MUSIC Geetha Bennett's father and guru S. Ramanathan was a major influence on her musical life. The reputed veena and vocal artiste talks of the important forces in her life RANJANI GOVIND
I t hardly matters where a musician chooses to settle down, for, ones deep-rooted musicality will take the art across frontiers.
Take Geetha Bennett, the dedicated vocal and veena artiste continuing the tradition of her guru and father Dr. S. Ramanathan.
She was determined to take it further even on the alien American soil. “It is an expansion of my father's effort. He was one of the foremost gurus to have shared his knowledge and expertise with foreign audiences nearly seven decades ago,” says Geetha, who's husband Dr. Frank Bennett is an orchestrator in Hollywood films, composer and western percussionist. Armed with a degree in maths, and nurtured in an atmosphere that was awash with music from day-break amidst eight siblings in Tamil Nadu, Geetha even now retains her liveliness and effervescence, be it in her talk or her outlook towards her bold experiments with world music. “The Carnatic system has immense potential to be explored. Whether it is in the traditional rendition or fusion, preservation is in propagation, ” she explains. Her experiments with Indian classical and western fusion began in the 1990s as a veena soloist in “Scheherazade” with the Colgate University Orchestra and her other performances in Europe and the U.S. with percussionist Trilok Gurtu's world music ensemble “The Glimpse”. Geetha has also performed both as a veena player and vocalist on guitarist Andy Summers' fusion album “Peggy's Blue Skylight” showcasing compositions of jazz bassist Charles Mingus.
Her vocal rendition of “Mokshamugalada” of Thyagaraja, put together by Dr. Bennett, has been released by Oxford University Press in the book, “Music in South India” by Dr. T. Viswanathan and Dr. Matthew Harp Allen. Honours and recognitions have been a part of her lifestyle. What was the ‘Ramanathan grooming' that makes her what she is today? Geetha, who took to performing from the age of eight, recalls her informal schooling and the impact of her Western music associations, to Friday Review.
Your father was your greatest influence for he was also into vocal and veena?
My father was known as Veena Ramanathan those days but had to quit playing the veena in the 1970s due to a problem in his shoulder. This was a blessing in a way I think because he started giving vocal concerts and became very popular. We lived in a tiny two room house and my father was a 24/7 musician and a teacher. I remember those pieces better than the ones I learn today. I recall my father practising the ‘sarali, jante' and other swara exercises on the veena before dawn. He never forced any of us, may be that is the reason why the whole family is musical!
What about your lessons?
Tamil poems and hymns made up our morning walks on the beach. He took us to performances and that included all night Hindustani concerts. My mother Gowri insisted that we listen to Tamil film songs apart from Carnatic compositions, perhaps all this has helped me come up with the right techniques of instrument handling.
My father never forced us, but if we showed even a little interest he never held back. There was no particular time for our lessons. Once after we returned from maestro M.S. Gopalakrishnan's concert where we heard an awesome Tyagaraja composition in ‘Rasali,' and the next session of our class just after returning home was ‘Anadanuganu' with the chittaswara which he learnt as a student! Memorable moments.
And you enjoyed his style and technique?
Those days a student never questioned the teacher. We had complete faith in appa. He would teach us the meaning and pronunciation of the compositions as he was a scholar in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit and English. Rare scales as Balahamsa, Padi, Chintamani are still fresh in my memory as the grammar is absolutely a strong foundation. My father used to say that in music, one's thinking could be complicated but the presentation should be simple.
Ramanathan was one of the pioneers in propagating the Carnatic strains to the western enthusiasts…
He always enjoyed teaching and lec/dems were part of that. He never had any doubts about sharing his knowledge, as he used to say ‘it's not enough to be what you are today, but think of what you leave for posterity.' Now I have several students in Los Angeles area who appreciate and respect my lineage.
Was it a new-route to explore more in music after you met Bennett?
Being an orchestrator and a veena and mridanga enthusiast, Frank has composed a concerto ‘ Asian Colors' featuring both my veena and vocal with an 80-piece western orchestra. The Carnatic and Western amalgam is not for diluting its finery, but for an interaction between two streams, while retaining the original glories. Such experiments speak of explorations that add more meaning for Western audiences and for people with a ear for the new.
But for the intricacies of enjoying Sahana, Begada and Devagandhari, we need the rooted Indian audience. So we have to have sensibilities to address our specific audiences.