To briefly rehash a standard historical narrative, Carnatic music is one of the world’s oldest and most complex musical traditions, its provenance dating back nearly 4,000-years. This divine, unbroken tradition has been passed down, for generations, from teacherto student in a traditional apprentice system called gurukulavasa. Gurukulavasa students live with their teachers for years and perform household chores in exchange for intensive and holistic musical training. Instilling the essential feeling of guru bhakti or devotion towards the teacher, gurukulavasa training has produced hallowed guru-shishya parampara or musical lineages over the centuries.

Almost all Carnatic music aficionados would have come across this concise history of the musical form at some point. Yet, even a cursory examination of Carnatic music as it is practised today reveals how much the tradition has changed from its venerated past. Perhaps there is no better example of the changing landscape of Carnatic music than the phenomenon of online training, where teachers and students, often separated by thousands of miles, exchange complex musical information through audio and video-conferencing programmes such as Skype and Google Talk.

Virtual gurukulavasa, as I dub the new online pedagogical system, might appear to be a hard sell for an ancient, guru-centred tradition. Yet, online teaching has become so widespread today — lessons are offered for everything from Carnatic vocal to morsing — that virtually anyone who can teach online does teach online. I became fascinated with this radically new system of techno-pedagogy and chose to pursue it as the topic of my PhD dissertation, focusing on the realm of Carnatic percussion (mridangam, ghatam, kanjira, and konnakol vocal percussion). I arrived in Chennai in August to conduct ethnographic fieldwork to study the musical, social, and cultural impact of virtual music lessons in Carnatic percussion.

My research collaborators include some of the most distinguished performer-teachers in Chennai who have endorsed online teaching. I will share a few interesting points from my research that are of general interest to anyone interested in online education and, especially, online music education.

The main demand for online teaching, as of now, comes from the Indian diaspora — Indian immigrants in America who settled thousands of miles from their homeland for professional advancement. The appeal of online teaching for this diasporic community is apparent. Parents can encourage their second-generation Indian-American children to receive musical training from popular performers in Chennai and, in turn, stay connected to their cultural heritage from the comfort of their own homes.

In spite of the serious challenges in virtual music education, such as audio/video lag (which prevents teacher and student from performing tasks simultaneously), substandard audio and video quality, call drops, and limited musical and social interaction between teacher and student, virtual lessons are undeniably convenient for both parties. And after all, the technology, when fully operational, appears to simulate face-to-face training.

But why would online performer-teachers in Chennai take time out of their hectic, international performance schedules to teach beginner-and-intermediate-level students over the Internet? The primary incentive, many of my collaborators admit, is economic. One of my collaborators put it succinctly: “Teaching online is the easiest way to earn in American dollars and spend in rupees.” Thanks to the dollar-rupee conversion rate, Chennai teachers are able to get five times or more as fees than what local students can afford to pay. Economic gain is certainly not the only motivation for teaching online. Just as online teaching allows the Indian diaspora to stay connected to Indian teachers, so too does it allow Indian teachers to stay connected to their students by offering regular, weekly training.

The immigrant appeal

In this technology-driven, global cultural and economic exchange, I speculate that immigrant parents are the essential cultural and economic link that actively connects Indian-American students (who represent “western culture”) with Chennai teachers (who represent authentic “Indian culture”). There is, thus, no mystery as to why online teaching in Carnatic music is as popular as it is: the technology is available, there is a clear cultural demand from the Indian immigrant population and Chennai teachers are ready to supply their artistic expertise, so long as the price is right.

Many Indian immigrant parents that I have spoken to are concerned that online teaching might simply be a profitable business venture for teachers based in Chennai. Hesitant to log on to the virtual bandwagon, they ask me whether online training is “as effective” or “as good” as in-person training. It appears that the two systems of pedagogy are so different that teachers do not even compare one with the other; to do so is “like comparing apples and oranges” or, more aptly, “like comparing virtual and real-life experiences.”

There is no denying that virtual lessons can be an effective way to transmit knowledge, as the rise of distance learning in all walks of education suggests. And for the majority of Indian-American students of Carnatic music who are pre-college music hobbyists, online lessons can provide a reasonable quality of musical education as they pursue their goal of gaining admission to top U.S. colleges to pursue “serious”, non-music-related degrees.

Nevertheless, some important questions remain as this techno-pedagogy reaches its ten-year anniversary. What does the popularity of virtual music lessons today mean for the Carnatic music tradition? Is online education merely a new, transnational tool for disseminating an ancient tradition or is this the beginning of a new, virtual tradition of virtual performers and audiences, virtual instruments, and virtual payment? Just as virtual lessons simulate real-life teaching, does a virtual tradition only simulate a real-life tradition? How far can a student progress online without face-to-face training? Can a shishya ever become a guru having only undergone virtual gurukulavasa?

These are serious questions to ponder this month as Chennai celebrates one of the largest (and, as of yet, live and real-life) music festivals in the world.

(The author is an international percussion performer, researcher, and entrepreneur and a PhD candidate in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, New York, as a Provost’s Fellow.)

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