By Sreevidhya Chandramouli
Edited by Kapila & Sushruta Chandramouli
My teenage and college years offered me an active musical learning experience with exposure to various traditions in the arts. At this time, there was an increasing awareness among the younger generation to share their cultural identity, realized through student organizations and cultural festivals. Alongside the established organizations for art in Chennai, the younger generation took interest in performing traditional arts. In this backdrop, I learnt compositions of various composers and especially those of Sri Mysore Vasudevachar under whom my mother apprenticed.
Though I had other interests, by chance I pursued arts for my undergraduate and graduate degrees; it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I began to enjoy the historical, textual, and practical side of music. My natural affinity for the arts led me to explore formal education in music in the light of literary works such as Kamba Ramayanam and Indian philosophy.
This time period of the late 1970s and early 80s also saw growth in the popularity of television, which brought in a sharp cultural shift. The television medium provided easy access to entertainment and heightened noise pollution, drowning the natural harmony and subtleties of the more traditional arts. The concert halls now reverberated with hyper-amplified performers and electrified Tamburas and Veenas. In my mind, the struggle had begun, as I was not able to enjoy the natural tonal qualities of the instruments. The tug between idealism and pragmatism was a polarizing experience and stayed with me for a long time. The changing musical tapestry coupled with the internal struggle led to a rebellious spirit: to carry the tradition with authenticity wherever it would flourish. Many memorable concerts with my mother come to my mind for their subtle acoustics from the Veena and voice, giving an ethereal experience.
An Immigrant Artist
Having newly married in the late eighties, I arrived at Houston, Texas, accompanying my husband. As with most immigrants coming from a developing to a developed nation, the shift in location was a journey of comparisons and contrasts. The transition from a world of art to a culture of entertainment and technology raised questions of whether I could continue what I believed to be a world of wonder and excitement. I often pondered about the scholars who visited my mother country and their experiences in a new environment. Perhaps I had the same concerns.
I began to grow into my new environment through the language most natural and familiar to me: music. I eagerly listened to all genres including gospels, a capella, symphonies, soft rock, and country music. These experiences led to the realization that my identity was deeply rooted in the subtleties of music; making the connections to the land, the sounds, and the culture were important to my survival as an artist.
The egalitarian nature of my family background in sharing music needed patronage. By the time I entered the field of art, the kings and wealthy elites who supported the previous generations no longer existed; instead, the support infrastructure for art became the responsibility of the common man. As a result, arts and academics separated into different parts of the day that best suited the common man. Every genre of Indian music had a particular time and space, and within that realm existed the identities of the members in that community. The ubiquitous nature of the family’s practice of art was in contrast to the challenges posed by the current times.
I slowly began to search for an Indian community and its surrounding cultural activity. Since I had never searched for anything, much less a community, I was intrigued by my new status in a society that I seldom knew or imagined. Under these circumstances, one day, my husband and I were invited to a house concert of South Indian music. With great expectations and a longing to meet people, we arrived at the house only to be surprised by the affluence of the community and its penchant for association to the arts and culture of its origin. The concert was performed by a young woman with accompaniments for a small audience. I quietly slid into the last row to listen, and throughout the performance kept the taalam with rapt attention.
The program began with grand fanfare of Viriboni, an ata tala varnam, and proceeded with the orderly paraphernalia of compositions. I was pleased with the performance and felt happy to know that there was a place for Indian classical arts in a foreign land. Toward the end of the program, there were audience requests for popular compositions, to which the artists often obliged. To my surprise and shock, one of the requests was a song from the 1980 Indian film Qurbani, to which the audience responded with broad smiles and a sigh of relief that the lighter moments of the evening were unfolding. Suddenly, I was transported into the space of a Bollywood scene, and the ambience transformed to accommodate the young audience. I began to get a glimpse of cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology at play. At a different level, this experience also prepared me to question the purpose of my journey and how I was going to carry on. It was imperative I braced myself to find a way to carry the tradition while transporting the audience through a time travel.
Stay tuned for the third part in this article series, which explores further developments in the western hemisphere.