Living the Classical Life - Sameer V Kulkarni

Sameer Kulkarni is a student of Hindustani Classical vocal music for the past 14 years. At the age of 11, he passed the AIR junior audition test. Subsequently, he performed in the 'Gilivindu' programme of AIR. In 2013, he stood first in the Hindustani classical music competition conducted by Indo China Economic and Cultural Council (ICEC) and is one of the few who were selected to perform in China. In February 2018, he won first place in a National level Hindustani Classical music competition – “SWARASHRI” conducted by Sanjog an institution run by Pt. Pravin Godkhindi. In July 2018, he was awarded the young artistes scholarship by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. He has won first place in the Hindustani Vocal Competition during the annual state-level VTU fest (in 2018). He has inherited the love for music from his grandfather Vidwan H. Anandarama Udupa who was a noted musicologist. We've had the pleasure of having a conversation with him about his journey with Classical Music.

Tell us about your schooling and education.

I did my schooling in Sudarshan Vidya Mandir, PU education in Kumarans PU college. Currently in 4th year, Telecommunication Engg in BMSCE.

How did your musical journey begin?

My sister started learning first. In about 6 months, I could not help myself from wanting to sing with her, and my parents were forced to send me there too. I was about 6 years old then.

Tell us about your Guru.

Pt. Dr. NagarajRao Havaldar and Shri Omkarnath Havaldar are my Gurus. They are one of the leading exponents in the field of Hindustani Classical Music. I am fortunate to have been taught by them for the last sixteen years. They are very unique in their style of teaching and have very creative, innovative methods. I look forward to learning more and more from them for as long as possible and gain as much knowledge from them as much as my practice and capability allow me to.

Why did you choose to pursue Classical music?

To be honest, it was my mother who was very fond of Hindustani Classical Music. Her father was a very senior, knowledgeable, musicologist (Carnatic Classical), and a great teacher too. She initiated my sister and me to learn Hindustani Classical Music. As a combined outcome of my Gurujis’ unmatched teaching methods and my parents’ unflinching support, both my sister and I developed a deep love, respect, and passion for Classical Music.

How important was the role of your family in your journey so far?

My parents have always been supportive with respect to our learning. From financial to moral support we have felt lucky and supported. I am extremely thankful and lucky to have had this.

Tell us about your first ever concert experience.

My first concert experience was in 2013. I performed Raag Yaman and a Devotional composition for about 45 minutes. Most part of what I remember about the concert is being nervous. I was about 15 years old, and my Gurujis were listening to me. One very very memorable and special thing is my Guruji Shri Omkarnath Havaldar sir accompanying, guiding, and boosting my confidence while playing the tanpura. That is a rare sight among Guru-Shishya’s.

How do you feel every time you’re on stage before you start the concert? Do you get nervous?

Being a young student of music, nervousness is certainly there most of the time. There are a lot of things that come across my mind at that moment when I’m about to start singing like, the people listening to me, the aspects I’ve thought of presenting, what impact I might make, and many other things. I am taught, however, by my guruji to focus only on what I am about to sing and nothing else. So, I try my best to do that and avoid being or feeling nervous.

Tell us about your most memorable concert.

The most memorable concert I had was quite recent (March 1st, 2020). This is memorable because my Guruji said he was able to sense essences of his gaayaki (style of singing) and also a few other musicians’ gaayaki in what I sang.

Can you name some artists who inspire you?

I’m highly inspired by my two Gurujis. Also, I am inspired by some very great artists like Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur, Pt. Kumar Gandharva, Pt. K.G. Ginde, Pt. Madhav Gudi, Pt. Ravindra Yavagal, Pt. Ravindra Katoti.

Can you educate us about the importance of riyaaz? What is your daily routine?

I would say riyaaz or practice (in any art form) is as important as food is, to living beings. We might not deteriorate physiologically or die, but will certainly go back several steps by missing a day’s practice. I also believe that listening is also an important part of Riyaaz and must be done as religiously as singing or playing.

I try to practice twice daily. I do not fix durations because a lot of factors decide the duration of practice on any given day.

Do you think learning about instruments is vital for vocalists? Have you learned any?

My guruji would sometimes make me repeat a complex phrase. After a few repetitions, I would get it right. He would then ask me to imagine the same phrase being played on a veene or harmonium or a flute. That would make me realize how an instrument that is concealed in our body is so capable. So, a vocalist must understand – if not perform – the nuances involved in playing different instruments.

I have not professionally learned how to play any instrument.

Can you elaborate on how Hindustani Classical music is different from Carnatic classical music?

There are a lot of differences between the two systems of music. I will try to highlight a few that I think have understood.

1. There is a difference in the proportions of performing impromptu and performing composed pieces.

2. The Carnatic system defines 22 shrutis. The Hindustani system follows the 12 swaras. However, more shrutis do exist in the Hindustani system as well even though they are not named.

3. The role of the artist accompanying on a percussion instrument is different in the two streams. The tabla player plays a “Theka” which plays a key role in presenting compositions. A mridangam player, however, has more freedom, and the artist who sings or plays compositions is used to maintaining the cycle.

Do you think that the younger generations today are less appreciative of Indian classical music?

As far as my experiences and interactions are concerned, I feel that the people of my generation are less exposed or wrongly exposed to Indian Classical Music. Pt. Mallikarjun Mansur ji had once told in an interview that the parents of his generation and the generation before used to take their children to concerts. Moreover, the parents used to educate the child on different aspects of what the performer is presenting to an extent where the child was able to recognize those aspects. I feel this has disappeared in the generations that followed. If the people of my generation are exposed in the right way to Indian Classical Music, I’m sure they will be appreciative naturally.

Like every other field, do you think there is an impact of social media on Indian Classical music as well?

Certainly. There have been impacts on the field of classical music. In Hindustani Music, there is a concept of “Gharana”. This is basically a style of singing or playing that is prevalent in and unique to a particular area (province). These styles were different from each other due to the communication barrier between the two provinces. With the advent of social media, there has been a positive impact in this regard. A student of a particular gharana can listen to musicians from various other gharanas and incorporate possible and feasible aspects from them.

Like many other fields, there have been negative aspects too. Young artists get carried away by the reach that social media platforms have.

According to you, what is that X-factor in classical music that it has always survived and flourished amidst all the new genres of music?

My guruji has asked me this many times without expecting an immediate answer. It amazes me too, as to why classical music has survived over 1000’s of years and is still proven to be impactful. One of the reasons is the importance given to “shaastra” or grammar in Shastriya Sangeeta. When we piously maintain the grammatical aspects of a certain raga, the raga has the power to make its positive effects. There have also been many huge contributions by stalwarts like Pt V. N. Bhathkhande and Pt. V. D. Paluskar in documenting grammatical aspects, compositions, etc. I hope I practice and learn enough to find the X – Factor/s one day.

What do you think is in store for aspiring classical musicians, considering the widespread popularity of film music, EDM, etc.?

We have seen that Classical Music has stood the test of time and remained relevant till date. Therefore, a student of music must not worry about the “advancements” happening around and must focus on learning more and practicing more. Popularity I believe, is something very volatile and will change continuously.

What would be your advice to anyone who wants to pursue Classical music?

Pursuing classical music has helped me in many different ways. It has helped me mentally, in studies, in having perspective towards things. I would certainly encourage anybody to learn classical music, and everybody to listen to it.

What is next for you?

I wish to continue learning and practicing for as long as I live. As my guruji (Omkar sir) says, all the fun, learning, and enjoyment is in the journey towards a goal that is set. So, I wish to enjoy the process (while practicing as rigorously as I can) of achieving the goals that I set.

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