"It must be perfect," my voice teacher Mysore V. Amba Prasad tells me after I've botched the pitch of a mid-tempo Janti Varasa. Janti Varasas are specific sets of swaras, or notes, of the 7-note Indian scale. Prasad comes over to my house in Mysore almost daily to run me through increasingly more complicated arrangements of the swaras. The exercises are designed to instill the swaras (and the talas, or clapped beats) into the students head and body so they can what they are intended to do: 'impart joy to the listener."
And so I repeat the phrase of this particular Janti Varasa...with and without the tala, and once again with Prasad.
At this point, I am far from perfect, and my progress is marked by how I can tell when I'm off as much as by when I can keep up with Prasad's lessons. But I'm game, some primal part of my extremely California, straight-ahead Western-music playing self having an unlikely but happy affinity for the sacred sounds of Indian Classical music's foundation.
I first took classes with Prasad — a violin virtuoso who teaches mandolin, guitar and voice as well as his primary instrument — in 2008 as a way to keep my voice in moderate singing shape while I studied yoga at Mysore's Ashtanga Institute. It wasn't my first introduction to the 7-note Indian scale; when I first returned to California at the end of the 1990s I happened upon Chloe Goodchild's Naked Voice Singing workshops and had enjoyed both singing the basic scale and the fact that each note was associated with the chakras.
This trip, the voice lessons are running about equal to my yoga studies in terms of both time, attention and challenge, although I'm still very much a baby bird at it. I have no pretense of becoming a Carnatic singer, but the emotionalism of the sound, Indian Classical Music's strong link to scriptures and how each basic note is associated with a chakra and animal, compels me to keep wading into its very deep waters. As I both practice and learn more about the Carnatic system, it's that much more apparent how such music that addresses spirit, lineage and body so holistically is at once elegant and healing.