Carnatic keys

What links Bob Dylan and Carnatic music?

The rock era’s poet laureate teaches us an important lesson on the power of music.

My head is full of Bob Dylan as I write this column. As I keep telling anyone who would care to listen, Dylan, at his best, is a genre-bender – he combines poetry and music, verse and melody so seamlessly that they cease to exist in isolation. This is why the furore over him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is redundant. Dylan’s music is literature in motion, poetry in song. It ought to be celebrated, for expanding the conventional notion of poetry.

So what do I bring him up in this column on Carnatic music?

While searching for why Dylan is important to me, and to so many others, I realised something significant. Music travels faster than words – indeed, it becomes the catalyst propelling words into unfamiliar topographies. No wonder then, we have school choirs in the United States paying tribute to AR Rahman in Tamil. Or the fact that in several music establishments, from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh, we can hear Dylan being sung by people whose English differs markedly from the twang and faithful rendition of the rock era’s poet laureate.

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Coral Reef Senior High’s Cuda Chorus performs Balleilakka, a song composed by AR Rehman for the film 'Sivaji' (2007).

Another realisation dawned on me, when I heard this faithful rendition of Carnatic music by students of American origin, as it did the rounds on social media a while ago. They are all students of Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, and there is an interesting story behind the performance.

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Students of Carnatic Music at Wesleyan University perform 'Sri Kamalambike'.

In a dim-lit club, somewhere north of Columbia University in New York, I once ran into a jazz saxophonist. He was playing a haunting tune, at once familiar and strange. The more the music enveloped me, the more I realised I was listening to a melodic structure that resembled Raga Chakravakam (which is similar to Raga Ahir Bhairav). A conversation with him revealed he had listened to the musician Jon Higgins at Wesleyan University three decades ago.

Jon Higgins is one of the most unusual stories in the annals of Carnatic music. An American music scholar, ethnomusicologist and singer, he studied Indian music under T Vishwanathan (Vishwa) and his well-known siblings T Ranganathan (who, along with Robert E Brown, pioneered the Indian music programme at Wesleyan University) and the legendary Balasaraswati.

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Jon B Higgins in concert.

Here was an outstanding example of reverse migration, a student of European classical music traveling to India to study and perform South Indian classical music and that too at a time when Skype classes and online music transfers did not exist. Higgins became a respected performer and did much to propagate serious study of Indian classical music in North America, founding the Indian Music Studies programme at Canada’s York University with master percussionists Trichy Sankaran in the 1970s.

The legacy of such wonderful people continues in the programmes and performances of students of non-Indian descent at Wesleyan University and other educational institutions in the United States. Boston and Bhairavi are not that disconnected, and this idea of a small world was created long before technology accelerated the process.

When that crazy poet from Minnesota said “The times they are a changin’”, I guess he knew there were equally crazy folks spreading their oeuvre in the strangest of places, and making the world come together through music.

The writer is a well-known pianist based in Chennai and a music educator.

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