When she bows and touches the feet of her guru, it could well look like a compliment to the Indian Guru-Shishya Parampara tradition. Her preference for a sari or a salwar kameez and her name - Malathi Iyengar - could well be her praise for Indian culture.
And her outlandish accent will make you look beyond the bindi she wears till you realise that she has been brought up in the West. Yes, she is an American by birth.
And as she produces a meend or gamak — essential factors of Hindustani music — on a Western instrument, the clarinet, her guru, Pandit Narasimhalu Vadavati, looks at her with admiration. Malathi, born to an Indian father and an American mother, took interest in the instrument at the age of 11, while studying in North Carolina. She achieved a certain degree of proficiency in the Western way of playing the instrument under the renowned master of clarinet, Mr. William Powell, at the California Institute of the Arts.
But when she heard Pandit Rajeev Taranath's sarod recital in the U.S., she was attracted to Hindustani music. The Western music world had till then thought that producing meend and gamma on clarinet was not possible. She realized otherwise only when she heard a cassette of Pandit Vadavati's music, presented to her by Pandit Taranath.
Utilizing a fund meant to bring artistes from outside to the Institute, she had Pandit Vadavati teach her for three weeks in her Institute. Later she earned sponsorship to visit India and learnt from him for six months under the Frank Huntington Beebe Fellowship. She is here again with the same mission.
She can now play 15 Hindustani ragas with a certain degree of proficiency on the instrument. She is leaving for her homeland in August. She has produced a CD with four of her ragas. She hopes to come back to her guru soon with another Fellowship. Born into a family with a legacy of music, she lives with her aunt, Ms. Vasudha, at J.P.Nagar when in Bangalore. Her maternal grandfather was a band leader, while her maternal grandmother was a pianist. But they were not there to teach her when she took interest in music. Her husband, Mr. Ryan, manufactures Japanese Taiko Drums, a music instrument.
Her master says Malathi is ready to give an hour-long clarinet concert in Hindustani. But Malathi prefers to wait to perfect the nuances of it. Pandit Vadavati would like to teach her for one more year, before he could declare her proficient.
Yes. The relationship of music students and teachers in India and the U.S. is totally different. "In the U.S., a music teacher is like any other professor," she points out. Yet, she had no difficulty in adjusting to the new situation here. "People in the West fail to understand that when we bow before our gurujis, we are seeking his blessings. They tend to think one is exhibiting tendency of a slave, which is wrong," she points out. Having been a student of Indian and Western styles of music she considers both to be "great," though Hindustani music provides a greater scope to improvise and experiment for the performer. Western music follows a rigid notation system, and the composer has the scope for creativity, rather than the performer. Yet, the performer could give his own individuality to a composition, she adds.
While she is seeking mastery in an Indian art form, she regrets the way Indians are aping the West. "Indians should be proud about their music and culture," she says. Why Indians ape the West? "May be, it is because of their aggressive marketing," she says.
"She has adapted so well to our culture. She treats me with so much of reverence, you see. She is learning music with shraddha (dedication) and bhakthi (devotion)," says Pandit Vadavati of his student.
© & ℗ 2005 William E. Powell
design by Miriam Kolar