August 16, 2011

The Prodigy Maker

Hello everyone,

It has been a very busy year thus far and I do plan to be more active with my blogging henceforth as I have some very interesting things on my mind that I want to share. For this post however, on popular request, I am reproducing an article on my esteemed father and guru, Chitravina Narasimhan, titled "The Prodigy Maker" I had written a few years ago for an online music journal called Ragavani (I think it no longer exists). In a few days I will come back with another post.

Very often, I have a hesitant parent ask me whether it is too early for their 4-year old to start learning Carnatic music. Usually, my answer is, “No, by my father’s standards you may be some three years late!” My answer is not flippant or exaggerated by any means, but it genuinely puzzles them because they have only heard others tell them that their child may not have the attention span, the grasping ability, or the patience to sit through a lesson.

The story I am about to tell you goes back to the year 1967. My father, Chitravina Narasimhan, who was 26 years old then, had gone to give a live concert for All India Radio. When he returned, my mother reported to him that their first-born, who was barely six months old at the time, had listened with rapt attention. A few months later, after another radio concert, the child had identified a Raga that my father had mentioned to my mother just once. My father’s interest was piqued. He had heard of the exploits of Abhimanyu and other legends in Indian mythology. Here was a real-life incident to prove that theory! 

So he went about creating the right atmosphere around the child. The child's temperament took priority and my father went along with it, slow and playfully introducing a new Raga while making sure that what had already been learnt had not faded away from the child's memory. He would patiently repeat the same Ragas frequently, cleverly interspersing a Raga every once in a while. Most adults get bored of this kind of repetition within a few days, but apparently not my father!

How would the child know when a new Raga had been introduced? This is where my father’s own musical acumen and excellent expression played a big role. He believed that to hold a child’s interest, the music had to be of superior quality, both to attract the child’s attention and to distract it from other playful pursuits. His own music is endowed with precisely this unique quality that would make the child look up questioningly, as though to ask, “Hey, what was that? I have never heard this one before.” My father would then smilingly name the Raga. The attractive audio-visual would create a photographic imprint on the child’s mind. He was able to make music a seamless and natural part of the child’s daily life and routine. For example, if the child was eating butter, he would tell him that he was eating 'Navaneetam', which was also the name of a Raga! Similarly, Keerai (the Tamil word for spinach) was 'Keeravani', another Raga.

Thus, within a just a few months, my father had not only introduced nearly 300 Raga-s to the child but also taught him to sing and reel off answers to a variety of technical and theoretical questions including the 175-tala system, names of composers and so on. Soon the child's ability was put to test by some of the best vidwans of the day such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M. S. Subbulakshmi, Ramnad Krishnan, T. N. Krishnan and Lalgudi Jayaraman. The child passed with flying colours. I'm sure many of you have already guessed that the child was none other than Ravikiran!

When Shashikiran arrived, my father repeated his experiments once again. Only this time, he started earlier and the child was able to do things earlier than the first child. I’ve heard my parents say that Shashikiran was able to identify Ragas by the time he was 21 months old. And once I came along, my father’s teaching skills had been honed to perfection; he was able to produce similar results when I was only about 18 months old. We were also tested in public and acclaimed as child prodigies by connoisseurs and critics. However, the awe surrounding us was not as high as it was with Ravikiran. By now, the public had decided that it was all in the genes. So, there was no big surprise in our being prodigies! 

However, this was the very notion that my father was trying to disprove. He believed quite firmly that nurture is more important than nature, that environment plays an enormous role in early success, and that any child given the right exposure and training from early infancy can become a Raga-identifying prodigy. His basic premise was that if you expose your child to television, she will repeat or mimic what she sees there. On the other hand, if she is exposed to animals, she will pick up those behaviors and mannerisms (the Tarzan story is a classic example). Similarly, a child exposed to Carnatic music will only reflect that back to you.

In order to prove his theory further, my father trained and taught his sister’s second son, Ganesh. Of course, being the daughter of a great musician, my aunt had a lot of musical flair. But her husband had no musical background and was not particularly interested in music either. So, the chances of my cousin being endowed with musical talent were about 50-50. When he came to our house as a 2-year old, he was like any other child that age. With my father’s careful nurturing, he was also hailed a prodigy within a year.

