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In Conversation With Violinist Purnaprajna Bangere

Shuchita Rao

Learnquest Baithak presented a violin concert by Sri Purnaprajna Bangere accompanied by Sri Amit Kavthekar on the tabla, on Friday, November 17 at Jawed Wahid’s music hall in Framingham, MA.  By profession a professor of Mathematics and Music at the University of Kansas, Sri Bangere has trained extensively in the art of playing the violin under Sri HK Narsimhamurthy, a direct disciple of Vidwan Parur Sundaram Iyer and his sons, the legendary violinist Vidwans MS Gopalakrishnan and MS Ananthraman. Continuing the tradition established by the Parur school, Sri Bangere played several ragas common to Carnatic and Hindustani systems such as Abhogi, Hansadhwani, Malkauns, Behag, Bhimpalasi and Desh. He also introduced a new Carnatic raga “Ranjani” to the audience consisting largely of Hindustani music lovers. What was unique about Sri Bangere’s three hour concert was a lecture demonstration on the topic of his cross-disciplinary research in mathematics and music where he explores how the Eastern and Western musical systems can be bridged using microtones and African blues. Sri Amit Kavthekar provided excellent, nuanced accompaniment on the tabla.

Shuchita Rao of Lokvani spoke to Sri Bangere about his journey in music and mathematics.

Q. How did you get interested in pursuing a career in teaching Mathematics?

A.  My father, Sri BS Panduranga Rao was a professor of Mathematics (now retired) who taught at the University of Mysore. Naturally, I developed a love for mathematics.

Q. How about your love for music. Where does that stem from?

A. My mother Sunanda Rao sings beautifully. She wasn’t formally trained in music until later in life but is gifted and sings in perfect pitch. My sister is a gifted dancer and also sings beautifully. Music was in the air in our home since my baby days. It was an integral part of my childhood.

Q. What drew you to the violin?

A. My father provided exposure to Western classical music recordings played on the violin and also to the music of the legendary violinists, the late Vidwaan Lalgudi Jayaraman and the late Vidwaan MS Gopalakrishnan.  When I was four years old, I used to listen to a tape recording of a Violin-Veena-Flute trio in which Lalgudi Jayaraman played the violin. After presentations of raga Mohana and Behag thillana, the tape would play a rendition of Raga Shuddha Dhanyasi by Sri MS Gopalakrishnan (fondly known as MSG). I would say “Oh, this man also is so great!” I was always struck by the contrasting styles of music played on the violin. The mere sight of the instrument always evoked deep emotions inside me and I told my father that I wanted to learn playing it. I knew that it was the violin and nothing else. He got me a violin when I was a kid; I remember having it beside me in bed as I slept. I was perhaps afraid someone would take it, kind of silly, but that was what it was.

Q. Can you describe your early years of musical training?

A. I was drawn to music very early in my life. I initially learned vocal music from T. R. Srinivasan for more than 5 years. Then, Smt. Sitalakshmi, Smt. Jayamma taught me the elementary steps on the violin. My mind was always occupied by music. Even if I passed in front of a barber’s shop and I heard music coming from it, I stopped to listen to it. One of my father’s friends had an extensive collection of music records mostly of western violinists. Every other Saturday, I would spend atleast three hours in the afternoon listening to recorded music in his house for many years. My vocal music teacher, Sri T.R Srinivasan was a selfless man and a musician. He had always taken a very keen and proactive interest in my music. He strongly felt that I should learn from an esteemed teacher and took me to well-known violinist and teacher, Sri HK Narsimhamurthy, (HKN) who was a senior disciple of Parur Sundaram Iyer, and his illustrious sons MSG and M. S. Ananthraman. After listening to my playing, HKN accepted me as a disciple. It was from him that I learnt for the first time many things that were to become foundation of my violin playing. He imparted in me the abiding culture of violin practice, what it takes to learn advanced techniques and the compelling necessity to strive for perfection. It was a terrific time for me, and I used to literally hang onto every word uttered by him and take it to heart.

Q. Could you describe your music practice sessions? Were the sessions supervised by your teacher?

A. I used to go to my teacher’s house around 6:30 am (sometimes even earlier), and sit and practice for hours every day in his music room. He would come after about an hour and a half to teach me. I thought he would be sleeping. But I found out early that this was an eclectic form of sleep, if it was such. He would be resting in the adjoining room and would guide me from there. Even a minute error in pitch or elongation of a note would catch his attention. He would remark in Kannada “That “Ga” note was longer than it should have been” from inside his room.  I soon realized that my teacher was not sleeping. Rather, he was listening very carefully to what I was playing. Soon after that realization, I began playing for him, knowing I was being musically followed. These are our great people. It is because of them that the music of India has been preserved. If I were in his position, I might have preferred not to be bothered early in the morning and said “I have had a late night. Come at 8:30AM tomorrow.”  But, he never said that and appreciated me when I played right and pointed out mistakes when I made them. There was not even an iota of feeling in him of “I want my space and peace, let him come at the time I teach and leave soon.” On the contrary my going early was encouraged and my intense practice deeply appreciated. I felt egged on, and increased it even further much to my parents’ alarm. I owe HKN more than I can express; it was his words and encouragement that made me what I am today, for whatever it is worth.

