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"My happiness and sorrow are all reflected in terms of Music" - T.N. Seshagopalan
A child prodigy, a Mother's disciple and an untaught student of many a guru. That is Madurai T.N.Seshagopalan for you. A stickler to tradition, life revolves around music for him. The senior vocalist opens up his mind in an exclusive interview with Sudha Jagannathan. Here are the excerpts.

You have a come a long. What does music mean to you? What have you got from it? What have you given it back? What is it that you want to achieve? You might have achieved in terms of winning awards. I am not asking you from the award angle.

TNS: In my view, a child begins to understand and demand a thing at the age of 2 to two-and half years. A child starts demanding this or that from that age. That is the age it starts understanding something other than basic feelings. I had the perplexity of music from that age itself.

I used to sing well from the age of three. My mother Tiruvenkadavalli began to teach me Raghuveera Gadyam, Tiruppavai, Tiruvenpavai and Tirupalliyezuchi from that age itself. My mother used to say that I sang Nalangu in marriages in the manner of a child's prattle. From that early age, the `music feeling' took a predominant role in me along with the playfulness and other feelings of a normal child. To me, any event or any activity in my life is only in the background of music. They are only in terms of music. That is how it has become for me. It has become an inseparable feeling in my body. It has become a dominant feeling. What it means to me? It means everything to me. Instead of saying I breath music, I will say music is more than breath for me. I see music always. Music is my friend. Music is my entertainment. Music is recreation. Music is my living. Music is my pravirthi. Music is my humour. My happiness and sorrow are all reflected only in terms of music. I don't know anything other than music. I know nothing without music.

Even after such a long journey in music, do I know much? I will say no. It is impossible to know all about music. Like the Tamil saying "Kalvi karai alla" "karpavai naal sila", a single birth is not enough to learn. It needs several births. When you know a little about something, then only you realize that you don't know many aspects of it (music). When you understand a thing, you have a feeling that you don't know several other aspects. Then you begin to have the feeling of longing for more information. We begin to wonder how much more knowledge you would acquire in this birth. How justifiable are you going to be? All these thoughts instill a sense of fear as you age. Should the thought that we have achieved something cross our mind any time, mere thinking of things to be achieved will make us realize how we have wasted life. To avoid this regret, we don't even entertain any thinking that we have achieved.

What have you given it back to music?
TNS: Music is an expression of human feelings. It can be conveyed in many forms, catering to the tastes of others' instincts. For those who have chosen classical music as their idiom or abstract language, their prime duty is to define and display divinity felt by them. This should be conveyed to the audience or listeners. Music is not only to ears. It is also to the hearts. It is to the brain as well. It is to the soul. That is why it is called the easiest path or boat to attain salvation. Music should show the God. The God whom I have seen should also fill the hearts and minds of others. What many a religious head could not do, we should do through this Nada Upasana. That is our duty.

This is true if somebody takes Carnatic music as a profession. If we start worshiping the stage as a professional, the fruits of the worship should not only reach us but all those who see and listen. On the stage once the sruthi is on, I go on a different trance. I don't worry about the payment I receive and the audience before me. I go beyond this materialism. It is an entirely different equilibrium. At some places, I got fully and emotionally involved. Others would not have noticed. Later, I returned to reality. If listeners also reach the same status, stage and the divine constant as I have at any given concert - then I think I have touched the first footstep of achievement. If I am able to take along with me the entire audience to see God as I do all through my rendition, then only I will say that I have worshiped the God in the right way and my prayers have fallen into HIS ears.

Have you ever felt that way in any of your kutcheri?
TNS: There have been good experiences. Many stories can be told on that. The audience participation I am talking about is a higher level one. At that point, the audience doesn't applaud, does not go into instant `sabhash saying,' doesn't speak and doesn't even know if the kutcheri has ended. You reach a standstill stage. You should realise only after you come out of the concert hall.

Do you have a music background?
TNS: My mother used to sing through listening knowledge. She was involved in Nama Sankeerthanam. She was an expert. There was none in our immediate past generation who had taken classical music as a profession and learnt it the way it was meant to be.