Most of my observations about my father's teaching methods are from some of my own childhood memories of his teaching my cousin and other little children. I saw how my father would repeat a key phrase of a Raga (e.g., Atana) a few times and reveal its name right after that. The child would therefore associate that phrase with that Raga. After making sure that the child had fully grasped this bit, he would introduce other new phrases from the Raga and once again tell the child that this was also the same thing. For some of the less known Raga-s, he would sing the line of a composition in that Raga and say its name (e.g., Ragasudharasa for Andolika). The beauty of my father's teaching lay in the way he could highlight the key differences between closely allied Raga-s like Sriragam, Madhyamavati, Brindavanasaranga, Manirangu and Pushpalatika such that even a child a could identify them correctly.

My father was equally gifted with the ability to impart laya (rhythm) aspects to children, a subject that most Gurus shy away from teaching their students. The beautiful world of laya was opened up to us in a steady and grand manner over the years, starting from very simple patterns to complex Pallavi-s. In fact, my father keeps us on our toes in this department even today!

His holistic approach to music as well as teaching us is also borne out by the fact that he emphasized the importance of disciplined rendition of compositions with correct lyrics and pronunciation. He would explain the meanings word by word and narrate related stories and anecdotes. As and when required, he imparted us theoretical knowledge as well. I clearly remember watching him teach the 72-melakarta-s to a 2-1/2 year old Ganesh. The compound wall of the house we lived in had a double gate with 18 spikes at the top of each gate. My father creatively used these 36 spikes to teach him the names of the melakarta-s. He would start from the first spike on the left calling it Kanakangi (the 1st mela) and then go up to Chalanata (the 36th mela), thus covereing the Shuddha Madhyama melas. He would then do the reverse for the remaining 36 mela-s, which were the Prati Madhyama mela-s! Similarly, I remember him asking us to tell the time by looking at the clock. When we told him the time, would ask us to say it using the melakarta names. For example, 10.32 would be Natakapriya-Ragavardhini. Such an exercise not only helped us learn the melakarta-s effectively, but also tell time with greater precision! For a child, learning couldn't be made more fun.

It would be no exaggeration to say that my father is a master of another important dimension of music, namely, manodharma (improvisation). Give him any Raga and he can sing it with ease, bringing out its myriad colours, emotions and form in an utterly awe-inspiring manner. I have never heard anyone sing Tanam better than him. Neraval was again child’s play while Kalpanaswara-s would flow Niagara-like, be it the sarvalaghu-type, free-flowing type or those involving mathematical patterns. So, we have a Guru who was a one-stop source for everything we needed to learn in music.

By the time Ganesh was 3 years old, 12-year old Ravikiran had started making waves as a Chitravina player. Shashikiran and I (aged 9 and 6 respectively) were also singing together as a duo. What a balancing act it must have been for my father! His penchant for perfection and insistence on our equipping ourselves to be solid musicians must have made great demands on his time and energy. He was also clear that we should never be over-exposed and unduly burdened with performance engagements. And that learning was more important for our long-term progress than winning laurels as children. Thus, every public appearance was carefully timed and planned.

My parents took certain crucial life decisions soon after Ravikiran started identifying Ragas. In order to spend more time training him, my father put his own career on the back burner. My mother, who already had a job in a bank before my brother was born, decided that her husband’s dream was a unique one and that she would support him fully in his endeavour. Therefore, she freed up his time and mind from mundane worries, and told him boldly that she would manage the household on her income for some time. Today, we hear a lot about gender equality and role switching, but my parents put it into action almost four decades ago. Until a few years later, when my father took up a job with All India Radio, my mother supported our family largely with her income.

Another radical decision my parents took was to home-school Ravikiran till he was 9 years old. In fact, when he was finally taken to school and tested, it was clear that he had learnt a lot more than most children his age. He could read and write six languages (Tamil, Hindi, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu and English), and his math abilities were excellent (Carnatic music uses a lot of math-based patterns). However, Shashikiran and I were sent to school at the usual age. Ganesh went to school initially but was home-schooled afterwards. Today, a number of parents who want to see their children achieve something extraordinary opt for home-schooling, but conventional thought in India over the ages has been that in order to excel in one line, one had to focus fully on that, be it the study of the Veda-s or music or carpentry.

