Finding Mother India

Between a sushi joint and a nail salon on 7th avenue near 30th street, a doorway opens onto a narrow, musty flight of stairs.  I walk up tentatively.  Could this unassuming space really house the premier school for South Asian music and dance in New York?  As I approach the second floor, I hear feet thudding in rhythm and a group of voices singing the ornamented scales of Indian classical music.  I reach a door with a piece of paper taped onto it, reading “Mandala at Anamika- Navatman Studios.”  This is it. My hands tremble and my breath goes shallow as I press open the door and enter. 
In a small glass-paneled room to my left, a moon-faced Indian woman with kohl-lined eyes sings a scale. Her deep, clear voice seems to contain great wisdom and strength.  She sits on the wooden floor, and her three students sit in the same lotus pose, facing her.  They repeat the scale back to her once she has finished.  To my surprise, one of these students is a six-foot tall, blond American man built like a football player.   Kamini, the teacher, pauses her lesson to smile and wave at me, and tells me to sit on one of three metal folding chairs that make up the waiting room.   Her wide open demeanor and the sight of the hefty blond guy eagerly belting out “Sa- re- ga- ma” (the notes of the Hindu scale) reassured and calmed me.   I had worried that my teacher would inevitably be skeptical of my desire to learn Carnatic music, the classical music tradition of India.
Even though I am of Indian origin, I was born in America. Whenever I visited Chennai, India as a child to see extended family, my aunts and uncles who knew a great deal about Carnatic music would gladly ferry me to concerts and extol the virtues of a particular musician, but when I expressed an interest in learning, they looked upon me with incredulous smiles.  “But where will you find a good teacher in the U.S.?” they asked.  “All the best teachers are here in Madras.”  At that time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that was true.  Even as I grew older and it became possible to find excellent teachers in any metropolitan area of the U.S., the voices of my relatives haunted me.  I felt I was somehow too American to understand their music properly. I didn’t dare question their authority until my early twenties, when I began to take my singing seriously and recorded a demo of jazz standards.
My love for jazz led me back to Carnatic music, which, like jazz, demands musical rigor while allowing an artist freedom to improvise and ornament the music to make it her own. I started listening to more classical Indian music and discovered some of the maestros: M.S. Subbulakshmi, DK Pattamal, K.V. Narayanaswamy. The long, lush names of these artists seemed extensions of the evocative ragas they sung.  For the first time, I appreciated something beyond the technical sophistication of the music.  My soul connected with it and I felt transported to another state, known in Sanskrit as “bhakti” or meditative devotion.  This is what the original poet-saints who composed Carnatic music wanted to invoke, and at last I was feeling it.  The ragas seemed to call to me from my ancestral past, saying “Forget the skeptics. You must sing these songs.”  This time, I followed my instincts.
I found this school, called the Anamika-Navatman Project, through the Internet.   It is not just a school, but a performing arts nonprofit, which organizes music and dance concerts and serves to promote awareness of South Asian culture in the U.S.  It features some of the most prominent exponents of the Indian performing arts in the world. One of its founders, Sridhar Shanmugam, is not only renowned in India as a dancer but has also collaborated with Pina Bausch, Suzanna Linke, and Phillip Glass.  Kamini, my teacher, has trained for over 20 years with several distinguished vocal teachers, one of whom was based at Kalakshetra, India’s premier institution for music and dance, located in Chennai.  Today marks my first meeting with Kamini, to determine whether she would take me on as an additional student.
As I wait for her to finish her class, I study the space before me.  Beyond the small glass-paneled enclosure is an empty dance studio with wooden floors and blank white walls.  A closed door adjoins that room with what seems to be another studio.  From there comes the thumping of feet in unison against the ground, and the tinkling of ankle bells.   There are no windows in this space, no flower garlands, no decorations of Hindu gods.  It is a simple, utilitarian venue, very different from Kalakshetra in Chennai.  I remembered walking with an aunt through Kalakshetra as a young girl, gazing at the dancers congregated for a lesson in the open air, under a canopy of banyan trees.  The all-girl class wore uniform saris, and had fastened their hair in long braids that trailed down their backs.  They bowed before a shrine of garlanded gods before commencing their lesson, conducted amidst the jasmine and hibiscus and bougainvillea.
Here on 7th Ave and 30th, piles of scarves and gloves were scattered about the waiting room chairs, and the teachers wore pants and shirts.  While this place has none of the traditional beauty of Kalakshetra, it is also free of the judgmental gaze of the past. The utilitarian simplicity of this studio somehow comforts me.   As the presence of the hulking blond man in the Indian singing class proves, this is New York, where anyone can learn whatever they want and be whoever they want to be.
Kamini emerges from her lesson, wearing the same warm expression she had greeted me with.  She takes me aside and listens to my story.  After I finish she beams at me and says of course, she would be pleased to work with me if I didn’t mind taking her only open slot, at 8pm on Thursday evenings.  I agree immediately. It is that easy.  There is no hint of smug superiority in her expression, no undercurrent of pity in her tone.  As I button up my coat, I say to Kamini, “It’s funny, I am originally from South India yet am only starting this journey now, as an adult.”  She looks at me with a wise, maternal smile. “Now is the right time,” she said. “You are ready.”
M.S. Subbulakshmi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lqAZlByoLk&noredirect=1
D.K. Pattamal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54yIqReUGl4
K.V. Narayanaswamy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d0rDKrxc4s
Link to the Anamika Navatman Project: http://www.navatman.org
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