An ancient art | August 4, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - August 4, 2006

An ancient art

Palo Alto teen studies the intricacies of Indian carnatic music

by Rebecca Wallace

As a female singer in the Western tradition, you may treasure your high B-flat.

Surya Nagarajan, though, delves into the low tones of her voice, finding a husky resonance that can sound comforting, mysterious or mournful.

The Gunn High School student has been studying carnatic music, classical music from Southern India, since she was 4 years old. At 16, she's poised and practiced, even during an impromptu concert for two journalists in the Palo Alto family home.

A photographer snaps away, and a reporter scribbles about her every move, but Surya retreats behind a performance face of concentration. She sits on the carpet and sings a religious praise song by the famed composer Saint Tyagaraja, with words in the Southern Indian language Telugu.

Her voice soars and falls, entwining in patterns like a flowering vine. A small electronic shruthi box emits a constant tone to guide her.

"If you don't keep the pitch, the critics will know," Surya's grandmother, Janaki Krishnan, says with good humor.

Besides maintaining pitch, keeping a strong focus is crucial when the music is this complex. Carnatic music is an ancient art of many structured elements, including ragas, which are rather like keys in Western music. Each raga has a set of notes in the ascending and descending scales, and each song is composed in a particular raga, Surya said.

Another element is tala, the rhythmic pattern of the song.

"You keep the beat with your hand," Surya said. "The most common is eight beats per measure." She demonstrates, tapping out a pattern of fingers on a table, then flipping her hand over and back as part of the pattern.

Many songs also have an improvisational portion: singers can follow their muse and mood, so long as they conform to the raga and tala.

Knowledgeable audiences often particularly enjoy the improvisation, Surya's mother, Sudha Nagarajan, said.

"You don't tell them the raga -- people like to recognize it themselves when you're singing," she said.

Unlike Western sopranos reaching high into their head voices, carnatic singers avoid the upper register, which Surya says can sound nasal and false. She keeps her sound low, without vibrato. Carnatic singing does include ornaments similar to Western grace notes or trills, she added.

Surya also studies the Western piano and violin, and plays with the El Camino Youth Symphony. This path, though, doesn't provide the same intricate challenge for her.

"I like how complex the ragas are. (Western) keys are really simple -- there are not as many variations," she says.

Whereas a teenager might hope to blend in with the crowd, Surya also enjoys carnatic music because it's something unusual to her non-Indian classmates. She even once gave a speech on it in school.

On Aug. 13, she'll bring carnatic music to a much larger audience, performing a concert at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. A. Rupesh will accompany her on violin, along with Ravi, who plays the mridangam, a South Indian drum.

Surya, who practices three hours a day on top of all her other activities (which include badminton, henna art and karate), doesn't bat an eyelash at the prospect of singing in a 589-seat theater. "I think it's pretty fun," she said with a shrug.

For a concert, it's customary to choose songs from the "musical trinity": composers Tayagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar, Surya said. The songs are religious, and they represent different Indian languages, Telugu, Hindi and Sanskrit among them.

Surya confesses that she sometimes struggles with the proper pronunciation of the words. But her Palo Alto teacher, Vatsala Sarathy, praises her pupil's discipline.

"I just have to tell her once, and I can be sure that she'll go back and work on it," Sarathy said. Surya's family members, south Indians from Bombay, have also been supportive.

Surya's dedication is especially notable in this country, where carnatic music is not well-known outside Indian families, Sarathy added.

"In India, it's everywhere. There are concerts practically every evening, in a temple or other setting," she said. "Culturally, these kids (in the States) find it hard to find this kind of music. It's a taste that's cultivated. It does take time."

But Surya seems to have found a genuine passion for the art.

"She is able to communicate that feeling of joy to the listener. That is not something that comes easily," Sarathy said. "She feels emotions that are in the songs she is singing."

Surya's emotional range is apparent when she sings the one North Indian song that will be part of her concert program, a bhajan (shorter piece) by composer Kabir Das. Her tones are haunting, her face solemn. You don't have to understand the words to know she's mourning something.

"It's in Hindi. The composer is saying that he has spent his life without praying to God," Surya explains afterward. "He's lamenting."

Her mother nods, saying soberly, "Time flies."

What: A concert of Indian carnatic music by Surya Nagarajan of Palo Alto

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13

Cost: Free. Seating is first come, first served.

Info: Call 650-903-6000 or go to


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