My Tryst with Shankar Mahadevan Academy

Written by Sivaramakrishnan Krishna Iyer on 15 March 2019

Naada Tanumanisham Shankaram (Chittaranjani Raga - Adi Talam) by Tyagaraja  

About two years ago, thanks to a nudge from our friend Sridhar Ranganathan, Founder and CEO of Shankar Mahadevan Academy, I ventured into learning to sing three krithis—Carnatic music, of course! (A ”kriti” is a type of composition in Carnatic music.)

Though I had crossed 90 years of age, feeling up to it in body and spirit, I took it up wholeheartedly. I felt in me the meaning of the words “it’s never too late to come to music”.

The songs, if I recall correctly, were Nada Tanumanisham (Chittaranjani Ragam) and Shambho Mahadeva (Panthuvarali ragam)—both, composed by Sri Thyagaraja, and Sri Kanthimathim (Hemavathi Ragam), by Muthuswami Dikshitar.

Unfortunately, I could not continue beyond the three songs due to health reasons.

I enjoyed this experience. The teaching was through live weekly video lessons with a young and accomplished teacher—Aneesh Bhat. Each lesson was 45 minutes long. The teacher was enthusiastic, which made the weekly sessions lively and engrossing.  

I took up learning these songs as a tribute to my father, Vaikom Krishna Iyer, who was a renowned mridangam vidwan and a teacher of Carnatic music.

And, in a small way, I felt it owed it to myself too. I came to Mumbai (then Bombay) when I was just 18, and after a few jobs settled into a lifelong career in banking. Owing to family commitments, I could never truly learn music under a teacher. But I remained a true listener all my life, and all my learning occurred from keen listening.  

At the end of the 12-week learning program, which ended in November 2016, I could sing the krithis to my satisfaction. My teacher was satisfied too.

Learning to sing online was a novel experience. That I could strike an easy chord with the teacher was a plus point—so much so that I did not feel any discomfort. The teaching level appeared adjusted to how well and how easily I was able to take up the songs.  

When I started the lessons, I was worried that I might be handicapped by my lack of knowledge about online technology, but with my son pitching in to make sure the teacher and I were connected well on time for each lesson, that was hardly a problem. I could complete the course smoothly.

A retired person with a lot of time to spare, I did not have to make any change in my routine. On the contrary, the music lessons added colour to my Saturday evenings. I would look forward to my class.

Since the Academy provided me the song lyrics with the notation, I did not face any difficulty practising my songs during the week before each class. My teacher Aneesh made the process easy by correcting any aberration on the spot.  

Learning the Anupallavi of Nada Tanumanisham

(A Carnatic krithi, typically, has three parts. It begins with the Pallavi, followed by the Anupallavi—the second part of the song, and ends with the Charanam.)

Learning this way, my confidence grew. When my daughter-in-law requested me to sing a song, I would readily sing one of these krithis. Earlier, I would hesitate; I felt I never knew any song well enough to sing it. It was an accomplishment, the credit for which goes entirely to the greatness of the composers and the divinity of the songs.

Singing Nada Tanumanisham to my family

With another prod from Sridhar, I am now going to make another attempt, to learn three more krithis. The songs I have chosen this time around are Evari mata vinnavo (Kambhoji ragam), composed by Sri Thyagaraja; Chetasri Balakrishnam (Dwijavanthi ragam), by Muthuswami Dikshitar; and Tharunam Idhamma (Gowli pantu ragam), by Syama Sastri. My mind says this time too I shall enjoy learning these songs.

I still wonder: why am I taking a class again? Two years have passed since my first tryst with the Academy. Not a day has passed since then, when I have not listened to krithis on YouTube—there’s a whole library of Carnatic songs out there. Yet, I have not learned another song the way I did when my class was on.

What is it about a class and a teacher that makes me want to learn again? I feel it is about the experience of practice and the validation from a teacher there and then. I guess for people like me, that matters. Personally speaking, I got the confidence to sing to my sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughter. And that can be very fulfilling.