It is a little after 9pm in Austin, Texas, and Somas Thyagaraja, a 25-year-old program manager with Microsoft, has just finished his dinner. He walks briskly towards his bedroom, removes his shoes, pushes the chair in front of his computer to one side and logs on to the Internet. While the computer connects, he adjusts his webcam and then sits down cross-legged on the floor. A few moments later, the image of Neyveli Santhanagopalan appears on the screen. Thyagaraja folds his hands in pranam. Back in Chennai, India, Santhanagopalan begins his weekly class of Carnatic music.
For dozens of students of Indian classical music around the world, lessons with gurus are no longer the intimate, face-to-face sessions they used to be. With a paucity of experienced teachers abroad, an online class like Santhanagopalan’s is the only way to get “proper and authentic” lessons from Indian gurus.
“I chose to learn from gurus in India because the training there is much more advanced, and I am very serious about my music,” says Aditya Prakash, 20, a student of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prakash started attending virtual classes nine years ago — initially, over phone calls to his teacher, Chennai-based guru and vocalist Sugandha Kalamegham.
Today, long distance music lessons have evolved from rudimentary methods such as phone calls and audio files sent over email. Teachers and students now use applications such as Skype, Vonage, Magic Chart and IBM’s Citrix to connect with each other in real time through audio and video. One of the pioneers of this teaching method is renowned Carnatic singer K.N. Shashikiran.
“Not only has there been a tremendous response from students in the US, UK, and wherever I perform and teach,” says Shashikiran, “but there are people in India, even here in Chennai, who are learning through this medium.” Shashikiran’s Carnatica.net website started a “cyber vidyalaya” (school) in 2000. He claims it was the first in India. Today, Carnatica.net has more than 500 students from all over the world on its rolls — some as young as 3, while the oldest is 78.
According to Kalamegham, the average online student is a software professional living abroad who is trying to “mitigate his homesickness by getting in touch with his roots”. And maintaining a strict regimen of regular music classes is one way of keeping those roots alive.
Ironically, most of the teachers who offer online classes learnt their art sans any technological assistance — they were not even allowed to record the lessons with their teachers for reference during practice.
Santhanagopalan is one such modern-day teacher who trained at his guru’s feet. But Santhagopalan believes that the online method can be almost as successful as the traditional. According to him, a guru can transfer “90% of the teachings” online, “provided the student has the gift of music in him or her”. Santhanagopalan has more than 50 students across the world who learn from him and his senior disciples over the Internet.
The majority of online classical classes focus on Carnatic music — Shashikiran attributes this to the fact that “Carnatic music is more structured and there is more focus on composition, while the Hindustani form is more relaxed, raga-based and arbitrary”. There are, however, a plethora of new resources coming up for Hindustani, instruments and dance classes as well.
Kathak dancer Vaswati Mishra has set up a Rs4.5 lakh studio in New Delhi to offer lessons — via a state-of-the-art videoconference facility — in Kathak, Chhau, folk and contemporary dances along with Hindustani vocal, tabla and other instruments. Mishra is in talks with institutions in Taiwan and Bangalore to establish learning centres that will receive feeds from her studio. “Such classes are not different from face-to-face interactions at all. I believe distance is just in the mind,” says Mishra.
But training as a classical musician online requires more than just free time, an Internet connection and a generous data package. For all its liberating benefits, many, including some online teachers, believe distance training can only work if the student already has had some traditional learning experience.
For instance, K.K. Subramaniam, founder of the non-profit music institute Brhaddhvani that also offers online classes, believes that such classes are best suited for those who have undergone basic training in music, “and want to learn the finer things”. Kalamegham limits online sessions to students who have already learnt the basics from her and want to continue with their training.
Institutions such as Carnatica and Brhaddhvani, offer several courses of varying duration — from six months to five years — depending on the proficiency level desired by the student. The exams, both theory and practicals, are taken online. “There hasn’t been a difference in the level of proficiency between students who are learning online and those who come for the classes. The exams are, after all, the same for everyone,” says Shashikiran.
For 24-year-old Snigdha Venkataraman, “online classes are the best way to learn in today’s age when everyone has 10 different things on their plate”. Venkataraman released an album, Samarpanam, under the Carnatica banner and continues to take online classes from Shashikiran. Venkataraman is serious about her regular classes and is happy that she can “catch Shashikiran sir anywhere across the world, so my classes don’t get affected because he can log on to the Net from wherever he is”.
The growing online teaching market is also helping teachers tap into a new source of income. Hourly classes start from $20 (around Rs800) to $65, depending on how renowned the guru is. The same class, if conducted face to face, would cost just one-fourth as much.
Shashikiran says his organization’s main income comes from these online classes and packages, and there’s a stark difference of Rs35-50 lakh a year between the revenue earned from online classes and old fashioned classes. In fact, he is taking the idea forward and working on a business model for a cultural tech park and a cultural call centre. “It will be like a front-end 24-hour call centre, with 20-25 faculty members regularly answering queries on ragas, bhajans, songs, or anything related to music,” he says.
So, the next time you feel like taking a tutorial on Raga Darbari, you may have the option of simply logging on to the Internet and connecting with an expert teacher right away. Did someone say traditional music was old fashioned?