All of us know how difficult it is to keep in touch with the fine arts while managing a household or a profession; imagine how much tougher it can be to do so if one wanted to travel the world as well. But one extraordinary individual who has managed to all this, and managed to both teach and learn music in other countries, is Anasuya Kulakarni.
Anasuya, who is in her fifties now, had a lovely voice as a young girl, and, after her training under Ganakala Ratna R R Keshava Murthy, was often asked to sing everywhere, though her parents did not approve of anything except ‘amateur’ status for her singing. However, she started broadcasting from All India Radio, Bangalore since 1952, and won the gold medal awarded by the music academy of Chennai the same year. She also trained for some time under the famous Mysore T Chowdiah.
In 1961, film director Subbiah Naidu was impressed by her voice, and she did the playback for the well-known film, "Bhakta Prahlada".
"I married at 28 ….very late, by the standards that prevailed in my community," remarks Anasuya, in her beautiful home at JP Nagar. "I didn’t want to marry a ‘usual’ person; and I kept refusing alliances until I heard about the young man who was taking up an assignment with the United Nations…I decided that this was the person for me!" she laughs. In 1964, this meant leaving her Carnatic music learning and performing, and going to live in Kabul! While in Kabul, she found that Ustad Mohammed Hussain Sarahang was teaching there, and she decided to branch out and learn Hindustani classical music from the maestro.
"This, indeed, was the first instrument in my collection," she says. The Ustad gave her, as a blessing, his own Surmandal, a string instrument, to accompany her singing, after she had returned the one that she had bought. She gave performances in Kabul; and after that, she followed her husband to countries like Papua New Guinea, Uganda, Mongolia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Canada, UK, USA, Bhutan, and Addis Ababa. Quite a feat, considering that she was raising two sons as well! But she not only managed it, but kept a musical dialogue alive with various musicians in many of these countries. She taught music in several universities under exchange programmes.
At the same time, she started collecting various musical instruments…wind, plucked, bowed, percussion, gong… from the countries she went to live in. "Each instrument had to be carefully brought home, and stored, too," she reminisces. "It was quite a challenge." She shows me around the well-showcased collection, backed up by visual material on how the instruments are played, and the countries they are from.
When in Indonesia, she first came across the huge instrument that the Angklung is; (actually, a series of bamboo frames, that look like a very oversized xylophone), that occupied a large room, with musicians running back and forth to sound the various notes. She was struck by the idea of adapting this instrument to the Indian music tradition, "…where we do not stand or run about, but sit and have to let the audience see us," she remarks.
So she decided to scale down the instrument to this level, and worked diligently with the Angklung players to arrive at a suitable combination of size and material which would not compromise the sound of the instrument, either. It was a scaled-down model, but one that had to work perfectly in terms of sound, tone and melody. She dubbed her adaptation the "Angkrang". On October 24th, in Indonesia, in a televised programme, she gave a performance of Carnatic music on the instrument, accompanied by her sons, Dinesh and Umesh, on the mridangam and ghatam, respectively.
The Indonesian government then chose her as the representative at the Indian Ocean Festival of Art at Perth. An Indian lady, living in Papua New Guinea, going to Australia to play an Indonesian instrument…surely there cannot be a better example of global integration! Over a period of time, she learnt to master the instrument well enough to give an hour-long concert.
Leading by example
As she gave lecture-demonstrations of the world musical instruments at various venues in India and abroad, people asked her if she could show how to play the various instruments she was showing PowerPoint slides of; so she decided to learn several of the instruments and demonstrate them live. "A live performance is far better, as the audience gets involved in the feel of the instrument," she says. "However, it’s not always possible to carry around these precious and irreplaceable instruments… I do so when it is feasible."
A truly commendable effort, for which she has been honoured by titles from several organisations in Bangalore and one in Malaysia. Anasuya has given several TV programmes, and has recorded some cassettes as well.
In 2008, she also entered the Limca Book of Records for introducing the Indianised version of the Angklung. But to her, what is more important is that she is now getting other musicians to learn how to play the various instruments that she has brought home with such care, and she actually lends them her precious instruments to practice on, when they cannot gather together for practice sessions.
For this year’s U N Day on October 24th, she showcased at least 20 instruments in a programme of 90 minutes’ duration, with a compere introducing the various instruments. The program took place at Yavanika, Nrupathunga Road.
"I am doing all this with God’s grace," says the modest Anasuya, a Ph D in Music from Annamalai University, a degree she earned in 2001. Her sons live in the US now, and she concentrates on her collection of musical instruments, and the Angkrang. "We first had the instruments on the first floor, but the collection grew, and I designed the present display cabinets and shelves and had to build the second floor!" she smiles. "Now that, too, is becoming full…"
Full, indeed, is the word to describe Anasuya’s life. Where most of us would consider running a household in unheard-of countries adventure enough, she has managed to maintain her interest in music, broaden it to include world music, spread its message in as many places as she can, and build up a remarkable collection as well. And to top it all, she has played basketball at the national level and was a double winner in a badminton tournament in Jakarta, Indonesia, as well!
"I no longer sing," she says in conclusion. "But I take comfort in the fact that there are several other singers, but only one player of Indian classical music on the Angklung!"
As I leave this versatile, talented woman to wend my way homewards, I muse on the amount of achievements an individual can pile up in a lifetime…⊕