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Carnatic music through stories

Ms. Vanitha Suresh is a trained carnatic musician living and working at Middleton, Wisconsin, USA. She has been actively promoting carnatic music through international and Indian music organizations.

Namaskaram.
You have learnt music from a lot of people and also are a performing artiste. Other than that, you seem to be teaching music through stories, or stories through music. I am not clear about what exactly you are doing. Can you please explain it?
I have been doing this whole story telling session where I teach those concepts of Carnatic music through stories I have been narrating to my own children for many years actually, especially for very young audiences, say like 3-5 years age group also. Most recently I have been consulting for “ShrotaHouse”, an organization that has been incubated in IIM, Bangalore. I have been doing some storytelling through them online. But when I do it offline, we have always had groups like 30-40 kids. The kids sit in a circle and I would basically expose them to concepts like swaras, arohanam, avarohanam, and ragam particularly. For example, particularly here where I live, since they are very conversant with C Major scale, which is the raga shankarabharanam , I use this raga as my example and build on that. I use things like nursery rhymes and stories involving nice characters like kings, queens, castles, dragons, etc which will excite them. I use them to explain the whole story actually. I call it the Land of shankarabharanam.

When you mention about kids there, does that mean Indian kids or do you teach foreigners too?
Actually, I have done this mostly with the local non-Indian kids.

I was wondering, from where would you be getting the response. You don’t get many Indian kids do you?
I have done it mostly for the kids here in a preschool kind of a set-up.

And how successful has it been?
It has been very successful. The teachers say that the kids were very fascinated and they were really very attracted to it. To give you an example, I tell them a story of the king, queen and the knights. I compare the castle to Carnatic music and the occupants are the swaras. If I tell you everything, the joy of the story will be lost. But to briefly describe the idea behind it, the swaras basically go and explore many different lands, and those lands are ragas basically. To begin with, the journey that they take to the land of shankarabharanam is what I describe. For instance, when I sing "ss pp dd p mm gg rrs", they immediately identify it as “Twinkle Twinkle little star”. So I try to use something which kids in this country are familiar with, but then, I sing them as swaras so that they can connect it with the tune.

After knowing that it is shankarabharanam, do they show any interest in Carnatic music?
Yes they do, I mean, not that many non-Indian kids so far, but a lot of Indian kids always want to come back and learn music. So, after I did this kind of Storytelling sessions through ”Shrotahouse” (shrotahouse.com), many parents have reached out and requested me to teach music to their children saying this is very fascinating. One important thing I learnt from my Guru Acharya Ratnakara Shri Chitravina Narasimhan is that the goal of a Guru should not only be to create performers, but also rasikas, connoisseurs, art patrons, and of course and those who want to learn art for art's sake. It is the exposure to Carnatic music which is most important.

Do you have any session for grown-ups too?
This sort of storytelling is clearly for kids to get them introduced to music. I have done musical discourses on Andal, Anjaneya and Ramanucharya in English that can be interesting for adults.

Not exactly storytelling, is there any method you use to propagate it among grown-ups?
Very much. To give you an idea, my guru Shri Chitravina N Ravikiran has written a very beautiful book on "Appreciating Carnatic Music". I used that as my guideline and did an online 1-semester elective course on Carnatic Music - 101 for my alma mater SASTRA University. It was very well received, I had about 60 students who registered for the course and completed it. Other than that, I have done many introductory sessions live, and on a lot of social media platforms. It is just like an introduction, and you may call it a bird’s eye view of Carnatic music. Here at the University of Wisconsin, we have a Centre for South Asia where they do a lot of outreach activity. Through them I have gone to schools and libraries where I have given lecture demonstrations on Carnatic music. I have also gone to schools where I do things for the faculty. I have done special presentations for Fulbright scholars through the Centre for South Asia. Typically, I explain that Carnatic music is a 2500 year old art form, then the difference between the solfege in Carnatic music and western music, what are the different scales we have, how many different janya ragas we have, the many composers we have, the great masters who have built our music over time, etc. I take time and effort to explain all this. Besides this I run a music school called Arohana Arts Academy, affiliated to the International Foundation of Carnatic Music through which I teach music. I was selected as the first Indian Immigrant and Master trainer in Carnatic Music by the Wisconsin Arts Board in 2013.

