Unapologetically vocal

A community singing session underway at Lamakaan, Banjara Hills   | Photo Credit: Arranged

When Tejaswinee Kelkar began to sing, she was only three years old. Her parents, both doctors in Nagpur, noticed their little girl had a natural inclination for tunes and sent her next door to train in Hindustani classical music, a decision that has since charted the meandering course Tejaswinee has journeyed in her quest to find her ‘voice’. Twenty-three years later, an engineering degree, a pitstop in Chennai where she made the best of her time at the K. M. Music Conservatory and a year spent working on a pet project to notate Hindustani classical music, she finds herself in Hyderabad where she continues her experiments with music. We don’t use the word ‘experiments’ lightly here; Tejaswinee is also a masters student at IIIT where she is studying, through experiments, how the mind interacts with music. Outside the laboratory she is a part of Deccan Voices and has more recently begun to conduct community singing sessions in the city. We caught up with her to talk about music and more.

“My master’s is in computer sciences but I study at a cognitive science lab so my area of research is primarily music and multimodality. I’m trying to study how music interacts with the visual and how spacio-temporal understanding affects how we perceive music etc..,” explains Tejaswinee whose interest in music as a discipline, rather than just a performance art began early on. “Once I was trained in voice, I began to try playing the piano,” says the singer who trained with Pandit Rajhans, Pandit T. Gopalrao Wadegaonkar and Kuldeep Sagre in her hometown Nagpur.

Although she spent the least time training under Pandit Gopalrao Wadegaonkar, it was under his guidance that she asked questions about the art. “He was experimental and different from the usual gurus who tend to put a lot of focus on the devotional aspect of classical music,” she recalls, “I understand the connection between religious devotion and music but that’s not how I wanted to study it. I find the assumption that devotion is implicit in classical music problematic as it also affects the way music is written about and taught in a historical context.” It is here that we get a glimpse into Tejaswinee’s thoughts about the way classical music is perceived in India. Her reservations about this perception kept her from pursuing a Bachelors degree in music as soon as she finished school. Instead, she took the safer route and got herself a degree in Industrial Engineering.

However, four years in college spent travelling across the country to perform both classical and western music at college festivals helped her decide that she wanted to pursue music academically. This led her to the K. M. Music Conservatory in Chennai where she did a Foundation course in Western Music. Following this, she also did a AMusTCL Diploma in western classical theory and composition from Trinity college of music, London.

In Hyderabad, Tejaswinee was also lucky enough to meet members of the Hyderabad Western Music Foundation, with whom she instantly struck a chord. She joined the Deccan Voices as a choir member and also conducted a beginner’s vocal course on behalf of HWMF last year. It was during a brainstorming session with HWMF’s Joe Koster that the idea to introduce Hyderabad to community singing came about. “Community singing is supposed to be therapeutic but it can also be done simply for fun. It’s also nice to know a diverse repertoire of songs from around the world,” points out the young vocalist. The singing sessions which are held every alternate Sunday at Lamakaan, have a different theme every week. Singing together can also be a great ice breaker, finds Tejaswinee. “At first many people are afraid to produce any sound but when they start singing together they realise that every mistake is a shared property of the group; then they become more confident.”

Before coming to Hyderabad to pursue music research, Tejaswinee spent a year in Chennai writing for musical publications and exploring what she wanted to do next. “During this time I was mainly trying to start a project for creating a visual notation system for Hindustani classical music,” she says. “Most research on Indian music has happened abroad. Even if Indian people have done it, it’s those who have been born and brought up abroad that make an effort to do it,” she points out. Tejaswinee thinks notation is important for many reasons. “In the west, the notation system has evolved with each composer. This has helped not just to develop computational methods of composing music but also because the method of capturing notated data led to the creation of a huge database of musical compositions. This, Tejaswinee feels, will make the form more accessible to other musicians and also help the Hindustani classical tradition to engage with the changes in musical production and audiences.

While she acknowledges that there have already been many versions of this renotation, they all come with various limitations. Tejaswinee’s method begins with the study of how gestures interact with music. “I thought this might give us an insight as to how music is viewed visually. There have been a lot of studies on ‘musical shapes’ and what the performer visualises while singing a particular note. I thought it would be interesting to apply the research to Hindustani music and see what happens,” she informs.

However, pursuing these goals involves treading the tricky line between respecting the classical tradition and evolving with the times. “Sometimes I feel as though I am transgressing by asking these questions but my intention is not to challenge the system but to encourage more critical thinking in classical music,” says Tejaswinee. “It is nice to think of a tradition as absolute but this might mean getting trapped in repeating the same things over and over again,” says Tejaswinee, who insists that there must be room to evolve.

At only 25 years old, she is often faced with the question of ‘right’. “ This is very unfair to people who are learning because while I understand that I cannot become an expert overnight, even the little understanding I have must not be dismissed because of my age,” adding that she would rather her idea be refuted with another idea than the fact that she is too young or inexperienced. Unfazed, Tejaswinee continues to be very vocal about her thoughts on the limitations of the tradition.

Mindful of the diminishing popularity of the classical arts, Tejaswinee thinks that it is the onus of engaging the audience lies with the performers themselves. “We are competing with pop and film music so as a performer you have to make an effort,” she says, referencing Ustad Ghulam Ali who explains every couplet and variation he is performing. “It’s hard to do but it’s inevitable, my father and grandfather can identify a raag despite not being musicians themselves but our generation cannot. There are many factors, economic and cultural, which affect what people are listening to but I think it’s important to make sure, as artists, that they are making a informed choice.”

Although she engages continuously with music, Tejaswinee has put off performing until she “decides what her ‘voice’ as an artist should be.” For now, she is happy sharing music through her community singing initiatives and exploring the more technical and neural side of things through her research.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 1:54:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/unapologetically-vocal/article5732720.ece

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