowly introduce the concept of gamakas to the student. Bhairavi is a difficult raga. That is why it’s taught last. Once the student has finished these varnams, he is taught the Bhairavi swarajati, and by now he would have acquired the competence to learn kritis,” he says.
As a teacher, Sharma is known as a hard task master. Recalls former student Revathi Santhanakrishnan, “Sharma sir would come to our houses at 6 a.m. to check if we were practising. If we were still in bed, he’d wake us up and make us practise!”
“Morning hours are precious to music, as they are for the Vedas,” explains Sharma.
His favourite musicians? “I like listening to M.S. Gopalakrishnan playing Hindustani music.” In his guru Nedunuri’s music he finds both aesthetics and creativity in equal measure. Hariharan’s ghazals are a favourite too!
Sharma has published many books based on his research. Among the titles are ‘Indian Genius in tala prasthara,’ ‘Permutative genius in Tala Prasthara in Indian music’ and ‘Tala prasthara of Sarngadeva’s Sangita Ratnakara.’ In his book ‘Sangeetha Swararaga Sudha,’ which is for students of music, Sharma teaches kalpanaswara in six talas and alapanas in 36 ragas. “I’ve given notations for the alapanas, and I’ve sung using the same notations in the accompanying CD,” he says.
But that sounds like spoon feeding, I protest. Shouldn’t the student’s creativity come into play in the alapanas? How can alapanas be taught?
“Alapanas can, and must be taught,” he asserts. “Our music is scientific, but it must be standardised, and we must produce efficient teachers. The Music Academy must take the initiative in this respect,” he concludes.