Meaning in the Music: Students learn culture-specific instruments to connect with their identities

Junior Sri Chanakya Atreyapurapu plays the

Aditya Thiyag | The Chronicle

Classical music has extended beyond the confines of band and orchestra rooms, helping Indian students connect with their roots.

Carnatic music is an older form of classical music that originated in the southern region of the Indian subcontinent. Having existed for centuries, the art form is based in ancient South Indian culture, and most songs are composed in the South Indian languages of Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. Carnatic music is built on scales of keys and notes, similar to as it is in traditional Western classical music, with the etymology primarily stemming from the ancient language of Sanskrit. Concerts in Carnatic music are characterized by emphasis on the vocalist, with accompanying instruments traditionally consisting of a percussion instrument and a melodic instrument. 

Junior Sri Chanakya Atreyapurapu has played one of these percussion instruments, the mridangam, since the age of nine. He said that his decision to pick up the instrument was in large part thanks to his family’s great appreciation for Carnatic music during his childhood living in India. However, it was only years later, when Atreyapurapu moved to the United States, that he began to enjoy and appreciate Mridangam and carnatic music overall.

“Playing [mridangam] takes me to a place where I can be free,” Atreyapurapu said. “I really enjoyed being in India with my friends but once I came here, it was just me. So I really appreciated the consistency I got from my [mridangam] teacher because he didn’t let me go and now I learn over FaceTime.”

Senior Anagha Rao got into Carnatic music at a young age similar to Atreyapurapu. A practicing vocalist for ten years, Rao said that attending carnatic music lessons, known as Sangeetham, from a very early age was a normal thing for her family, and has since become an integral part of her identity.

“Just like how kids in the United States go to soccer [practice] or go to an art class, I went to [a] Sangeetham class growing up,” Rao said. “It’s how my parents were brought up as well. One of my relatives is a Sangeetham teacher and my cousin plays the flute at concerts. So music has always run in my family.”

The Hindu religion is also a key part of Carnatic music. During Hindu rituals, known as “poojas”, Atreyapurapu said that it is commonplace in Indian culture for carnatic music to be played as a way to honor the gods. When these take place at his house or in temples where he performs, Atreyapurapu said that playing during them has helped him better connect with his culture and family.

“My father and my sister are huge on Carnatic music and we do a lot of poojas in my house,” Atreyapurapu said. “Playing during poojas reminds me of some of the [religious] stories that my grandmother told me. I have played with my sister before during festivals and we bounce off [of] each other and improvis[e] and it’s been a way for us to bond.”

Religious idols, figures and stories are often the focal point of the lyrics of most Carnatic songs. As a result, Rao said that learning the meaning behind these songs, especially the ones known as “krithis”, helped her gain a deeper appreciation for the art beyond simply singing for the sake of singing.

“[My music teacher] would tell us the backstory behind the krithis and what the composer was feeling as he wrote them,” Rao said. “And after learning about the meaning, my family and I instantly get chills [when listening]. It’s so nice to recognize this part of my culture and learning about the lyrics have helped me connect with it better.”

Additionally, the religious aspect of Carnatic music is something that Rao said allowed her to gain a sense of community during her time spent living in Bloomington, Illinois. She said that she lived close to a temple in Illinois and her family quickly became well known in the community due to their involvement with that temple. There, Rao met a Carnatic music instructor who organized an event titled “Margam” that she would later join, in which students of all ages and skill levels learned and performed music together.

“We all got together every weekend and we just sat and learned songs together,” Rao said. “And this community became what I think of when I think of home and culture, because community is really where all of it started from.”

While singing and playing instruments differ in their execution, both require a tremendous amount of dedication, hard work and practice. Rao said that practicing Carnatic music has helped her achieve a state of devotion which she described as “Bhakti”. She said that this meditative state is something that is easily observable due to the passion that is on display when it takes place and can be achieved .

“Once, when my music teacher was singing a song onstage, her hands were moving along to the lyrics,” Rao said. “You could see her movements echo[ing] the lyrics as she was internalizing them. Even if you couldn’t understand exactly what the words are, you could hear the emotion and pure devotion that goes into it. That is bhakti.”

Although Carnatic music performances have typically remained within temples and other South Indian dominated areas, Atreyapurapu said that he was grateful for this year’s talent show due to the platform he was given to showcase his heritage by performing Mridangam for a crowd of people unfamiliar with the art form. He said that performing on such a stage was important for him because he wished to expose more people to a new culture that they were not typically accustomed to seeing.

“In a school, [there are] so many people who haven’t been exposed to other cultures,” Atreyapurapu said. “They respect every culture, but they’ve never really [seen] what each culture is like. I felt like performing mridangam there gave me a chance to spread my own culture.”

Photo by Aditya Thiyag. Graphics by Becca Hunter