Do you think a Guru is required for a child prodigy like you?
TNS: There is nothing without a guru. It holds true for any art. It does not mean that one should go through the gurukulavasam and involve in guru service. He may not have taught you. Yet, he can be your `maanaseeka guru'. We learn what to do from some. We also learn what not to do from some others. Even that needs to be taught. Only when you know one good thing, you realise that 10 others are wrong. For arts like Veda, Ghana et al, guru alone can take us to the right way. We may have acquired the talent to travel. But it is the guru who guides us to the right way. What we think, what we talk and what we do (they say this as manasa, vaacha and karmana) - if all these three have to come in the right way, you need the help of a guru. You will wander all over and reach the right place at the evening of your life. By then, you would have wasted all your time, in the process. A guru will correct your journey in the beginning itself.

Who is your `maanaseeka' guru?
TNS: Other than my mother, all those learned people whose kutcheries I had attended were my `maanaseeka gurus'. I had a lot of good associations in Madurai. Nama Sangeetham - Thirupugazh and Thevaram. Then Sanskrit. Then the college. I used to go to a number of Kutcheries. When I was in Madurai, it was sort of a golden time with all the branches of music blossoming well. My parents had given me training to exploit the Madurai surroundings. Further, the school I studied, the association I had developed and fellow people - all of them have blessed me. It was a gift of God to me. From whomsoever I had learnt the good - they were my gurus until the age of 16 when I joined Ramanathapuram Sankara Sivam.

From gurukulavasam to teacher visiting students and now the Internet mode of learning - What is your view?
TNS: Communication for information is a happy thing to have happened. Time was when there was no communication. To take out any information from a place, one has to suffer a lot. People never easily parted information. That was when students thought it to be disrespectful to ask a guru about any doubt. They just watched the guru, read him and got clarified. They used to assimilate materials as they came by their way and tried to adopt them to their needs. Thanks to technology, however, information is available these days.

At the same time, if you start asking `why' for everything, he will miss out on things you ought to know. You must know a lot of things, understand them, assimilate them and then only try to differentiate. If you ask `why' at that stage, then it is reasonable. A doubt should come at a later point and not at the beginning. You must first obey, understand, assimilate and then scrutinize yourself as to what you have learnt. You ask questions only after doing all these. Then alone you will get a clear idea. If you start asking questions without learning, it will only upset the equilibrium of a teacher.

A child may not have the intelligence to know how to employ the freedom and right. Only after a level of learning, the child begins to understand this. Traditions and conventions are by definition do not mean `superficial acts'. To say that one should follow all that had been done by our ancestors is a wrong explanation. Tradition is the result of a constant research made over decades or centuries. The final thing, which is termed to be permanent - stood, it stands and will stand. It had withstood the test of time. So we can't just simply ignore tradition.

Parents these days want their children reach the stage fast. What is your view?
TNS: Everything is fast in modern days. The rate of intelligence is moving up fast in line with the time. There is nothing wrong. But you must deserve and then decide. If you deserve and achieve that - then there is nothing wrong in giving that privilege to a child. If you start doing this to all children just because you have done it to a child, then comes the danger. People say we need half-hour duration kutcheries. There is nothing wrong to think of giving one-hour concerts to kids. If you let all kids participate in a concert since it is just for an hour, then it is wrong. For a one-hour concert, you can have a package just like preparing for an exam and vomiting. Here the art form is missing. This is a big malady and is spreading like a virus. This is a danger for the Carnatic music.

Don't you think that this helps clear the stage fear in a child
TNS: People who come to see get the fear. They may fear that the Carnatic music will disappear. In former times, only those who were too keen to take music as a profession went to gurukulavasam and, hence, were ready to do service to the teacher. Gurus also knew that their wards had talent. They would correct their wards as they learn. They went to gurukulavasam those days to do multi-PHDs and not for basic learning. My Guru went to Muthiah Bagavathar to do gurukulavasam at the age of 16. By then, he had learnt a lot of kritis and become an expert on `layam'. The gurukulavasam teaches quite a number of other things in life.

