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High Bandwidth

The whimsical world of Indian classical music now has a new guru — the world’s largest video platform.

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Anuja Kamat on her channel Out of the Shruti Box.

About 14 km from the famed Jog Falls in Karnataka is Siddapur, a sleepy little village nestled in the Western Ghats. For years, its resident, Prakash Hegde, struggled to learn the flute, an instrument that caught his fancy at a young age through radio recitals in the ’80s. “But there was no teacher in the vicinity,” he says. So in an attempt to educate himself, Hegde, 40, travelled on a rickety bus for 45 km everyday to reach Dharwad, a land that nurtured musicians like Pt Bhimsen Joshi and Gangubai Hangal, among others. He learned to play the flute from his guru, Venkatesh Godkhindi.

That was in the early ’90s. Now, the Bangalore-based flautist is making an effort to assist others who have a desire to learn music but not the means. He has created YouTube videos imparting basic flute lessons through Octaves Online, a YouTube channel started by three software engineers who are also music enthusiasts. “These are for anyone interested in learning the flute, but especially for those who can’t pay. You can sit at home and go through these lessons, unlike me, who struggled for training in music,” says Hegde. His lessons begin with the basics regarding posture and the right way to hold the flute, and go on to alankaar, alaaps and compositions in ragas such as Yaman and Bhopali, which are simpler in structure and form. The lessons have generated a lot of interest, and Korti is being contacted by students from Europe and the US.

The world of Indian classical music — Hindustani and Carnatic, instrumental and vocal — has always held the ancient system of guru-shishya parampara in high esteem. It has been hailed as a bedrock that is known to go a long way into the making of some of the greatest artistes. Pt Ravi Shankar left his luxurious life in Paris to live in Maihar, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, to learn from Baba Alauddin Khan. His stories of battling mosquitoes and living frugally for many years in Khan’s home are well-known. Tansen went to Swami Haridas in Vrindavan to learn the soul of his music, that later, as goes the lore, could coax the rain or light diyas. Pt Hari Prasad Chaurasia changed his flute-playing stance completely (from right hand to the left) on the advise of his guru Annapurna Devi.

So in a whimsical world of classical music that’s based on unconditional respect and devotion to one’s guru, where music, for years, has been taught not just as education, but a way of life, it’s interesting how the internet is democratising the system and YouTube music lessons have found popularity. While some prefer paid Skype lessons with gurus, several lessons are available on YouTube free of cost.

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Mumbai-based Anuja Kamat is currently one of the most popular names on YouTube for her nuanced explanation of film songs based on classical music. The 24-year-old has 90,000 subscribers to her channel, Out of the Shruti Box. An Economics graduate, with bachelors in music, in the 13-minute video where she sings and describes the song Ghoomar from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, she also discusses the secrets of the swaras. “The song is based on two ragas — Vrindavani Sarang and Madhumad Sarang,” she says in the video, as she goes on to explain the definitive motifs of the ragas that repeatedly feature in the song.

Before her Bollywood song videos, she did 33 episodes on the ‘Basic Theory of Classical Music’, taking the viewers through concepts of raga, rhythm, octaves, significance of harmonium in Hindustani classical music, comparison of a Carnatic concert with Hindustani concert and the techniques of elaborating a raga, among others. There are episodes like That Kya Hai? Kahani Khayal aur Sadarang Ki and Is Indian Classical Music Same as Indian Folk Music?, among others. “It’s somewhat theoretical in nature. I explain the terminology, mythology and history of classical music,” says Kamat, who also adds animations to her videos. “I think my videos train the ear more than they can train the voice. It’s not that I am teaching you to sing. It’s an information provider. It’s telling everyone what’s classical music made up of. Sometimes a lay person can appreciate a raag because it’s related to a Bollywood song,” she adds.

Another set of popular YouTube music lessons are by Carnatic classical singer S Sowmya. Called Learn How to Sing, these videos explain the basics of Carnatic vocal. Initially created as a set of CDs, the music company posted them on YouTube. Sowmya didn’t expect the overwhelming response she’s got. “I never thought that the number of people wanting to learn classical vocal was so massive,” says Sowmya, 49, who is now planning to create an app that can be used to learn the form. Pratibha Sarathy, another Carnatic singer, delivers lessons through VoxGuru and focuses more on voice training, vocal range, concepts of head voice and chest voice, among others. Even composer and singer Shankar Mahadevan imparts music lessons online through a set of videos.

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Sanjeev Korti

While learning vocal music through these videos may seem more feasible, learning an instrument is much harder. Sitar player Sanjeev Korti, who teaches the intricate permutations and combinations of the swars, says that since there is no give and take of ideas, it’s hard for students to fine-tune the subtleties of playing an instrument. “I’m not there to control and change the technique,” says Korti.

For years now, experts and non-experts of Indian classical music have wrangled over music being learnt in classrooms. Music is taught in most Indian universities today but the results have not always been impressive. So can YouTube really provide a holistic music education? The larger consensus is that personal lessons are essential. “You will eventually have to be with a guru,” says Korti. Kamat agrees. She says, “Learning from YouTube will give you basic or added information, or generate your interest in a range of details it includes. But if you need to reproduce, guidance is necessary.” Sowmya says that the gurukul system may be traditional but remains most effective. “While technology has brought students from various parts of the world closer and is a huge advantage, nothing can replace living in the same environment as the guru. It’s not just music. You learn anecdotes, life lessons and so much more,” she says.