In their own voice - Music, pressure-cooked

Any art form evolves naturally only when the most important factor called time is not compressed. The experience of learning music must be beyond technical virtuosity or the number of compositions one learns, says Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi 

December 16, 2010 08:42 am | Updated December 05, 2021 09:02 am IST

"The experience of learning music went beyond technical virtuosity or the number of compositions one learnt" - Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi. Photo: D. Krishnan

"The experience of learning music went beyond technical virtuosity or the number of compositions one learnt" - Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi. Photo: D. Krishnan

As a young girl, every single music class with my father and guru Lalgudi Jayaraman was an experience to be remembered and cherished. Like his other students, I was also fed the staple diet of technical aspects in music such as korvais , poruttams, tricky eduppus and challenging pallavis . But there was much more to every learning session.

Each one was a stroll through the garden of music, taking time to reflect on every composition and raga. We were taught not only the grammar and intricacies, but also what made the compositions beautiful and soul-stirring.

Seated on a cane chair, with students around him on the floor, my guru would, for instance, render and teach a nuance in a Tyagaraja composition in a choked voice. He would pause with tears in his eyes and explain the beauty of the lyrics, overwhelmed by the composer’s poetic fantasy and the ease with which the raga has carried the lyrics. In effect, my guru was visualising for the students the scene of Tyagaraja’s monologues with Rama. He would often marvel at the sheer beauty of a musical phrase, the juxtaposition of two contrasting notes, and how the expression changed when a mere oscillation was handled differently.

The experience of learning music went beyond technical virtuosity or the number of compositions one learnt. The leisure with which we dwelt on each piece, and the finer aspects of music, helped us to absorb music as an elevating art than just a skill mastered to perform in public. For many years, I did not learn with the intent of participating in a competition, or performing on stage. The only pressure that I faced as a young student was to get my guru’s nod or smile of approval. This rich experience has defined me as a musician, and influenced my approach to creativity in music.

Times have indeed changed now. We have made enormous strides as a nation. Technology has pervaded every aspect of our lives. Life is much faster paced and more competitive. Children are today far more informed, exposed and intelligent. They are multifaceted, and excel in academics, sport and art.

Carnatic music has also benefited from this progress. More youngsters are learning this art form now than ever before. There is a proliferation of musical institutions, sabhas, teachers and students. More people are adopting music as a full-time profession. With the aid of technology, music is more accessible and has gained much popularity overseas.

Serious compromises

While this is encouraging, there are serious compromises. Children and young adults are under intense pressure to do well in all disciplines, all at once.

The gurukula system is a thing of the past, and we can’t dream of something like it now. What is of concern however is that today, much of the teaching and learning happens in crash-course mode, with both teachers and students having to ration time across multiple interests and commitments, and wanting to make the most of available time. Students are injected with complex compositions in a 5-day crash-course but have no time to ruminate over the beauty of such inspired pieces, or the greatness of the composers and their minds.

Today there is no dearth of technical virtuosity and theoretical knowledge. Many areas of expertise, hitherto the prerogative of professionals, are handled with ease even by students with only a few years of training. This is thanks to dedicated teachers, peer pressure and pressure from parents who push their children to enrol in specialised competitions. They can tackle challenges thrown at them by expert judges in front of an audience and TV viewers. With intense preparation like that for the IIT JEE or CAT, music is pressure-cooked and ready for any dissertation.

But in all this, are we not dishing out syllabus-oriented music, akin to scholastic education, and missing out on true learning? When can we find time to reflect on the beauty of music and teach students to delve deeper, beyond the immediate and the obvious?

Any art form evolves naturally only when the most important factor called time is not compressed. As my guru once said beautifully, “Though we can create the required temperature and pressure to make American diamonds, it takes time to get a real diamond, and time is simply beyond any duplication or substitution.”

There is no doubt that a student with practice matures to become a seasoned performer and ripens to be an artist who would sing forgetting the audience or critics and find peace in singing for oneself. Unless the right perspective and values are imparted by teachers, parents and institutions to the students, music will be mastered as an intricate and laborious skill and not as an elevating fine art.

Music is pressure-cooked at various stages to be served as a multi-cuisine dish on the competition and concert stage. Are we forcibly exercising and expanding music for the sake of novelty? Are we running the risk of losing the soul and spirit of sangeetam and svanubhavam (self-experience)? We have a responsibility to pass on the art of pausing and absorbing the essence of music. Is it novelty or virtuosity, or the search for deeper elements in music that helped the great masters of yesteryear to breathe life into their music, and create music that has stood the test of time?

Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi is a leading violinist and the daughter and disciple of the legend Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. Her website is

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