Besides study time, a student should spend some hours every morning for a few years with the guru. He should get his doubts cleared with his guru. He should devote time for practice. If one can use and exploit all the information and facilities of modern techniques and media - then there is nothing like a better gurukulavasm in the current day. I will say it is possible. But all these should happen under strict observation.

Music is all about creativity. In the name of creativity, upcoming artistes do quite a lot of things and throw up innovations like fusion music. What is your view?
TNS: Without crossing the traditional border, one can express his/her mind and style through creative singing. This is known as style creativity. Big creative artistes will keep cropping up in huge numbers for many years to come. We welcome such creative artistes and we need more of them. But discovery of new ragas and the like stuffs - if you are telling something new, you should know the old completely. If we can learn the kritis composed by great saints and render them properly that will alone be suffice.

To attempt composing something similar or even better than them ... Many greats - incarnations of God - have already done that. If you still want to do something, you need to know those existing already. I concur with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer in this regard. Our predecessors have dug up many wells that can give nectar. We have not been to drink them fully yet in this birth. Where is the need for digging a fresh well to discover the nectar? One can claim to have discovered a new raga. One should have known the old in its entirety. The new one should have either the influence of the old or independent stature of its own to gain stability. One should do a composition and the `raga swarupam' should be familiar and sung by many even after several decades.

Only then can it claim to have stood the test of time. One can legitimately claim to have discovered something only after that. If Marugesa Muthiah Bagavathar created a raga, people sang it even in those days. Within 20 years, people began singing those ragas and they become popular. Even Tyagaraja Swami did not have that luck. Tyagaraja kritis had come to light a long after his demise. For others, the luck came a little early.

What do you think of fusion music?
TNS: Fusion is a venture to show something differently to the audience. Within Indian music, they are number places where the fuse goes off between two systems.

Ours is a raga sangeetam. If swaras come in an octave where raga is affected, the raga will lose its life. Some ragas in Carnatic music should come with `gamakkam'. Only then will we be able to identify with certainty the raga. If you sing in `suddha swaram' without the gamakkam, the right raga will not be heard. It will just be a skeleton. It will have no life. If anyone tries to do harmony with swaras without `gamakkam,' it will not jell with carnatic music.
But people wish to see something new always - whether good or bad. How many fusion programmes are happening these days? Fusion music providers basically exploit the inquisitiveness of the people. If it is successful, it should keep happening. Why is it not coming back? This goes to prove that it is not correct.

Long duration kutcheries were quite in vogue in those days. Do you think the trend will return?
TNS: Only in Chennai people advertise the four-hour kutcheries. Most mofussil kutcheries I sing are for four hours. In 2000, for Vaikunda Ekadesi, I had sung 12 hours non-stop.

Madurai means Mani Iyer. Now it is you. Can you share some experience about him?
TNS: Mani Iyer is a Nada Yogi. Despite his physical disability, he had some distinct qualities. He had the uncanny ability to convert any sound into music. He had that `yoga stage.' He had that `siddhi.' Nobody asked if he had sung this or that. But they all listened and accepted what he sang as music. Even as he sang that simple, he used to sing simple nava varnams. He would do it in his own simple but great style.

Do you think music has become less divine these days?
TNS: Music for the sake of music. The divinity and depth will come only if this comes to the mind. If it is done for professional sake or to win a few applauds, then the true swarupa and greatness of music will diminish.

What to do to prevent?
TNS: I don't compromise for others. If I feel correct, I will do that.

Is packaged way of giving music right to bring more people into the fold?
TNS: It does not mean that you compromise on quality. You can tell in a simple manner. But you have to say it in a great way. If you have chosen to tell it in a great way, then you will have to prepare them to understand. Then only will they be ready to take it.

Do you think the current crop of musicians have patience to teach?
TNS: The profession tends to become sound even at a very initial stage. Who are going to really matter in the field and who are going to stand in the end - only the time and their effort alone will decide. One has also to see how these youngsters are going to manage the pressures by organising themselves.
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