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For intellectual appeal


The human voice has been a perennial source of interest for Dr. S.A.K. Durga, chosen for the Musicologist Award by the Music Academy this year.

For Durga, every academic endeavour has been a voyage of discovery.

Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Eminent scholar and more: S.A.K. Durga.

She has entertained Queen Elizabeth with her music. Not once, but five times. She’s the first Asian to have published a book on Ethnomusicology, and is the first recipient of the musicologist award from the Music Academy. These and more are the highlights of Dr. S.A.K. Durga’s music journey, which began in Kumbakonam.

Her grandfather, Swaminatha Ayyar, was a patron of music, and musicians visiting Kumbakonam performed in his house.

The patronage continued under Durga’s father, S.A. Venkatrama Iyer, who would insist that six-year old Durga sit through four-hour concerts without fidgeting.

Her mother was her first guru, and when she was eight, Durga began lessons under Tirukkodikaval Venkatrama Iyer, and when she was eleven, she began lessons with Madurai Mani Iyer.

“Sruti perfection in tone and microtone was Mani Iyer’s speciality. After a practice session with the tambura, he’d tell me to put away the tambura and sing, keeping to the same sruti. He would make me repeat a kriti many times. So over a 12-year period, I learnt only four varnams and 28 kritis from him.”

Durga disapproves of the overload in University courses, where a student has to learn 75 kritis, in addition to RTPs in just three years.

Her first kutcheri

Her music training continued under Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, a close family friend. Her first kutcheri was at a wedding in the family of C.S. Jayaraman. B.A. Music in Stella Maris exposed her to Western music. Master’s followed, which got her a gold medal. She then went on to do her M.Litt at the University of Madras, and her thesis was “Voice culture, with special reference to South Indian music.”

She later followed up her interest in voice culture with further research in collaboration with Pradip Sircar, Head of the Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Kanpur. She emphasises the need to use the resonators of the human voice — the throat, nose, mouth — rightly. “For madhya sthaayi, pharyngeal resonance is required, and for taara sthaayi, mouth and head resonance are required,” she says. “Articulation is an integral part of voice training, and DKP is the best example of perfect articulation.”

For Durga, every academic endeavour has been a voyage of discovery. For example, when she did her Ph. D on “Opera in South India,” under Dr. L. Isaac of the Madras University, she realised that what we call operas are not really operas in the sense in which Westerners understand the term. “Opera is just a convenient term we use. We have nritya natakams and sangeetha natakams, but no operas. S.G. Kittappa came up with what he called ‘Isai Natakams.’ These could perhaps be called Indian operas.”

While teaching at the Madras University, Durga was invited to lecture at Denver. However, what was supposed to be a week-long stay, extended into a long sojourn, when she was offered a scholarship to do yet another Ph.D, this time in Ethnomusicology, at Wesleyan University. “This was something I hadn’t expected. I only had three saris, and had to go and buy some more in New York!” she says. And of course, she wouldn’t dream of wearing anything else. In the 13 years she was in the U.S., she never wore anything but saris. And she never learnt how to drive a car!

How did she manage? “I would take a cab. And what with cabs and eating out, I hardly saved anything.”

She completed her Ph. D, with Jon Higgins and T. Viswanathan as her guides, and was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt fellowship to do post doctoral research at Yale University. It was while she was at Yale, that she learnt Gregorian chants, from Jeffrey Rowthorn and Rev. Fr. John Cook.

Weekends saw her in New York, where she would take in operas at the Metropolitan Opera, microtonal music or fusion.

Studies in fusion

Fusion? Isn’t that something traditionalists frown upon? “That’s because people don’t do fusion in a scientific way. I studied fusion methodology under Yehudi Menuhin. Menuhin, who’s a vegetarian, would give an example to explain what fusion should be like.

‘Take your sambar,’ he’d say. ‘It’s got lots of ingredients. But when you eat it, you taste sambar. None of the ingredients stands out. That’s what fusion music should be — all the components blending into a neat whole. One must write a composition for a particular fusion concert, depending on the instruments that are going to be used. One can’t take a ‘Vatapi’ and do fusion.’”

Durga has done Indian and Indonesian fusion with Prof. Sumarsam of Wesleyan University, and Indian and African fusion music with Dr. Akin Euba of Pittsburgh University.

She’s sung in a fusion music concert, conducted by Henri Brant, a Hollywood conductor. Titled ‘Meteor Farm’, the concert was nominated for a Pulitzer.

Durga has published eight books, and is busy giving shape to lectures and organising lectures on behalf of the Centre for Ethnomusicology, of which she is Director.

Does she wish she’d been a vocalist instead of a musicologist?

“Sometimes, yes. Musicians get more recognition than musicologists. But musicology is intellectually appealing. So most often, I am happy I’m a musicologist. The Music Academy, by instituting an award for a musicologist, has honoured the genre,” she acknowledges.

Catch up with Durga at…

Dec. 23, 10.30 a.m. at Bala Mandir German Hall.

Dec. 24, 11 a.m. at Tamizh Isai Sangam.

Dec. 27, 8.30 a.m., Parthasarathy Swami Sabha.

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