Q. If practice sessions went on until 10:30AM, what happened to attending school/college?

A. I used to skip the first couple classes in school. In college, when I pursued pre-university (what we call grades 11 and 12) and Bachelor’s degree in Science, I skipped classes frequently and concentrated on music practice.  I sometimes dream to this day of a class I have missed, no knowledge of the syllabus with an exam to be taken in 3 days!

Q. What was the musical content you worked on in the practice sessions? How many ragas did you learn from your teacher?

A. Initially, I worked on elementary exercises such as SaRiGaMaGa - - RiGaRiSa…RiGaMaPaMa – GaMaGaRi and so on played from slow to very high speeds. Then there would be advanced exercises which required considerable technical skills.  I played them in a plain fashion and then repeated the patterns playing with added gamakams (heavy oscillations) in several speeds.  I was taught different types of bowing and also playing at different speeds. Once I reached home after school, I practiced everything once again between 4pm and 8pm. My teacher used to tell us stories about how MSG practiced and I used to get inspired by them. I must have learned 120 different compositions in more than 40 different ragas from my teacher. My music books say I was taught even more, over an intense period of 8 years. But the lessons continued whenever I used to be in Mysore during long breaks for several years to come. I used to be in HKN’s home for a lot of time those days

Q. The musical exercises that you mention – are they standard exercises taught to all students of Carnatic music?

A. Some of them are common exercises and are said to be created by the father of Carnatic music, Saint Purandara Dasa. Others are specific violin exercises practiced by students of the violin school I come from, the so called Parur school. SaGaPaMa…RiMaNiDhaPaMaGaRe, RiMaDhaPa…GaPaSaNiDhaPaMaGa etc…we practiced such exercises in melakartha (parent) ragas such as Kalyani, Todi and Kharaharapriya. In a sense, these exercises are more complicated than the compositions. To build technical skills, enormous time was spent on these exercises. I practice them even now.

Q. Do you recall any interesting incident around any of the practice sessions?

A. Once, my teacher’s gifted  (and now a leading violinist) son H.N Bhaskar (HNB) and I played a varnam in raagam Mandaari twenty-five times continuously without letting go in two speeds, while Bhaskar’s mother Rajalakshmi who is an outstanding vocal teacher and musician in her own right put thaalam with her hands and kept rhythm for us. HNB and I used to practice for hours every day and for years this went on. When I became HKN’s student, he was only 3. I remember him sitting on his mom’s lap when I went with T. R. Srinivasan for the first time in 1979 to HKN’s home. Later my teacher’s talented nephew Srinivas and nieces Smitha and Sindhu also joined us in practice. Those were the days. I have played in some big venues and may play in bigger venues and such but it is this emotional, physical and spiritual foundation that was laid by my teacher in that special music room that has stayed with me and gives me strength to this day. My teacher has a brilliant mind and is a storehouse of knowledge. He is selfless, humble and a remarkable man and a musician. This does not even come close to how I feel inside about him.

Q. What about spontaneous improvisation which is at the heart of Indian classical music? How did you learn to do that?

A. My teacher never encouraged us to memorize stuff. He never said “I will give you this alaap – you memorize it.” He would show us some but by and large, it had to come from the student. In order for the skill of spontaneous improvisation to develop, a student must listen a lot to the masters. It was at this time that I got into listening to MSG very deeply. I used to listen to his recordings repeatedly and reproduce the minutest detail if I could. By practicing line by line, nuance by nuance, one gets an understanding of the conceptual ideas and an understanding  of how a maestro’s mind works. One observes what is happening, where and how pauses are chosen, the kind of phraseology that is used, how the raga is developed from the very first note etc. Then, if one has good technical skills, one can pay attention to the technical aspects and observe how a maestro does what he does. This is where one’s training and practice skills come into play. Once you listen to your teacher’s music everyday, it gets into your system. You then start improvising on your own. It was this kind of comprehensive training one got. Not everything can be taught by a teacher. Music is too vast and deep, one has to learn from osmosis.  In the end, my teacher taught me how to teach myself in the long run so as to sustain beyond the direct teaching. This is the greatest gift he gave his students. He emanates genuine humility that is indescribable. He has told me a number of times “I have only taught you 2% of what you know”. I disagree. Without pretense to sound humble, I can say from my heart, he has given me that crucial heart in every music cell I have, that goes beyond mere techniques and knowledge of compositions. It takes a great teacher and a great man to inspire and hook a student to music, especially a critical minded student.