Even though we lived in a joint family (both my grandmothers and my mother’s younger sister also lived with us), there was a united approach to our upbringing. My father had a vision and other members of the family helped him wholeheartedly and to the best of their ability, as they also firmly believed that pulling a child in different directions would be detrimental to his/her progress. Since all of them were proficient in at least 4-5 Indian languages, they were also able to correct us if we made a mistake while singing.

My father's rules of discipline were the law of the house and nobody would allow us to violate them in any way. For example, if we were found pottering around during practice time (as children are wont to do), we would promptly be sent back to practise. Television was strictly banned in the house and so were movies and film songs. This continued for many years, until my father was sure that we would be able to retain our musical values even if we got exposed to them. So the whole family had to give up these things for our sake! However, we were allowed to read and play during our spare time or indulge in hobbies that interested us. Lest readers get the impression that our childhood was heavily regimented, let me hasten to add that my father has always been as loving as he has been firm. He has won our respect and love in equal measure, and that has not diminished but only grown over time. 

Thinking back to our childhood, I can say with complete honesty that we never felt the burden of learning. A large part of our learning happened before we even realized it! The fact that the entire family could sing, learn, discuss and debate music-related issues enhanced the fun! And even though we were not ‘allotted’ any specific time for school work (my father left it to us to manage our time), we all did well in academics too. Perhaps, learning music from a very young age had sharpened our ability to grasp new material and commit it to memory. This reinforces my belief that my father’s methods of teaching a child can be effectively applied to any sphere of knowledge. A lot of people (including musicians) have approached my father to train their children to be prodigies. My father's only condition is that they leave the child with him when s/he is 6 months of age. No parent has come forward to accept this condition, so my father has not been able to train any non-family prodigies. He however teaches a number of students who are passionate about music and dedicated to its pursuit.

I believe that every student should try to surpass his/her Guru. But a good guru is one that always keeps ahead of the student. The day a student has caught up, it is clear that the Guru has stagnated and needs to start working harder. My father has not only given us lessons that will take us several lifetimes to master, but he also continues to keep ahead of us and challenge us in different ways, and open up new vistas for us to see. He has successfully achieved his dream of making performing musicians out of all of us. One of the biggest ways in which we can pay our debt to him is to pass on his values and huge wealth of music to successive generations. Therefore, when hesitant parents call about their 4-year old, we say, “Yes, we will teach your child!” There is not a single day that I don’t think of my father as I work with students of varying abilities, talent, aptitudes, attitudes and priorities.


  1. Enjoyed the article Kirna..Lovely.. Miss your mom and her kind words.. Ganeshji talks often about her and your dad.
    Vidya Ganesan, Ft.Lauderdale, Florida.

  2. Excellent article Kiranavali. Thanks for sharing your experiences learning music under the guidance of your learned and amzing father. We thrive to inculcate such depth and discipline in the art of learning music for our children too while keeping the experience fun and stress free. To this end the article was very motivating.

    Vidya S (Reading, PA)

  3. kirana! Are you willing to take my Kalyani as your student for one year? I can pack her to Philly from Connecticut! But I will miss her terribly.
    Keep writing! My regards to all your family members.

  4. I love this article. Always wondered why people wait to teach music until much later when musical families are so different. At the very least to get a sense of music appreciation, something that will help children long after they no longer are children!

    Your father sounds like the ideal parent. A tough benchmark has been set! :-D

  5. Kiranavali,
    After having heard so often that my 7 year old daughter cannot learn music from a vidwan here because she is too young, will have shorter attention spans - this article is a vindication of my beliefs. She needed to win a major competition (yes, at 7 years) in order to attract her teacher's attention.
    You are indeed so fortunate to have such an illustrious family with the right focus on learning and to be in a unique position to shape the future generation through this learning. Thank you for penning down your thoughts. -A