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An Enlightening Vocal Workshop With A Star Vocalist – January 1st, 2006


As an enthusiastic student of Carnatic Vocal, I had often wondered how it would be like to be coached by an Indian based teacher. My curiosity is understandable, considering the fact that India is the cradle and thriving centre of the art form, where experts abound. I had my wish fulfilled in September 2007, after coming across a notice pasted at the door of the Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society’s art gallery in Kerbau Road, announcing a vocal workshop. A great learning opportunity to supplement my one-hour-a-week lessons with Mr. Sathyalingam, I thought, and immediately signed up, knowing little about the instructor.

The training experience turned out to be an invaluable one for me — our instructor Kavalam Srikumar is a star carnatic singer in India. For five evenings in late September, seven of us, all carnatic students, had a taste of what vocal training by an expert was like. Focussing on varishas, Srikumar drilled us vigorously in the basic vocal techniques. We were made to sing swaras in different ragas which were arranged in such a way that they had a melodious quality to it.

Although these exercises were quite demanding requiring good energy and stamina, we all felt invigorated and enjoyed the sessions tremendously. Having received elementary coaching for Chinese semi-classical song and Italian opera years ago, I must say what I had learned is nothing like what Srikumar offered. The Varishas were well-structured and thorough in a unique way, and I found myself (aged 55) totally immersed, together with fellow classmates aged below thirties. We picked up basic aspects of singing such as pitch, pace, voice modulation and pronunciation.

I was pleasantly surprised to find two other Chinese in our midst—a young man who has been taking carnatic lessons for more than a year and a lady in her early forties who, inspired by her yoga teacher’s humming of sound, has just started carnatic lessons in a bid to discover her own voice. This was also the first time that Srikumar taught Chinese students.

As in all forms of training, constant practice is important. On this score, I pride myself on keeping up a revision of these exercises daily for at least an hour. I can feel the difference in my singing now, and count myself lucky that I have the time to practise.

The music workshop was jointly organized by Sri Krishna Temple and Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society. In addition to this workshop for the public, Srikumar also conducted a workshop for the music teachers of the Society.

But the best part of Srikumar’s recent visit to Singapore was definitely a concert he presented on Sunday the 30th, on the eve of his departure. At the two-hour concert held at the Young Musicians’ Society in Waterloo Street, which was organized by the “Sruthi Laya”, the audience was mesmerized by his magnetic and soulful singing. Familiar and beautiful melodies such as Enakkennadi Thaaye in Vijayanagari Raga, Krishna Nee Begane inYamuna Kalyani, Jagadodharana in Kappi Raaga and Thillana in Hamsa Vinodini Raaga made the concert engaging throughout. Some pieces he sang touched a familiar chord in some members of the audience who clapped their hands along at some point of the concert. For us, it was endearing to hear Dayakaro Bhagawan, a song which he taught at the workshop, rendered in such divine and moving expressions. “Do you know Sir was looking at us when he sang that song?” a fellow student later told me, still excited.

What does Srikumar think about the Singaporean students?

“Some of the Singapore students are very talented, but as in other cases, people don’t have time to take music seriously and practise. People who want to take music seriously should also listen to more and more good music to improve themselves.”

Srikumar has just started a new lease of life, after quitting his post with All India Radio as Assistant Station Director in April 2007. “For any artist to flourish he should be mentally very relaxed, because music has a power to relax the mind. I feel more relaxed now and I can dedicate more time to music,” he said.

A household name in Kerala, he is known for a distinctive vocal style and clarity of expression. Son of famous theatre director Padmabhushan Sri Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, Srikumar had served in the post for more than 20 years. He has anchored the popular music programme “Ragolsavam” on Kairali Channel TV for four years. He has brought out many CDs and lent his voice to many movies including Madhuchandralekha, Agnisakshi and Suryan.

Currently, Srikumar presents four or five concerts a month and teaches a few high-calibre students. In addition he travels outside India to perform concerts. His latest program was in Bahrain, where he presided over the Bahrain Keraliya Samajam’s Vidhyarambham initiation ceremony on 21st October. He initiated around 80 children on that day, after which he had a wonderful session of music workshop with 25 children for 4 days. The Samajam’s Navarathri programme was concluded with his two concerts on 26th and 27th October, 2007.

Srikumar learned music under several gurus, including Ambalapuzha, Sivasankara, Panickar, Thrissur R. Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. He had his advanced study with the famous musician and violinist Sri. B.Sasi Kumar. In the late 70’s, he won first prize in the Classical Vocal Section in the University Youth Festivals for consecutive five years. He is also the winner of Akashvani (All India Radio) Annual Award for the best musical feature produced in 1989 & 1990 (“Gurussakshath Param Brahma” on Adi Sankaracharya and “Parayipetta Panthirukulam” – national Integration Feature). He has been honored by Malliyur Thirumeni, a doyen in the field of Bhagavatha Sapthaham in Kerala and received a title of “Ramakadha Shukan” from him in the year 1998 for his contributions in the field of Ramayana rendering.

Srikumar is a world-class vocalist, having performed concerts in countries of the East and West, including Japan, Russia, Singapore, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Dubai, London, Paris, Italy Germany and Switzerland.

Music is his greatest passion.

“My first preference is singing. I engage in music-related activities mostly. I practise daily. I feel very comfortable in teaching students who are very receptive and keen.”

Being in the spotlight, what does he think of criticism? He said: “If it is healthy criticism I always accept. We all try to become perfect in our fields. If anybody points out our shortcomings, we should gracefully accept it and try to correct them. But criticisms with personal grudge do hurt me because, after all, artists are sensitive and emotional people.”

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