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Music Arangetram: Avinash Shukla

Shuchita Rao

As I drove with my family into a thickly wooded residential settlement in Concord,Mass on the sunny afternoon of Saturday, July 12, little did we imagine that we were in for a sublime, spirit lifting and joyous celebration of musical accomplishments of 18 year old senior of Acton-Boxborough High school, Avinash Shukla.  Avinash, son of  Dr. Pradeep and Sunita Shukla and student of well-known Carnatic Classical Music exponent and teacher  Smt. Aparna Balaji presented a debut performance, a Musical Arangetram featuring Carnatic Vocal music under the auspices of Abhyaas academy of music. Vidwan O.S Thiagarajan visiting from India, reputed senior Carnatic vocalist, who is also Smt. Aparna Balaji's father presided over the arangetram.

The 2 hour long Kutcheri performance started at 4:40p.m at Concord Middle School with an introduction of the main performer Avinash, his Guru, Smt. Aparna Balaji, accompanying artists Shri K.V.S Vinay on violin, Shri Mahalingam Santhanam on Mridangam and a description of order of events in the evening by Mr. Tim Lindamood.
The musical fare for the performance consisted of 10 carefully chosen gems that included  varnam, kritis, devarnamas and a thillana. Avinash opened his concert with a varnam in ragam Vasantha, “Ninnukori” followed by the timeless, ageless masterpiece in Ragam Hansadhwani, “Vaatapi
Ganapatim Bhaje Hum”. Quickly establishing his ability to sing with a full throated voice, Avinash clearly enunciated lyrics as well as musical notes and sang with precision in both single and double tempo. In the next composition in Ragam Ganamurti, Avinash showed Sruti Gyanam and his  complete comfort with singing regular as well as flat notes. Sudhamayee, a kriti in ragam Amritavarshini was followed by Thiagaraja's Neetheliyaka in ragam Anandabhairavi. Avinash rested adequately on notes and on occasion provided spontaneous alaapana to introduce the raga he was to present. His sincere and smiling stage presence, ability to sing in a controlled medium tempo, careful listening as well as appreciation of accompanying artists and involvement with his own presentation were signs of emerging maturity in the art of performance. Accompanying artists K.V.S Vinay on Violin and  Mali on Mridangam accompanied with superb sensitivity to provide just the perfect level of support to the budding vocalist, Avinash.

An intermission following the first 5 songs allowed an audience of music lovers and connoisseurs to mingle and socialize in a large well-lit cafeteria with delicious Bhelpuri, Samosa and hot tea serving as appetizers for a more elaborate dinner in store at the end of the concert. The excitement of the guests was spontaneous and palpable. 92 year old grand dame of informal KHMC music circle, Smt. Lavanya Chakravarty spoke in Hindi. “Avinash bahut kuch seekh gaya hai. Bahut laayak ban gaya hai. Chahe Hindustani ho ya Carnatic, sur sabse badi cheez hai. Bahut sur mein gaa raha hai.” (Avinash has learned  a lot and whether it is Carnatic or Hindustani Music, singing in tune is the most important thing. He is singing melodiously.) Aishwarya Venkatraman, a junior from California public schools who is spending her summer at Berkley College of music in Boston to study Jazz plays Carnatic violin and completed her arangetram 2 years back at the age of 13.  “This kutcheri is great. Arangetrams draw out the best from students because the experience of performing is completely different from learning to sing or play an instrument. The manodharmam of what happens on stage is so different from what one practices at home. My learning crystallized in the one year before my arangetram.” she said. Well known Santoor player of Boston, Nitin Pandit said “ I remember little Avinash coming with his dad to our local, informal, Karnatic Hindustani Music Circle baithaks  to sing Hindustani Music.  Then he retreated into a sort of musical shell for a few years. His interest in Carnatic music and mridangam seem to have grown in those years. Today's performance is a culmination of all that intense development that was taking place within him in all these years.”

Post intermission, Avinash presented 5 more beautiful compositions by famous composers such as Swati Tirunal, Papanasam Sivan,Purandara Dasa, Thiagaraja and Lalgudi Jayaraman set to ragas Navarasa Kanada, Shankarabharanam, Sindhu Bhairavi, Kapi, Madhuvanti and Sourashtram.

It is rather an interesting fact that Avinash took to Carnatic music inspite of being born in a family deeply interested in Hindustani Music, proving that music truly transcends barriers of language and stylistic differences. Avinash's  father, Dr. Pradeep Shukla is a Hindustani vocalist, teacher and co-founder of LearnQuest Academy of Music based in Waltham, MA. In addition to his foundation in Hindustani vocal music, Avinash took lessons in Tabla, Mridangam and Carnatic vocal music. His devotion to music, persistence and fortitude were encouraged lovingly by his parents and shaped beautifully by a very gifted and extremely caring teacher, Smt. Aparna Balaji.  “Avinash has proved that there is no substitute to hard work” said Smt. Balaji in her concluding remarks. Her father Vidwan O.S Thiagarajan said in his speech“I noticed that throughout this concert, Avinash did not falter on a single note – there were no grammatical mistakes.” Coming from a senior artist such as the Vidwan, the acknowledgement was the finest compliment of the evening to the young artist.
It was clearly visible that a lot of effort went into making Avinash Shukla's arangetram memorable. From a beautifully designed brochure by Jesse Haley, a robust sound system provided by Jawed Wahid, sumptuous Indian food served in a tastefully decorated cafeteria with a display of photographs showing Avinash's musical journey thus far, thought provoking speeches by Vidwan Shri O.S Thiagarajan, Dr. Suresh Mathur, Dr. Lakshmibai, Aparna Balaji and Pradeep Shukla, to the thoughtful appreciation of guru, accompanying artists and well wishers, the arangetram proved to be a wholesome feast for all the attendees.

Arangetrams signify the completion of basic training required to embark on the long and arduous journey of assimilating higher elements and intricacies of Indian classical performing arts.  They serve as windows to our traditions and roots and provide a link to our rich cultural heritage. When our youngsters challenge the unfamiliar terrain and put in efforts to perfect understanding and technique of art forms, they strengthen their character and inner spiritual core. While classical dance arangetrams have been more common than music arangetrams, Boston is proving to be fertile ground in starting a new trend in giving a musical platform to young artists who are submitting to long hours of hard work and commitment in pursuit of gaining skill and mastery in music performance. All ingredients necessary to herald this phenomenon seem to be placed perfectly, namely, students with deep interest in learning classical art forms, dedicated teachers who are providing direction and guidance unselfishly at every step, encouragement and involvement by parents to bring out the best in their children and  a growing, thriving musical culture in Boston due to the presence of many professional artists as well as nurturing teachers.

I am witness to the fact that Avinash Shukla made a terrific impression on my two young children who came away home inspired and enthused by his musical feats. I hope that families in the community will make time to attend arangetrams and provide exposure to their children to living role models of courage among their own peers who choose to take on challenges and put in the requisite amount of hardwork to take their accomplishments to new levels of proficiency. We can be assured that the future of preserving and celebrating our rich Indian heritage will then rest on sound minds and strong shoulders.

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