lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


"Sa ma ga ma ri ga sa ri, sa ga ri ga sa ri ga ma" I played.

It was some eight months since I touched the veena. My cousin brought it as he came to visit us and I was glad to have it back.

New relationship and new life but old habits die hard, so I started with the beginner's exercises. The sarali and janta svaras were done, in three tempi. Now on to the lovely jumps, I told myself, as I struck the drone strings to get the beat set.

So, "sa ma ga ma ri ga sa ri, sa ga ri ga sa ri ga ma" I played, paying attention to technique, raising the second finger to sound the 'ga', and remembering to strike the drone strings to indicate beat.

What's that, he asked.

I was surprised. It's just baby stuff, honey, I said. I need to get back fluency and I need to develop callouses, so I am doing basic exercises, I explained.

I know that, he said, a trifle impatiently, but what was it you played just now?

Datu svaras, I said, mystified.

It seems that since the musical schools diverged sometime in the thirteenth century, Carnatic music was blessed by composers who thought about the learning process and how best to teach the rudiments of music, and composers who took the trouble to codify lessons. Hindustani music seems to have no set lessons for the beginner.

I am glad there was a Purandara Dasa, though. I rather like the elementary exercises, they are fun. The sarali, janta and the datu exercises teach a student, whether a budding vocalist or an aspiring instrumentalist, a great deal.

It is not just scales. They teach, especially because the mode Mayamalavagowla is symmetrical in both halves of the octave, the relationships between the notes, and the distances. The exercises make the solfege familiar, and make it easier to learn other modes, the different pitches and tones.

The sarali exercises teach the basic scale, and grouping of notes to make phrases. The janta exercises teach twin notes and stresses, ascending and descending through the octave.

Of these exercises, the datu svaras are really enchanting. They teach how to move up the scale, leaping over a few notes, to glide back and forth on four notes before moving higher up in the scale and repeating the frolicking till the end of the octave is reached, and then to descend in symmetrical glides. There are several of these exercises, all variations on the theme of omission and jumps.

But he didn't know these marvels. Play that again, slowly this time, he demanded.

We both played music, he the sarod and I the veena. He was a serious musician, and I, just a student. He understood music, contemplated techniques and thought and studied the art. I was always a student, needing a lesson to master, and a teacher to play the lesson back for. I was teaching myself to learn without a teacher, but before that, I needed to get back to playing with ease.

Surprised that he didn't know the exercises, I played "Sa ri sa ga sa ma ga ri, sa ga ri ga sa ri ga ma" for him. And I played " Sa ga sa ri ga ri ma ga, sa ma ga ri sa ri ga ma," too.

Like me, he was taken by the first exercise I played, though. It had a lovely logic, "sa ma ga ma ri ga sa ri," did. The next day, as he was warming up, he played the exercise and I laughed as he missed the progression. He demanded I write it down for him, and I did.

Being the serious musician he was, he didn't stop at the end of the octave, but carried on up the scale, and I tried that out on the veena, myself. It was odd to hear the Carnatic musical exercises on the sarod, though.

When he took on a student, and taught him the exercise, I smiled a superior smile to myself; we have had the lessons for hundreds of years, after all.

This post is dedicated with affection to the fabulously envious dear girl, who is an enviable poet herself. Thank you for reminding me of music lessons, Neha.



Blogger neha vish said...

Dear Lali, thanks for this. What came across as tedious then has its own rewards.

The sarod is mysteriously close to the human vocal chord isn't it? I always get the feeling that a real person is singing through it.

6:50 pm  
Anonymous Ash said...

This is more like it. You could have elaborated more about Purandara Dasa, though. Got over your toy boy phrase, it seems, and a good thing too. Now post a poem.

10:06 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Neha- You are thinking of the great Khan of the late twentieth century when you say that a sarod is close to vocal music, I think. Musical instruments evolved to carry music beyond the capabilities of vocal chords, though. The Khan did use vocal techniques to surprise, but there are things one can do with an instrument that can't be reproduced by human voice. Let me stop ranting now. :-)

Ash- Pliss to stop nagging, vonly. Weevil naught bee doing pomes any time soon vonly.

11:27 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

And Ash, tee hee. Phrase or phase?

11:29 pm  
Blogger anantha said...

Missus Em: You have inspired me to go and buy that violin to replace the one that I haven't touched for 10 years now. I was going get my own from back home. But I found that it had been handed down to my cousin who not only learns violin and music, but has been dancing as part of her Bharathanatyam class in various dance dramas. And she is like 10 years of age! So I couldn't bear to ask her to take it back!

But anyhoo, now I think I will go and get one here. It will be a "western" violin, but my own back home was a western version too.

And I remember "Sa ri sa ga ri ga ri ma, sa ma ga ri sa ri ga ma" too! Is this my own invention?

1:33 am  
Blogger anantha said...

And btw, you ought to gift him a copy of A. S. Panchapakesa Iyer's Ganamrutha Bodhini in English!

1:38 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anantha- Go on and buy that violin, and here's wishing you great times with it.

I know that one. These exercises differ from teacher to teacher, I think, but I learnt that from my Ganakala Bodhini.

