Art Education: The Indian Musical Mind with Dr Deepti Navaratana

Art Education: The Indian Musical Mind with Dr Deepti Navaratana

As part of our Art Education: Benefits and Influence series we feature Executive Director of the Indira Gandhi National Council of Arts (IGNCA), Southern Region, Director Raaga Laboratory and Carnatic vocalist Dr Deepti Navaratna who talks about bringing neuroscience research to Indian music and culture. Transiting from Harvard to IGNCA, she says she is putting her brain where her heart has always been

What induced you to leave behind your research at Harvard and instead move to IGNCA?

After several years of cognitive research at Harvard I was looking to connect the dots within myself. I am also trained in South Indian classical voice and I was looking to move from hard core laboratory cognitive research involving brain imaging and neuro-generative studies to music cognition. I let go of a tenure-track job in Harvard, and instead did a Master’s degree in New England Conservatory to acquire the skills that are required to blend both. So in a way I was putting my brain where my heart was. I was looking for an academic space that allows me to study music within the environment and context of its native, indigenous culture.

How different is it studying culture and our traditions as against doing research in a laboratory?

I think one of the key differences is that in a brain imaging lab where you typically find music cognition research you would look at music as a stimulus and you are looking at music not as the process but as the final outcome and most of the orientations to music therapy follow that ontological direction. Whereas in a social sciences lab, you would look at music as a product of a culture. I wanted to do research that was musically grounded and culturally grounded in the tradition that it was born in. There is a very inextricably bound relationship in the music, the cultural values that it harbours, and those are equally important for someone studying cognition. You have to study music as culture, in culture and not as a synthetically separated thing.

In that way IGNCA is a good choice as I am surrounded by musicians, artistes, dancers. I wanted to study music, not just a tool for therapy but to study the cognitive foundations of our music. I wanted to study how music is shaped by cognition and how cultural cognition shapes music. So in a sense what are the tools of Carnatic pedagogy and how do they inform the brain. Listening to music is just a peripheral activity.

I know that the dominant take on music therapy in India is to use ragas to heal and there is a large body of literature in our cultural history looking at raga chikitsa, which looks at certain intervals and modes as being able to engender some personal outcomes. I’m not de-meriting any of that. I’m only saying that the practice of music, the pedagogy of music, the doing of music, all of those are also store houses of information of how the brain works on music and how the mind-body interrelationships work in music. I wanted to take a more holistic view on music cognition rather than just symptomatically study it in a lab or image a group of musicians. It has been illuminative and educative to me as a researcher trying to build this new bridge between music and cognition.

Knowing all these musicians and knowing how they practice their art, how they teach their art has played a phenomenal role in forming my hypothesis. It has informed what the field needs from an inside out perspective rather than an outside in perspective where we are grafting in Western models and paradigms into an Indian milieu, where those questions may be of zero cultural relevance nor great music therapy value.

Could you give one example of pedagogic research in Karnatic music?

How does a musician musically engineer an alapana in the Karnatic idiom? Alapana or the implicit memory is a lot of embodied knowledge. There is no way I can show you how to do an alapana in Kharaharapriya ragam without actually singing it. I may say the Kharaharapriya scale is X and Y, does not have certain notes, there is a kampita gamaka on this and that, and so in a way it’s about understanding the different processes of the mind – implicit memory, executive control, which is very different from looking at a piece of score in the western context and playing it. The questions that I would formulate would be what are the kinds of memory involved in the Karnatic performance, how much of the material that people use in their alapana is actually novel and how much of that is learnt from the compositions. If so what is the source of creativity. How are novel phrases being engendered? So does creativity involve active thinking? Ask anyone who is doing a kalpanaswaram, he will tell you that he is not actively thinking. There is a certain muscle memory that kicks in from having sung kalpanaswarams some 40,000 times. In the moment when you are doing it, creativity happens in a very different way. It happens from many unconscious processes of the mind.

When you are doing a neraval you are dealing with so many structures, with so many constraints. It’s like walking in a very busy road. You have to keep the tala, you have to keep the laya, and you have to use the prosodic structure well. You cannot do padabhanga, you cannot break it in the wrong places. You have to keep the emotion alive in the line and you have to orbit that line of the krithi to higher and higher levels of emotional charge while you are also doing a lot of mathematical manipulations that involves so many daunting processes of the mind. If we know how the brain works in those complex situations then you may be able to apply that in learning disabilities.

Even in the history of psychology or music cognition most of what we know about the brain has comes from case studies where somebody had a stroke or accident and they lost a function. Maybe they could not process melody or rhythm any more but there are very few studies on the brain that actually functions very well. Positive empirical studies are very few. What is happening in the brains of the people who are using their brains extraordinarily well? If you study that, then you may actually be in a better place to come up with therapeutic practices for brains which might not be up to speed.

We did a study on konnakol or solkattu recitations which requires you to use syllables at amazing speeds. It requires you to have a kinaesthetic sense of rhythm that is not symptomatically demonstrable with hand count. That could be applicable to children who have timing deficits in dyslexia or autism or even speech deficits. We have tried to fuse konnakol teaching practices and not just konnakol. It’s not the konnakol syllables that are magically curing somebody but it is the teaching of the practice, to actually say something in a specific metric time that helps them enhance their own cognitive foundations and speak better eventually.

Why has this kind of transference study not done before?

Purandaradasa has formulated some of the philosophical foundations of teaching Karnatic. He has thought about the role of sarale varase, janti varasa or daatu varases? All of these have their roots in larger philosophies of how we think about the mind, how we think about the selves, from Pathanjali yogasutras, to Ashtanga yoga to Natyashastra (which formulates how to manipulate music, dance, prosidy for different outcomes).

