Drawn by the 'Powers' of music


For Carnatic music fans, December is always a busy month as they converge for the music festival in Chennai. Most of the ‘sabhas’ (concert halls) brim with audiences, with the most famous Music Academy even finding people sitting in its comfortable lounge, listening to the concerts thanks to the large speakers that adorn the corners.

Besides being visited by an overwhelming number of NRIs, the festival also receives a good number of foreign nationals who had either heard concerts by Carnatic musicians in their home countries or learnt about the festival through Indian friends. Their costumes, mannerisms and — obviously — their skin colour invariably attract journalists looking for off-beat stories on the festival.

But to stumble on Prof Herald Powers, a Carnatic music scholar from Princeton University, was a great privilege. As a journalist I got not just a story, but a wonderful experience of learning abut Carnatic from a different perspective.
I met Powers in 2003. Tall and  well-dressed, Powers was a typical academic with an unusual passion for Carnatic music, which he came across in his adulthood.
As a 24-year-old, Powers had an opportunity to do research in a foreign country and he had to choose either Chinese studies or Carnatic music. “Despite not knowing both the subjects, I wasn’t comfortable going to China for the obvious issue of language,” Powers, 74, told me in 2003.

Landing in Chennai (or what was Madras in the early 50s), Powers was taken to veteran violinist Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu and Rangaramanuja Iyengar. Though Iyengar refused to teach someone who has no grasp of the music, Powers’ single-mindedness made him relent eventually.

It was quite a tough initiation for Powers, who could manage better since he had several hours for himself to practice. After five years, he became proficient with the classical music and had even performed in a small ‘sabha’. Unlike his compatriot John B Higgins, who became one of the most successful Carnatic vocalists, Powers wanted to be an academician who wanted to research on the way Carnatic music has evolved over the centuries.

“Unlike the Western Classical music that has the scale structure, Carnatic has Raga, which I would define as well-evolved melodic definitions so unique to the classical tradition of India,” Powers explained.

As the mellowing December sun illuminated his little suite in Savera Hotel, Powers also said 2003 would probably be his last trip as age wasn’t making it easier for him to participate in the festival.

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