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Shivkumar Kalyanaraman – Founder of Carnatic Music knowledge sharing portal

11 November 2012 19 Comments

Dr. Shivkumar Kalyanaraman is Senior Manager, Next Generation Systems and Smarter Planet Solutions at IBM Research – India. Formerly, He was a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), NY before moving back to India.

He manages a huge compendium of carnatic music resources at www.shivkumar.org. Founder of a great knowledge sharing portal in the carnatic music space, Dr. Shivkumar Kalyanaraman is a role model for Indian Youth.

Me: Sundar Rajan G S

SK: Shivkumar Kalynaraman – Founder, www.shivkumar.org

Me: Welcome to the show on Coffee With Sundar? Can you please speak about yourself, your background and your interest in carnatic music?

SK: My parents were keen on music and when we moved to Secunderabad, I was fortunate that there was a Government College of Music and Dance close by and my parents (Smt Geetha and Shri Kalyanaraman) enrolled me there. So I had almost daily music class en route back from school. More importantly, I had a wonderful guru in Shri Peri Sriramamurthy, who is a top violinist from Hyderabad. The early stages involved a lot of encouragement from my parents and enforced practice discipline. Gradually, with my parents and guru’s help, the interest and aptitude came and I am grateful to them for the gift of music that is with me for my lifetime. I feel the parent & teacher’s attention in the earliest stages is therefore crucial.

Me: Can you talk about your music journey.. When did you start, who were your gurus.. How long did you learn.

SK: I learnt violin at the Govt College of Music and Dance in Secunderabad with Shri Peri Sriramamurthy in 1983, and when I joined college in Chennai, I studied with Smt. T. Rukmini between 1990-1993. I have received some vocal training from the late Shri B.R.C. Iyengar (a noted critic and an Ariyakudi disciple) and the late Shri M.N. Subramanian (a disciple of Semmangudi). I have subsequently had the pleasure of learning from my friends Ram Kaushik (now in Nashville, TN) and Shankar Venkataraman (now in Columbus, OH). We were called the “Columbus Brothers” since we performed together often in Columbus, Ohio where I did my graduate studies.

Me: When did you start building this online repository of music lessons & songs?

SK: In 1998, there was a Navarathri celebrations in Albany, NY where I lived, and for the purposes of sharing notations, I felt that writing it in a Word file and putting it up on a web page would be easier. Later, I tried to teach a little, and felt dissatisfied that either I wasnt doing a good job or my students would forget what I taught. So, I started putting up recording of the song rendition online (not the “class” version). Later I realized that the gap was that students did not appreciate the nuances and required repeated reinforcement; and that these subtleties werent obvious from either the notation or just a rendition. This prompted me to create MP3 audio versions of classes in 1999. This was just around the time that MP3 players were becoming popular (and before the iPod came along).

I had initially focussed on krithis. But I realized that the larger value was also to help in the initial stages. I had read the nice set of articles by the irrepressible Ramesh Mahadevan (who btw, has a fantastic set of short articles that humor IITians) on a Gentle Introduction to Indian Music, and with a help of a friend who played keyboards, I created an audio annotation of those articles. I followed this with classes on Sarali, Janta, Alankaras, Varnams etc etc. Over the next 5 years, thanks to the support of my wife Sharanya, I was able to add a class almost every week. Typically this involved learning from a version I liked, notating it, pulling together meanings and interpolating word-by-word meanings, and recording a class with emphasis on technical and aesthetics on a phrase-by-phrase basis. The web site caught on virally – I did not do any publicity except to mention it to a few folks and drop a link on a few mailing lists. Given the enthusiastic response and feedback, I kept making small changes to keep it relevant; and added a page on manodharma later. Several friends have contributed classes, versions, notations, lyrics or meanings. I am very thankful to them and have acknowledged their contributions online.

Me: What are some of your top challenges for hosting this website? How to you handle them? What keeps you going?

SK: My university Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) was kind to host the web page till I worked there. After I moved to India, my friend and colleague Deva Seetharam helped me create a new domain and host it inexpensively. The web site is very simple and trivial actually – it is just a simple html file with basic navigational assistance that I update — so Web 1.0 (except for a facebook/twitter link)! I have resisted changing this simple interface because it is easy for users and also keeps my life simple.