I have also founded a non-profit organization along with my husband, called Sciart Services through which I do a lot of work in propagating Carnatic music by bringing in artists and taking them to schools and different venues here so as to propagate Carnatic music. A big piece of work that I have been doing for the last 9 years is my role as Executive Director of the Melharmony Foundation that is based on the novel concept of world music created by my Guru Shri Chitravina Ravikiran in the year 2000. It is a systematic approach to exploring chords and counterpoints based on melodic progression as opposed to the more traditional harmonic progression. Through Melarmonically re-created works of the great masters, and brand new works, we try to propagate our music at the professional/school orchestra level so that people can listen to our music. Every year, we organise the twin composer festival, say for example, Beethoven and Dikshithar, Tyagaraja and Mozart, Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi and Bach that draws topflight artistes and audiences from all over the world. This year we will feature the works of Schubert and Shastri - Shyama Shastri, Subbaraya Shastri and Annaswamy Shastri, the entire family of composers. So, the orchestra will perform the works of our great masters as well as the composers from the West. A lot of students participate in it. It is a very beautiful festival which happens every year and this year it is going to be the 8th edition.

So, if they will perform our works, have you already trained them for this?
The piece will be Melharmonically re-created/composed from scratch and notated by my guru for the orchestra. So, he will create it in the Western Staff notation for them to follow, and this is a creative and time intensive process. They will play alongside Ravikiran Sir, Dikshitar’s pieces like Shri Saraswathy, Parvathi Patim, Shri Kantimatim, etc. For example in the Concert on the Square that was performed by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, we had an audience of 45000 people who watched it in Madison - Here is the concert on Youtube. The Melharmony Foundation has played a big role in reaching out to orchestras and this is a big part of what I do.

Through Sciart Services,(https://www.facebook.com/sciartservices) one of the many things we do is that we try to support the arts through concerts, and give the proceeds from that to underprivileged students in India. For example, we are collaborating with R R Sabha, Chennai and Abhinay Fine Arts - USA for a Navaratri festival which runs for 9 days in October. We have amazing artists lined up. It will be a ticketed program wherein all the proceeds will go to educate the underprivileged through Anandam's educational initiative. Head to https://rebrand.ly/sciartservices-vijaya to get your tickets today!

Is it for general education?
It is for general education and could be for music too. Besides supporting educational fees for school/college going students from lower income families, we have done music scholarships also. We have handed out close to 9 music scholarships, Rs.15.000/- each for students in India who are underprivileged but very talented. We have identified people from many places, like Salem, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, etc. even from small villages and given them scholarships. We interacted with all the candidates to thoroughly analyze whether they absolutely deserve financially before giving them the scholarship. We also work with underprivileged kids locally through the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County where we live.

Who helps you in this?
We have our own corpus. A lot of income from my music teaching goes into this. also my husband and I contribute from our income. And a lot of friends and donors contribute very generously. We have other sponsors and donors who do it in memory of their near and dear ones.

Apart from the money part of it, physically who helps you?
We have a team of people. Besides me and my husband - Prof. Krishnan Suresh, we have Dr Deepika Rajesh and Prithi Narasimhan on the Board of Directors. We have a lot of volunteers. We have an advisory board composed of people in the US and India who offer help. One person in particular is Mr Gopal Srinivasan from IIT Madras who vets out the credentials of the deserving students and supports us.

Thank you for your time and for reaching out to me.
Credits: Audio transcription by Poornima.

Testimonial on Vanitha’s storytelling session from Beth Racette - Music teacher from Preschool of the Arts, Wisconsin USA

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Art and community growing together...