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Carnatic music – Manorama Prasad and lifelong learning…

Carnatic music – Manorama Prasad and lifelong learning…

September 11 2014

As Darbar, a celebration of Indian classical music comes to Britain, we talk to a vocalist, who in many ways, epitomises the rising understanding and popularity of Carnatic music…

TO SOME, Indian classical music is a hard sell – just much as western classic is to your average non-descript UK punter.

But few would deny the intrinsic artistry at the heart of such musical creation and energy.

To hear such performers is – if a little subjectively – to immerse yourself in another world, another time, and another part of your sensory experience and perception.

Britain’s largest celebration of Indian classical music comes to the Southbank Centre next week and among the performers is Manorama Prasad (pictured above)

Regarded by many as one the foremost exponents of the Carnatic vocal tradition based in Europe , she will present “Escape into Carnatic Ragas” on Friday (September 19), as part of the fest.

Her concert will focus on the holy trinity of Carnatic composers, Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. It will be one of the more intimate and personal concerts.

She will be singing a composition from each in a performance that is scheduled to be about 90 minutes.

“There will be improvisation within a composition (known as Niraval),” outlined Prasad to

“Carnatic music is highly rhythmic and has a very detailed structure like maths and there are intrinsic patterns of mathematical numbers and you have to compose on the spot.”

It has long fascinated those from a western classical tradition where everything is written down and noted. In Indian traditions, a composition was handed down by a master or a guru to his pupils, from time immemorial (and is still for some) up to, at least, the last 60 or 70 years.

“It is more of an oral tradition, it’s not like western music in that regard, it’s gathered over the years,” explained Prasad.

“Indian (classical) music is very spiritual and devotional and everything is pointing out to spirituality. Carnatic literature is also very rich,” said Prasad.

Lyrics in the Carnatic tradition tend to be in Sanskrit, Telegu, Kannada and Tamil. In the concert, Prasad will render compositions from Tyagaraja and Sastri in Telegu and Muthuswami in Sanskrit.

Carnatic music started formally around the 14th-15th century with the figure of Purandara Dasa, who was a prolific composer, making as many 475,000 works, of which less than 1,000 it is believed, have survived.

He was also responsible for laying down the form of instruction students of Carnatic music should follow and to this day that has remained.

“He is very much the father of Carnatic music,” declared Prasad.

What is perhaps forgotten too, is that this music was composed for the masses originally – not for the kings or their darbars (intimate and largely private chambers of music).

“He wrote in colloquial Kannada, on the basic day to day issues and it appealed to the public very much,” Prasad added.

Over time, it became more specialised and intellectualised but in some ways this added to its lure and attraction.

“It’s lifelong learning,” Prasad enthused. “I cannot say I have finished, that doesn’t sound right.”

She started learning her art at the age of five, born into a family of musicians, in her native Bangalore in south India and began peforming at 13/14.

“My mother used to sing and my dad had a great knowledge of Carnatic music and my grandfather also used to sing, so there is musical background. There is a tradition.”

Alongside her academic studies, she excelled, attaining a prized Government of India Music scholarship and a Karnataka State grant to continue her musical education.

It brought her into contact with two very special musicians.

“I studied the highly improvisational and creative aspect of Carnatic music called ‘Ragam Tanam Pallavi’ – for that I learnt from the greatest genius of Carnatic music Dr ML Vasanthakumari.

“She was a specialist in Ragam Tanam Pallavi and I had the privilege of training with her for nearly two years.”

There was also a studentship under the tutelage of the grandson of another great Carnatic figure, Mysore Vasudev Archaraya, another composer of breath and vision.

“So I learnt various different aspects from various different experts.”

Her academic studies flourished and after acquiring a degree in economics and management, she settled into teaching the subject at universities and colleges in India.

She came to Britain after her marriage more than 30 years ago, has a son, who is a medical student and also sings, and began performing initially as a hobby here.

“I used to work for the United Nations (UN) as an economist, I used to travel a lot, but singing was my passionate hobby.”

In the beginning, she performed at community events but now the interest has gone far beyond that and has taken her to Europe to perform.

She said that depending on the make-up of the audience she does talk about the music she sings.

“If it’s very new crowd (to Carnatic) I will explain, and give them a brief history. You do need to educate audiences a bit sometimes, because of the complexity of the lyrics, rhythms and ragas (melodies and the basic structure of most Indian music).”

After five years of her UN work, she left this full-time occupation to focus on her music, combining performing with teaching and spreading the message and collaborating with others in the field.

She has been an artistic director, most noticeably for Samya and Tarang, the UK’s national South Asian Music Youth Orchestra and Indian Classical Music Ensemble.

Akkarai Subbalakshmi will provide violin accompaniment

In 2006, under her direction, the troupe performed for both the Queen and the President of India at the time, APJ Abdul Kalam.

In the same year it also performed at Darbar, and linked up with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a cross-genre concert in front of the late and very great sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar.

There are, then perhaps, few who have her wide and diverse pedigree and she herself represents the movement of Carnatic from the margins and the community to centre stage in Britain.

“It has reached a different level and Darbar has established itself – it is one of the most prestigious festivals outside India and having it at the Southbank centre is also very prestigious.”

For her concert, she will be accompanied by Akkarai S Subhalakshmi on violin, VV Ramanamurthy on mridangam and G Guruprasanna on kanjira.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture


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