Nowadays I unfortunately do not have enough time to make additions as I would like. I have a long todo list, and I end up making additions usually during the December season holidays. I would welcome contributions from scholars and artistes. My users do expect me to do quality control which is the only constraint.

Me: Did you ever find issues with copy rights of the music? If so, how did you handle them.

SK: I have been careful in not posting commercial audio versions online. I may have learnt from a audio/CD version commercially, but I respect the rights and do not post the originals. If I have by error, I try to correct that soon. For the manodharma section, I have taken snippets from non-commercial personal recordings on a raga-by-raga basis. I have put a disclaimer on the web site and am happy to remove any content in case of any concern.

Me: Who are the target audience for your website? Have you had international students interested in Carnatic music?

SK: The target audience is a music learner or enthuasist of carnatic music — of any age or nationality or location. I have been extremely happy to receive emails from folks worldwide, including international folks who have found the resource of some use to them.

As I have clarified online, I view this resource as “complementary” to the role of a music teacher (like an “audio text book” if you’d like). It tends to empower self learners and help folks who would like to have a deeper appreciation of music. I have heard interesting stories where children listen to classes in the background while they are playing; or people listen to classes when they are doing their treadmill / workout.

Me: What is the role of more high technology online portals in learning traditional art such as carnatic music? Is it an enabler?

SK: I think there is an amazing amount of potential for technology, internet etc in education, as we have seen in KhanAcademy, Nptel (by our own IITs), MIT opencourseware, iTunes or iPads and new companies like Coursera. Reaching mobile users and lighting the spark of interest in a new subject that overcomes the inherent inertia to learn or pre-conceived notions of “difficulty” or “i cant do it” is the biggest challenge.

My work was an early experiment and continues to be. New modes to spur interactivity, combination of audio / video and social aspects needs further experimentation. There is a lot of vibrant activity in terms of “skype” classes and other interactive modes which are happening one-on-one. We have to discover how to scale these efforts, and yet giving incentive for the teachers who share their valuable knowledge. Perhaps we could have a “social” web site where skype classes can be taped and posted online and organized / shared for the benefit of all. And hopefully this will drive their fame and more students will join them.

SK: How do manage to spend time with this along with your day job doing research? Can you talk a bit about research background and your current work as well?

Me: I graduated from IIT Madras in CS, and did my MS / PhD at Ohio State University. I was to a Professor at RPI in networking, internet and wireless technologies. This helped me since I was an educator and was curious about the potential for the Internet in education. And importantly I had some flexible time to contribute. I am now a research manager at IBM Research – India in Bangalore, and take care of a team doing very interesting research in “Smarter Planet” and next generation systems technologies. I lead a research centre in Brunei (UBD | IBM Centre) as part of my job.

Unfortunately IT life in India does involve a lot of calls to the US and other geographies (esp as a manager) and my evenings are consumed by this, and add in travel, I get precious little time for family. I am still trying to figure out how to reduce all these “excuses” about competing priorities and re-focus to find the time to contribute more to the web site.

Me: Your message for young Indians, who are aspiring to make a difference in their own way?

SK: Just do it. Be simple and really focus on what your target audience wants deep in their hearts (put yourself in their place). True value can be created by leveraging tools like the internet, mobile, social sites etc. It is also intensely satisfying when you share your little knowledge in a way that matters to a lot of people.

There is a lot of work to be done — we need resources for instruments, percussion, and other forms of music (north indian) etc for instance.

Me: Thank you very much sir and we wish you all the success in your endeavours. I am sure many people find this resource extremely useful.

Readers, hope you find this interview interesting. Stay tuned for more interviews.

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  • sonia said:

    Very informative post indeed.. being enrolled in http://www.wiziq.com/course/2371-carnatic-violin-and-vocal-for-beginners , I was looking for such articles online to assist me.. and your post helped me a lot

  • Sowmya said:

    very nice post. I have also learnt many kritis through Shivakumar sir’s audio releases. Devi Neeye thunai, Gajananayutham are some of them.. This post is very much boosting indeed. Thanks for the post..


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  • u r menon said:

    Very interesting reading. I am a regular visitor to SK’s site. It is wonder how he is managing all all these, alone!!! I am a senior citizen of 65 yrs; yet i am trying to understand carnatic music. thanks

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