Because at times the mind needs to slow down

Music-for-the-mind — Masterclass 2— by Sriram Karra

Nalini, my wife, is on a month long Mindfulness campaign as a way to raise funds for The/Nudge Foundation, the young nonprofit startup she volunteers for. As part of this campaign, she invited me to write on the topic “music-for-the-mind”. I thank her for giving me another excuse to listen to some awesome music and add some Karranatic commentary to it.

Through this 3 part blog series I will share some of my favourite pieces of music; pieces that never fail to fully absorb me, heal me and lift me up. I am no expert, but that’s the power of music — you can appreciate and be moved without being an expert!

Imagine you were born in the village of Wimbledon, a stone’s throw from the famous tennis Club. You grew up watching the world’s great players descend on your village every June and participate in a carnival of Tennis. Further, while at school you actually had the opportunity to be a ball boy in the outer courts during The Championships. Yet, you did not learn to play tennis till you turned 20, when you moved halfway around the world to an alien culture. Crazy, isn’t it? That’s my story; sort of. The locale was the (ancient) village of Mylapore (in Madras, as I like to call it), the Club was the Music Academy, and the ‘sport’ was Carnatic music. It is baffling in retrospect, but familiarity breeds complacence, if not outright contempt. However, what is rediscovered in such fashion also tends to be more cherished. And that is true in my case with Carnatic music.

The Carnatic Music Trinity (Source: Yuva Sangeetha Lahiri)

Speed seems to be the defining feature of our daily lives; music can slow things down and help us regain our balance. Over time I have developed a general preference for songs that are slow. Not just ones that start slow, only to pick up pace rapidly ending in a cacophonous crescendo, but rather those that maintain a certain steady tempo. My first piece is a near perfect example of all those principles — an absolutely soulful rendition by Maharajapuram Santhanam.

A towering figure in the world of Carnatic music, Maharajapuram Santhanam, was barely known outside it. He was one of those rare musicians who had mass appeal — largely due to his melodious voice and range — while also being critically acclaimed. He is a recipient of the Sangitha Kalanidhi — the most prestigious award that a Carnatic musician can aspire to — given by the Music Academy (yes, the same ‘Club’ next door to where I grew up).

A composition like this pulls you into a positive loop of mindfulness. You start by closing your eyes and paying attention to the song for the first minute. You get calmed by the slow repetition of the first two lines of lyrics with minor embellishments (“Sangathis”). The mridangam artist gets warmed up and settles into a rhythm, no overzealous banging, just gently accentuating the overall effect. Then you start noticing the melodic variations, gradually increasing in complexity. And on it goes from verse to verse, variation to variation. You occasionally marvel at the dynamic range of the singer’s voice. Just as you think the patterns are becoming more predictable, the song enters the final short rhythmic section of the “Charanam” — a signature style of the venerable composer Muthuswami Dikshitar — ending in a goose-bump-inducing peak that makes you forget everything else around you. You think the song is approaching its end, but Santhanam keeps giving ‘over the meter’ improvisations, before finally closing it out leaving you in a state of calm and bliss — the state that Carnatic fans recognise as “Sowkyam”.

And then you play the song again. You hear a detail that you missed earlier, and that gives you a kick like no other! You realise at some point that the song was in some strange language. :-)

Listening recommendation: Headphones. Eyes closed. Mind open.

Here is a translation, but if you are not the religious type or don’t understand the Vedic context , the lyrics may not matter at all.

Thank you, Sriram! I am so thrilled that this piece follows the one from Gaurav, the two could not be more different! And yet they touch us humans in much the same way. I’ve heard you hum this song many times, so I know its place in your life… listening intently though, my mind quickly zones in on the mridangam in the background (blame my preference for percussion I suppose!) and only much later did I realise how intense the vocal cord variations are.

My favourite parts are the variations in “nirmale-shyamale” around 2:50 and then again at 4:15 when the vocals and the percussion compete for space!

This blog is part of a series of blogs/tweets titled “My Month of Mindfulness”. A challenge to myself; an attempt to touch lives.

If you’d like to touch lives too, please consider contributing to my fundraiser here: NudgeNow

You can access the full series by following my Twitter handle.