When a neophyte finds a possibly life-changing rhythm in Carnatic music

A chance encounter with an unexpected person in an unlikely setting, set the stage for my newly initiated engagement with Carnatic music. It was almost a surreal scene with all those techies dressed in formals, sitting upright in a video conferencing room. In walked this unassuming and smiling ‘prince,’ hands folded, clad in simple dhoti-kurta, to speak about Carnatic music. It was quite a change from the usual PowerPoint presentations on projects and deliverables.

Ours is a company in Technopark, the IT agglomeration that is home to some 50,000 techies, situated in the suburbs of Thiruvananthapuram. This company believes in the differentiating factor in everything we do, and one of our initiatives is Lunch & Learn Fridays. On a recent Friday, Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma of the erstwhile Travancore royal family was invited to talk on Carnatic music. Music-lovers will know that he is a well-known Carnatic musician who does concerts across the world.

Well-read, witty and articulate, Rama Varma regaled the audience with anecdotes from the field of Carnatic music. A friend of his described him as one who “entertains us with his classical music and not-so-classical jokes.”

He is also a canny marketer, for when asked to sing a few stanzas, he promptly invited us to the Swathi Sangeethotsavam, the 10-day music festival held in January of which he is an organiser. Noted musicians from across the country are hand-picked to participate in this festival that is annually held in honour of one of his illustrious ancestors, the iconic Swathi Thirunal.

Inspired by Rama Varma’s invigorating words and his presence, I decided to take a detour from the zany world of Outlook and Webex to check out the classical music concert. I walked into the grounds of the splendid Kuthiramalika Palace in downtown Thiruvananthapuram, feeling like an alien. This used to be Swathi Thirunal’s home, where he composed his classics. In all my years in the corporate world, I had hardly spared a thought for Carnatic music. And no one in my social circle did either.

This is not to say classical music is not appreciated in the IT industry milieu, but I certainly never knew anyone like that. It just didn’t seem to fit in with the lifestyle.

My initiation into classical music was through the concert by Swathi Thirunal’s worthy successor. Apart from his mellifluous music, what struck me was the rapport Rama Varma shared with his stage accompanists, and his jovial and playful demeanor. The apt word is...yes... happiness. The cheerfulness I witnessed on that stage is so rare to come across anywhere today. The sheer joy he seemed to experience and exude while singing, was truly contagious. Rama Varma confirmed that by saying: “My main purpose is just to spread some happiness ... among my listeners, my accompanists ... and to experience the same joy myself ... and when it does happen, I feel blessed and grateful.”

He explained: “I never dilute the content of what I sing, and have refused all invitations to do fusion. And I don’t overload my music with technical stuff, which only generates tension for the singer, the accompanists and the listeners. The only aim there is to show off one’s superior technical knowledge. My aim is to make classical music that is accessible and enjoyable to everyone.”

When I later attended a recital by O.S. Arun, the “rock star” of the Carnatic world, the energy and vibrancy in his singing reminded me of Freddie Mercury; the same charisma and stage presence the lead singer of Queen wielded on stage in live shows was present here. As he rendered a Hindustani piece, O.S. Arun had the audience swaying and clapping to the rhythm.

Rama Varma is successful in his mission to take classical music to the masses. I kept going back to the Swathi Festival, and came back each time feeling at peace and pampered. One cannot put a finger on it: perhaps it’s the gentle and unhurried pace of the melodious music that helps you unwind completely, from the fast pace of the world of corporate IT.

Many people probably harbour misconceptions about classical music — that it is long-winded, it is too slow and traditional, it drags on, and so forth. I had assumed that unless one learnt the nuances of grammar, lyrics and ragas, it would be impossible to appreciate classical music. And so when I confessed to the Rama Varma apologetically that I did not know anything about ragas, yet was beginning to love this music, he said, smiling benignly: “People like you who ‘don’t know anything about ragas’ are precisely the people I sing for.”

True. If music stirs the soul and soothes your senses, “that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

beena63@gmail.com

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