HALL OF FAME: Sangita Kala Acharya Music

Seetha Narayanan: A passionate music teacher

Carnatic guru Seetha Narayanan   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

Nearly 20 years ago, on a warm Sunday morning, the doorbell rang at the house of vocalist Seetha Narayanan, then living at the Railway Officers quarters in Chennai's Ayanavaram. At the door, she found a mother and her six-year-old son asking for paatu mami. The visitor, a young and poor vegetable vendor living in a faraway suburb, asked softly: “Can you teach music to my son?” Surprised, Seetha said, “Yes I can, but tell me please, how did you come to know about me?” The mother’s reply was hilarious, recalls Seetha, who will receive the Music Academy’s coveted Sangitha Kala Acharya award on January 1, 2020. “The bus conductor of MTC route number 27D told me about you,” the mother said. “He stays near my house. He said that you regularly take his bus and that you sing very well.”

“I could not believe my ears. Those days, I had to take two buses to reach my guru, Chengalpattu Ranganathan, who lived in While returning, I would take 27D and dutifully open my notebook just as I entered the bus, she says. “I'd immediately start revising whatever my guru had taught me that day. But I didn't know that people were noticing this,” laughs the 78-year-old musician who has carved out a space of her own in Carnatic music.

“The Music Academy’s award came as a sweet surprise,” she says sitting at her house in Perungalathur, Chennai. Artistes need recognition, she agrees. “Appreciation, from rasikas, and awards, motivate us to perform well. So when an award comes from a world-renowned institution, it is an overwhelming as well as a humbling experience,” she says. Seetha will be conferred the Sangita Kala Acharya title at the Sadas on January 1, 2020.

Seetha is known for her rich creativity, expertise in musical theory and melodious rendition of bhajans, among others. She sings a kriti after explaining it to the audience. Born and brought up in Jamshedpur, where her father worked, Seetha started singing at age three. “I used to sing even before I could speak properly,” Seetha says. My entire family loved singing. Music and ragas were part of everyday discussion. Those days, when relatives met after a gap, chats started with “Did you hear the Khambodi aalapana of Ariyakkudi on AIR yesterday?” and not “How do you do?” she laughs.

Seetha started learning music formally at age eight in Jamshedpur. This was under Kasi Viswanatha Bhagawathar, a disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. After shifting to Madras in 1970, she came under the tutelage of Nagercoil Harihara Iyer, P.K. Rajagopala Iyer, a disciple of Tiger Varadachari, and Ramamurthy Rao, and, later, S. Ramanathan. After his demise in 1988, she trained under Chengalpattu Ranganathan for more than 20 years.

How did training under different gurus help her and how did she balance different banis? “They were the apostles of Suddha Sangeetham (pure music) and I imbibed all their good qualities. I learnt different aspects of singing from these eminent musicians. For instance, Rajagopala Iyer taught me about theoretical aspects and meanings. Rao, a student of Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, was a specialist in bhajans. Ramanathan showed me the approach to a concert and strike a rapport with the audience. Ranganathan, of Alathur bani, was a specialist in pallavis and niravals,” she recalls. Ranganathan also taught her exclusively, the 35 Thillanas he had composed in Sooladi saptha talas. “In January this year, we released an audio CD of these thillanas at Arkay Convention Centre,” she says.

With the encouragement of her husband the late Narayana Iyer, who was an engineer with the Southern Railway, Seetha started a music school ‘DivyaDhwani’ at Ayanavaram in 1986. She is guru to more than 400 students in India and abroad. “By God’s grace, I was able to teach three generations of students. I was able to impart the styles of my great gurus to them,” she says. She taught students in countries such as the U.S. over the phone in the late 1990s. This was long before Skype became popular.

“I consider children as adults while teaching,” says Seetha and elaborates. “From the early stage onwards (say, a geetham or a swarajathi), I teach them the bhava. They might not understand it then but it will help them in the advanced stages.” Also, her vocal classes never happen without theory lessons. Because, beyond a certain level, if the musician has to grow, he or she needs a strong base of theoretical knowledge, says Seetha. “Before starting a kriti, I will talk about the raga, composer, the meaning, the situation in which the krithi was composed, the intricacies of the raga the kriti explores and so on. Only then, they can internalise it,” Seetha says. “Also, our kritis have a lot of information. For instance, Dikshitar kritis are packed with the knowledge of ancient temples, their deities and so on. Seetha also conducts a lot of lecture demonstrations across India and abroad. “I have to take forward the legacy of my great gurus. My students have great calibre and I have the opportunity to nurture them. Also, I am teaching many old women, who suffer from age-related issues. Some of them are leading a very lonely life. Music is a great relief for them. I am happy that I am able to provide them with some peace and happiness with music,” she concludes.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 6:04:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/seetha-narayanan-a-passionate-music-teacher/article30285777.ece

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