Immersed in Carnatic music

David Reck.Photo: R. Ravindran   | Photo Credit: R_Ravindran

“Do you know Tamil? Really?”, was the exclamatory question from an enthusiastic young autograph-seeker. “Yes I do,” said the man as he signed his name in Tamil. Professor David Reck, 74, retired from Amherst College, USA, was the cause of this wonderment. India knows him through the interest he evinced in the veena. Someone once said that he is more Indian than many of us. How true!

“The veena chose me,” he says in response to the question “Why veena?” He was offered a Rockefeller fellowship to travel in 1968 and spontaneously chose India as his destination. He was a Texas man, an American and a professional musician-composer steeped in Western music, but had his family connections in India. “My grandmother was born here,” he reveals and goes on, ”It was music that drew me to India. My wife Carol and I came here in 1968 without any kind of preparation.” Reck was at the Rishi Valley School for a few months and then someone whispered to him, “‘If it is music, it must be Madras (Chennai). I still remember the first concert I attended. It was by M.S. Subbulakshmi, at Perambur. There was a torrential downpour after the concert and we could not even see an auto or a taxi. A car stopped by and offered us a lift. The hand that stretched towards us was that of T. Sadasivam. So, we got in and travelled with MS seated right behind us!”

Sadasivam got Reck admitted into the Central College for Carnatic Music where KVN was teaching and saw to it that Reck met many prominent musicians. He makes special mention here about Gokaranam Ramachandra Iyer from whom he learnt the veena. Then they travelled a lot, visiting places such as Madurai, “a wonderful place”, and all this became part of the process of discovering South India. They also attended many concerts and dance performances. Reck remembers being taken to Musiri’s house near Luz.

Reck knew to play the sitar when he came to India and at Rishi Valley School, his teacher was a veena player. This possibly was the reason for his special interest in the veena, and he began to adopt the Karaikudi style. “Karaikudi Subramaniam was a young man at that time,” he recalls. “Eventually, I became a disciple of Ranganayaki Rajagopalan and learnt from this great veena player for the next 35 years. I still go to her for lessons. I also learnt some Dikshitar kritis from Vidhushi Kalpagam Swaminathan.”

About Kalpagam Swaminathan, he points out, “Remember here is the case of an 88- year-old teaching me, who is standing at 74.” And laughs heartily. -- Ageless laughter!

Talking of “getting to” gamakas, he tells you how frustrated he was when three year olds were able to sing gamakas whereas he could not even understand or even hear the basic gamakas. “It is the question of training your ear, because all said and done, we are more in tune with Western music and it therefore becomes our second language.” He also got some advice from the Principal of Music College when he went to him with this difficulty. The teacher had said: “You Americans do not know the word patience. You plant a seed, pour water and invest it with fertilisers and want it to flower the next day. That, however, will happen only when its time comes.” Nowadays when Reck tries his hand at something new and if it doesn’t fructify, he postpones it for another day. “It is also like the athlete or the cricketer who spins the ball. His muscles are important and for the musician, these muscles in action are more tender, especially those on the finger tips. The hand-eye coordination is also necessary. Look at the great veena vidwans and think of the hard work they have put in. Hopefully, I have blossomed after so many years of training,” he confesses modestly. He has written a couple of books, titled “Music of the whole Earth” (1970’s) and another, “Worlds of Music” which he has co-authored with other eminent men.

“Carol and I have taken to the Indian style of life. We are fortunately vegetarians, are used to sleeping on the floor, can cook using a kerosene stove and Carol is comfortable in a sari. Chennai in the past was one big village, where all lights would go off at 9 p.m. and people would be up and about at 5.30 in the morning, singing and becoming active pretty soon. Now it is more frantic, more sabhas and hence more music. I love Tamil film songs, both old and new and we have a good collection of cassettes and compact discs.” An eclectic outlook!

This couple got together in 1968, and a little arithmetic would tell you that it has been more than 40 years of a happy married life. “My plan for the future would be to get better and better in playing this instrument, by gaining a deeper understanding of music and this understanding occurs as you grow older. I would like to learn a few more Dikshitar kritis and concentrate on ragas. I have survived a heart attack and cancer. If I am alive today it is only because of the veena.”


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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 3:39:35 AM |

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