petervas

Lesson One – Mayamalavagowla

In Arts, Carnatic, Music, Music on April 14, 2013 at 4:20 pm

 
 
Mayamalavagowla
 
 
 
I am a closet guitarist. When the institute where I train, offered me a chance to take a few free classes, I asked more out of a whim: you wouldn’t happen to teach carnatic vocals, do you?

Laxman, the institute manager, swiveled around in his chair towards a girl seated next to him and gave her two thumbs up. Then he swiveled back towards me with the same two thumbs lifted in elation. Responding to my quizzical look, he said, throwing a glance at the girl –

The teacher just accepted our offer to join us, about five minutes back! Your classes begin next week

I gauged her to be a pleasant 20-something. Every teacher here at this institute, was a 20-something and she fit in like a glove. It was me that was a bit fossilized at the edges.

I have been enjoying carnatic music for a long time. I remember it playing on our Murphy vacuum-tube-valve-radio of my childhood. It would entice me with it’s green-glowing magic-eye, like a firefly on a dark night. All India Radio ruled our house. A time before the advent of television. The gadgets of today appear to be post-armageddon by comparison! But I had never taken any formal carnatic vocal classes.

Armed with an old memory of having bagged a first prize for western style singing, a stainless steel lunch box, that we later etched my name on (for posterity, joked a sibling), I caved in to a heady rhetorical question – Why not?

I sharpened my two HB pencils and put it inside my soft leather pencil pouch. I threw in the sharpener and an eraser for good measure. Just in case we need that. There might be a lot of note taking. Don’t want to be caught without the correct instruments of this trade. I went to class with a mix of anticipation and nervousness. The guitar, on the other hand, was a safe bet, a familiar territory, do some fly-by strumming and pass off as an incorrigible junkie. Vocals sounded plain defeating. I was setting myself up for a grand fall here.

I waited for a few minutes inside our sound-proof audio room. Simple mercies, this soundproofing. I do not want the entire world to listen in!.

Did you guys meet yet? Laxman stopped by to ask.

No, I said, somewhat relieved.

She probably did not recognize you, he said, and went in search of her.

Why don’t we keep it that way? I thought, fidgeting nervously with my notebook.

Inside my head, I am a smart-aleck.  Outside, I wasn’t so sure.

She barges in, while I am still appreciating the sound-proofing materials.

Hello, how are you, I inquired in my super-cool natural voice.

I did put on a brave front till she asked me to sing. I gulped some much needed oxygen.

Did I hear that right? Me? Sing? I flatly refused to sing, to which she said –

You have to, or we will never know your pitch!

I thought to myself – She is forcing me to sing, is this even legal?

I do all this thinking, but she is firm in her demands.

I did some quick thinking and took out my mobile with a flourish. Brilliant, I’ll just sing-along. I played a carnatic tune by Karthik.

Big mistake.

I cannot sing like Karthik. I cannot breathe like Karthik. I am no Karthik. Here is what my mobile played:

 
 

 
 

The silly machine assumed that I will adhere to pure gold standards. Wrong!

I started off with my eyes closed. Closing ones eyes during such times is a very cool ostrich trick. I felt I had sound-proofed myself from eternal damnation. After about a minute that seemed to have lasted forever, I opened my eyes, expecting her to have run away or disappeared from the audio room.

But there she was. Unmoved. Unsympathetic. Not a trace of humor to break the embarrassment, in the relentless pursuit of music and it’s teaching.

The demolition was complete. Vestiges of my self-respect were visibly floating around the audio room. I coughed silently. Mostly to comfort myself.

I don’t remember all of the other details in this one hour session, as the carnatic vocabulary fell on me like a Chennai torrent on a tin roof. Thankfully, all bad things come to an end too. She proffered a hand-shake in the end and then introduces herself. Interesting, I thought to myself. She first icily demolishes, then she warms up.

The next day after my vocal misadventure, I open my notebook over a cup of coffee in the morning. Trying to remember what I had learned and hoping my note-taking will rescue me from a quickly fading memory. A near-blank first page greeted me, and one word, scribbled hastily on it, stared back at me – Mayamalavagowla.

Just one word.

I was overly equipped with assorted accouterments to scribble this one raga’s name in a notebook of 100 pages. The lessons must have glided smoothly over my head, for me to have trapped just one butterfly in an hour. I have work to do. This is a beginner’s raga. It should have had an easy two-syllable name. I’d have named it Ma-ya.

Oh! why did they have to complicate it?
 
 
Here is Professor Mysore Nagamani Srinath teaching her students Mayamalavagowla. Great for practice, I listen to her while driving, and practice with the windows rolled-up!
 
 

 
 
 
 

Other Short Stories
bharathi pieta pieta
The anklet bells went dead
Gudiya – A doll that saved me A Delivery in the Slow Mail

 
 

 

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  1. Most ragas were named after a place(region). Maya-Malavagowla seems to indicate a place. There is some good article about this here:http://www.carnaticindia.com/article3.html

    There are good beginners lessons (Sarali, Janta…in different pitch/kattai) and tutorials on singing different kirtis at http://www.shivkumar.org/music/

    Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Nottusvara sAhitya(Indian lyrics for western notes) are good kirtis for beginners.

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