And he did read Sambamoorthy's South Indian Music, which is a lovely work, by the way. I have a few books on music, after all. :-)

2:17 pm  
Blogger anantha said...

I know that one. These exercises differ from teacher to teacher, I think, but I learnt that from my Ganakala Bodhini.

Wow. I thought Ganamrutha Bodhini was the ultimate training lit for beginners. Now I hear another name. It seems to be a Telugu variant. And lessons differ from teacher to teacher? You know all 6 of my teachers followed the same lessons! Ya, I had 6 different teachers, learnt for 9 years and went through the Ganamrutha Bodhini 6 times, starting afresh every time I moved/changed teachers. In fact I should blog about my violin lessons and the sometime. I have it in draft somewhere i think! Makes an interesting case study of the classic conflict between play vs semi-forced study that is a feature of every child's brain!

11:58 pm  
Blogger Revealed said...

My memory of music lessons involve me and my sis giggling hysterically and endlessly. Think we destroyed a paatu maami or two in our career as budding musicians.
On another note, though, I lovvvvved your Madras post. I didn't think there were so many bloggers from home! Good to know :D.

1:47 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anantha- There is Sangeeta Vidya Darpanam too. That is an excellent book. But 6 teachers? Really? I only ever had one before Chittibabu.

I chose to learn, so I never had the conflict, though. At the height of my veena-playing days I used to do 'saadhana' for 4 hours a day.

Revealed- Hi. This forcing music lessons on children is a peculiarly Tamil thing, no?

Thanks, and I think there are more bloggers than I mentioned. I only met the ones I read, anyhow. :D

10:38 am  
Blogger anantha said...

Missus Em: Ya 6 teachers. Between mom being pregnant with my sister when I was 6 or 7 to the three houses that I have lived during my school days, I had to change teachers 6 times. And now I sometimes regret not paying enough attention.
As for the conflict, music was thrust upon me for the strangest of (to me) reasons. But the catalyst was the Saturday afternoon that I once spent on the street with kids of similar age (6 or 7 years) playing this game that sort of resembled India and Pakistan shelling each other, except that none of us had helmets on and the shells were palm sized stones. Evening arrived with me nursing a bloody forehead from an errant "shell" that I could not avoid. That led to me spending many an evening in the next 10 years inside the house reluctantly wielding a violin with all the other kids running after a ball in my terrace. It was a tough choice that I never really made, instead trying to tread that thin line. But I would be unhappy if I had chosen one over the other for sure!
But come to think of it, kids of that age, these days have it much more tougher. My 8 year old cousin takes so many classes that I wonder if he plays at all, outside the house that is. He plays a hell lot of video games, something that I caught on much much later.

10:12 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anantha- Oh, yes, the house arrest, kind of forced learning when you are longing to do something else. I know that feeling.

But I agree with you about children these days, so what do you play? I play Doom 2 (or 3 or whatever)and Quake and Duke Nukem, Need for Speed, and what do you play? I learnt about Beyblades and so on thanks to my nephew a couple of years ago, and to think we made do with simple tops!

10:34 pm  
Blogger Revealed said...

And we had neither the tops nor the beyblades :P. The unfortunate generation stuck between the gud ol' days and the gud new ones. :).

Yeah, it does seem a peculiarly tamil phenomenon. It no doubt indicates some sorta parental oppression of children and what not. Who can keep up with these things? :D

2:28 am  
Blogger anantha said...

I play mainly PC based driving simulation games - The Need for Speed series, Colin McRae series, the GP series. Actually I try any driving game at least once before decided if it is worth completing or not. I used to be fond of golf games though I haven't played golf in real life. And I find flight simulations too complicated to be a pastime. Lately I have also been playing some NFL (American football) based games too. And since I have heavy fingers, I run through keyboards like crazy!
And what on earth is a Beyblade? Time to google for it! My graduate advisor's kids were into "transformers", which "shocked" me till my advisor clarified that they are shape changing robots! Last year I actually found one that transforms into a Subaru Impreza car, which at one point used to be my favorite car on the Colin McRae series of games, thanks to all the World Rally Championship coverage on Doordarshan. Now I actually drive a Impreza daily, which is cool! And I have that "transformer" in my office cube these days too! The face neatly fits under the bonnet near the engine!

2:54 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Revealed- Never fear, whichever generation you belong to, you will have your own good ol' days, I tell you. :-)

Anantha- LOL. I meant that if kids these days ask the question, 'what do you play,' it is about games, not musical instruments. I dislike driving games. The only games I ever completed were Starship Titanic and Prince of Persia.

So you drive a subbudu? Cool.

8:54 am  
Blogger anantha said...

Aaah.. for a minute, you became the coolest lady I've met so far! I was like, whoa, she plays Doom, Quake and NFS! heh! But Prince of Persia is cool too! :)

11:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am jealous of all these people, Lali. Will you play 'sa ma ga ma ri ga sa ri' for me one day?

Secret admirer

12:12 am  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Anantha- Sigh, she doesn't play Doom, Quake or NFS. She ain't a cool lady.

Anon- Get a name first.

11:03 pm  

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