Q. Can you describe the experience of meeting your idol, the legendary Vidwaan MS Gopalakrishnan in person?

A. I was eight years old when I met MSG for the first time. He used to visit Mysore often to give concerts. On one such occasion, I mustered enough courage to go and talk to him. He was in his forties and majestic looking and bent down to talk to me. He spoke in an unhurried manner giving me all the respect that is usually given to an adult “Who are you learning with?” he asked me. He was a musician who never spoke in a patronizing manner to little kids. This incident has stayed with me for 30-40 years. Whether young or old, you must treat everyone with the same respect, he told me when I reminded him of this incident 40 years later.

Q. What do you find most appealing about Vidwaan MS Gopalakrishnan’s craft?

A. He integrated music of the North and the South. MSG is a universal musician with a mind so vast that it saw music as a continuum and as a unified whole. “I am this OR I am that” is given to lesser minds. Legends do not box themselves in, nor do they judge people in that manner. Some people criticize MSG for that same reason. Our school’s philosophy is that both the Carnatic and Hindustani systems have the same roots. We go to those roots to rejuvenate ourselves. This was essentially the philosophy of  Parur Sundaram Iyar,  who was MSG’s father, a comprehensive musical genius. MSG could play pure Carnatic music that a Carnatic puritan wants or pure Hindustani like a Hindustani puritan wants. There are a number of recording that are a testimony to this. But he has developed his own signature style and sound, a truly universal musician. One of India’s greatest!

Q. While Carnatic and Hindustani systems have the same root, how would you say they differ?

A.  The answer depends on who you ask. I feel that the microtones and the phraseology, and the general approaches are different.  This is a deep topic and requires longer discussion. But while there are differences, there are also structural similarities and unity in the diversity. It is always nice to think of Indian classical music as a gigantic tree with several branches than to keep concentrating on a particular branch and claim that it alone is the way of doing music. Great musicians are given to see a unified picture of music, the Indian classical music.

Q. Have you managed to tie your knowledge of mathematics to music?

A. I used to listen constantly to how MSG would move close to the boundaries of the raga’s grammar and the two systems of music. He worked on the Northern and Southern systems of music in India. My mind always used to delve on this aspect of MSG, the vast universal mind free from dichotomies. One naturally thought of extending the boundaries. The integration of Western classical, Jazz and Blues where key changes, polyphony and counterpoint are the main features with Indian classical music. The mathematical framework developed by Alexander Grothendick, one of our greatest mathematicians who has re-written the foundations of algebraic geometry developed new way of looking at geometric objects. This opened up vast new territories that were previously inaccessible for systematic study. One of those crucial points of view is what I have incorporated into my work on the integration of music of various genres. This Meta mathematical framework that we have developed allows one to expand the notion of the classical raga. The compositions based on the framework allow western music elements to enter in a natural way. 

Q. You have formed a musical quartet in Kansas City. Can you tell us about the kinds of music the quartet composes and plays?

A.  I have been working with the two time Grammy award winner, the Western violinist David Balakrishnan who is one of the foremost Jazz and classical crossover composers in the United States. He is not from Kansas , he lives in Berkeley, California.  He is director of the highly regarded music group Turtle Island String Quartet., which has been nominated for 7 Grammys under his direction. Balakrishnan, Kansas based world class bass player Jeff Harshbarger, the highly talented percussionist Amit Kavthekar (last disciple of Ustad Alla Rakha) are part of the quartet. Sometimes the players change. So it is more an ensemble. David has named it “Purnaloka ensemble”.  It must be insisted that this name was NOT due to me. This was given by David Balakrishnan.  Part of the quartet’s name comes from a pun; my name (Purna) since David feels I am the force behind it, and the word “loka” is because we are taking up not one raga but a whole family of stuff, which goes under the name “meta raga system” coming from the framework. We have recorded one piece (named “Syzygy” by David) and are working on the second piece which is a violin concerto consisting of three movements.

Q. How many hours do you sleep in a day and for how many hours do you practice music every day?

A. I sleep for about 4-5 hours a day but I take two short ten minute naps in the afternoon.  I usually practice for about three hours a day but around concerts, I may practice for about 5 hours a day. My wife Sunita, who is a professor of Accounting at Washburn University in Topeka says that I am playing violin all the time (which is not true!).

Q. You have a young son. Does he play the violin?

A. Yes. My son Ishaan is seven years old and is learning to play the violin in both the Western and Indian Classical styles. I teach him to play Indian classical music, when he prefers to listen to me.





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