It’s all been there but it’s a modern contemporary phenomenon to ask why. We are in a better place now. There is a lot more research happening on our own culture. There have to be larger agendas for studying culture and its products, rather than just documenting or recording it because it has to do with a glorious past. That’s the collective wisdom of our civilisation. With the advancements in psychology and neuroscience we have the behavioural tools to ask those questions now.

Indian history has had a long history of dialectical discourse. Many of these things that are part of our past like Natyashastra or the music treatises, have been the products of huge amounts of scholarly enquiry and dissection in their time. However, being a sceptic I think they may not be relevant currently. And if it’s not relevant it leaves us with the beautiful opportunity to find ways that are relevant. Just as musical practices have evolved so also perhaps will the cognitive awareness of the past, some of them may not be relevant while some of them maybe completely ageless. But it remains to be tested and accepted.

Can the products of the research on one culture be used across cultures?

Culture is an important determinant and nothing is applicable cross culturally. Having said that there are some universal things to human cognition despite all of the variability/diversity in world music. We all pretty much hear stably twelve pitches. Of course there maybe gamaka variants or microtonal pitch variants but across the world we hear stable 12 pitches. So there are universal limits and capacities of human cognition which if these musical interventions tackle then, they may be able to cure an American child as well as an Indian child. The key will be to customise it.

When we did the solakattu study, American kids were not good at it. So we had to customise it for them to do it with numbers, sing tisra-nadai passages with numbers, or nonsense syllables, or even syllables they had problems with. Certain children cannot pronounce certain syllables so we said let’s embed those things, and ask them to sing that. The modality of disseminating that therapy will have to think about who is the audience and is it applicable? I can’t blindly go and say, Karnatic solakattu is the best and I don’t care if it’s a Turkish child or an American child. We have to find ways to use it in cross cultural modalities.

What musical projects have excited you the most?

I have always been very excited about inter-cultural musical conversations and excursions. It’s not till I landed in America that I realised that I am a singer of sacred music, because in India we don’t identify ourselves as sacred music singers. I realised that Karnatic music gives me a lot of tools to use this knowledge in many inter-cultural formats. A recent project has been a cultural diplomacy project where I’ve paired sacred texts from the Hindu tradition and Jewish traditions or from Christianity or Sikh texts, sang with a Jewish Cantor in a synagogue and with a gospel singer in a church. We have taken Karnatic music to spaces where it is normally not heard. At heart I’m a very proper South Indian lady but I believe that what this South-Indian-ness gives me is of immense importance to being able to be global also.

What is your favourite krithi and do you think that krithi can appeal to an international audience?

I think a Thyagaraja krithi is quintessential Karnatic music. I don’t believe that you can have inter-cultural conversations by diluting your own tradition. So the best response I have got is by singing a Thyagaraja krithi with all its sangeethis, with all its grandeur and not by thinking that this is an eclectic audience and I should be singing an abhang or something more digestable to the audience. I feel if you have to wear your culture you have to wear it in its most quintessential form.

Have you tried to analyse the brains of the Trinity, what is the source of their genius?

Now neuroscience is getting into phenomenology and you are able to use first person narratives. One of the projects I’m doing is looking at the cognition of the Natyashastras 28th chapter, where I am using empirical musicological experiments as first person narratives to study how they thought of the swara. It would be a wonderful experiment to think about what is the Karnatic compositional mind. What it thinks of melody. What was their idea of what melody should encompass as every culture has its own idea of what sounds melodic.

Take for instance the Pallavi, what does it mean for the mind, how does it set certain musical expectations, how does it set the theme for more elaboration on the sangeeti? One can also study the methods with which the Karnatic compositions are composed. Some of them could be bursts of imagination or bhavaparavasha, but not all of them. If you study the Trinity, they were what you would call a faculty in a music conservatory today. They had their disciples, a good knowledge of theory, they were composers in their own right, they used to share ideas, they would travel, they were interested in other cultures. What we think of as static Karnatic ideas today were not born of Thyagaraja always sitting in one place and coming up with a krithi. Maybe he wrote a Pallavi, shared it with his student, he taught it in a Master class with his student, and then the student suggested starting an anupallavi somewhere. It might have evolved like that or he might have had a burst of imagination. It must be a bunch of musical decisions. I don’t believe in single processes. A body of compositions in any culture will have multiple sources of inspiration. So many works in Karnatic music have been commissioned by the Wodeyars, by the Tanjavur court, they were intended to be composed for operatic works and so on.

What are the areas of research that you are currently focussing on?

I’m very interested in memory research. One of the most bewildering things that people find with our tradition is that we sing a five-page krithi without having to look at a score. So clearly we are doing something extraordinarily well with memorising things. So I want to study how amateurs and Karnatic musicians memorise, what strategies they use? Is learning with a teacher with an oral format different from learning from a score? Most musicians learn actively from a score after they have passed a certain while. We also have a concept where a teacher doesn’t teach varali. You have to learn it yourself. So what are the self-teaching strategies that musicians use.

You may learn from the music arena and use it in a different space. If you know what they do, you can use it for people with memory problems. They may be people with Alzheimer’s, children with working memory disorders, and music training itself can be used as a means to enhance memory.

(Deepti has developed a laboratory at IGNCA, Bengaluru). IGNCA has a repository, manuscripts, library, people, have access to archival data so it should be a space where active documentation and behavioural studies are done looking at these aspects of culture. A cultural and musical laboratory is in the offing to create a body of scholarship.

(This interview was first published in Saamagaana The First Melody)