‘I fell to my knees…totally in love with this music’

Emmanuelle Martin, accomplished French pianist and Carnatic musician, speaks about her journey across the two diverse cultures

Emmanuelle Martin was born in a family of western classical musicians. Thirty years ago, her father discovered Carnatic Music (the classical music of South India and started learning singing with Savitry Nair in Paris, who later introduced him to Seetharama Sharma: under whom he studied for many years. He also came in contact with TM Krishna, Carnatic musician and vocalist, and this was how Emmanuelle met her future tutor and guru.

How did you get interested in Indian Classical music? Did your earlier training in music help you to learn Carnatic music?

I was born in a family of western classical musicians. About 30 years ago my father discovered Karnatik Music and started learning singing with Savitry Nair in Paris who later introduced him to  Seetharama Sharma with whom he learnt for many years , he also met TM Krishna back then and they became friends which is how I got introduced to him as my teacher many years later.

Yes and no! 

Besides a sort of natural musical sense due to my earlier music training; I would say it helped me mainly for two things: a sense of practice and a sense of Sruti. 

 From a very early age I learnt and practiced the piano, diligently, daily. This allowed to shape in me the  ‘muscle of practice’ and made it easier to be naturally inclined to many hours of daily singing practice once I started learning singing from TM Krishna in 2004.

The other thing it helped me with is a sense of Sruti. The advantage of the piano is that unless you miss the key or that the piano is out of tune, each note is where it is and there is no risk of being approximate so that definitely educated my ear to Sruti or pitch.

Other than these two things; I had more things to deconstruct from my previous musical training, musical concepts to let go off and start afresh. It was indeed like starting an entirely new discipline.

Is there any common ground between the music of France and India? 

I would say that these two music systems function really differently; they both are music so they do have some common ground of course but their approach, the way they are built and evolve are organically completely different, in my opinion. 

In your opinion do you think it is necessary to understand the culture of a country to appreciate its music?

Yes and No. I think like everything; it depends on many things!

I would say in a way it is not necessary because it depends on why one appreciates or wants to learn music.  In my case, I was at first not interested at all in Indian culture; I was familiar with it due to my father’s implication with India and its music. But I had no interest whatsoever in its culture, customs, Hinduism, temples, gods, goddesses, rituals. I was curious when I was a teenager because it was ‘exotic’; far away from home and my father promised to take me there if I would learn at least the ‘Ganamrutha Bodhini’ first book so i could accompany him in his classes with Sharma sir. 

Many years later, when I was 19, I fell on my knees… totally in love with this music; from one moment to the next it became the most beautiful ‘thing’ I had ever heard or witnessed on this planet! I decided to move to India to learn with my guru. He lived in Chennai so I moved to Chennai.

I remember early on, during the first months when I was there; people would approach me sometimes at my guru’s concerts and ask me if was able to “understand what I was singing”; and of course then  I didn’t; and i didn’t even want to understand. I really truly didn’t care! Because what had touched me to the core was Music itself; which included everything of course but at that stage; intellectually I didn’t need to ‘understand’. I was completely in love with the music and I knew that this love was sincere: so Krishna anna would tell me when I questioned him on that subject not to worry; that my only job was to ‘sing’; and practice and that the ‘rest would come’.

Indeed after a few years, naturally; and after living there and travelling so much all over India to temples, big cities, towns and tiny villages along with my teacher and co-musicians for concerts ; after  living there full time; the flavour and context  of these all these beautiful songs I was learning  started to become more real for me; until a point where the intrinsic  ‘meanings’ of songs would become inseparable even though I would not understand their words by words meaning (and I still don’t); the essence; the subtle communication of the songs seem to ‘get in’ in some mysterious ways, very naturally and subtly, without going through the intellectual centre. I don’t need to know that this word means this or that; but of course, later I can study the words if I want. I always read the translation at some point, sometimes it helps being aware; but what I realise is that often it is superficial information; the real substance of the ‘meaning’ is already in!

The culture therefore; for me, is inseparable from the music; but not the superficial aspect of culture. That for me is perfectly unnecessary. This is why there is never anything that replaces patience and long term commitment. Culture such as the one of India; cannot be learnt in a book or ‘studied’, in my opinion and based on my own experience; the ‘culture’ of the country and regions which is the cradle of Karnatik Music is like a fully flavoured bath that gets ‘in’ subtly and slowly at the price of commitment and surrender. Nothing ever replaces this.

But I also know that now I don’t need to be in India to sing Karnatik music.

I can live in my house in southern France surrounded by (French) cows; eat bread and cheese (it is an image) and practice a raga alapana by the (French)  river down the hill; but of course I steeped into the culture for 10 years. 

And I think it depends on each person too. Karnatik music was not a ‘tool’; an ‘experience” I learnt to enhance my own musical practice or artistic discipline. I gave my life to it - completely.

So yes I think it depends; the students I teach in France don’t necessarily have a connection to India to start with; but those who are sincere and if they persevere, usually; naturally after a while there will be a movement to want to come to India; and be in the cradle of this music. 

But I think this music goes beyond culture; students can be totally touched and moved to the core by this music sitting in my music room in the hills of southern France. Eventually they will feel a connection; I would say it is necessary at some point, but definitely not before a while.

How did you opt for vocal Music instead of instrumental? Was it difficult to get the Sahitya correct?

I have always been in love with singing; it is the VOICE that touched me; even before music itself. It really is the alchemical mix of voice and this music together that really creates something for me. Voice serves Karnatik music; and vice versa. I love the Veena too; and I love the violin, mridangam, the kanjira, the ghatam….but for me there NEVER was a question. If I lost my voice I would probably learn the Veena; but I’m not even sure. I would probably just do gardening then.

YES, getting the sahitya correct was/is one of the hardest part of learning this music for me being French. But I was taught to approach sahitya as music; that it is ‘A’ and not ‘a’ or ‘dh’ and not ‘d’ (for example)  and learn to listen and reproduce exactly the sound that my teacher produced; as ‘purity’ of music and precision in my reproduction of sound; it was never separate from the music itself. Of course some of the letters; were more difficult than others for me to grasp; and some languages easier than others; Tamil definitely being the trickiest to reproduce properly. I think I’m getting closer now; but  it took great effort to learn to really hear the sound right and more than anything reproduce it properly; me not having any ‘storage’ of these sounds in my brain! 

Sometimes I would really (not intentionally) change the meaning of a word…and gracious guru and co-students would laugh…and at least we had some fun; (or tears for me ) in the process; but my teacher never let me get away with approximate pronunciation. I am sure I still have lots of work to do in that domain but I sincerely try my best.

The idea being always not to imitate; but to make mine and reproduce in the best way that I can.

Does the spiritual content of Indian music appeal to you?

Yes very much. I wouldn't say it appeals to me but it is actually completely a part of me. 

What appeals to you most in your travels across India? 

Feel the sacred ground under my feet, sip tea in tea stalls in the streets; walk around the temples and just ‘be there’,  now I am completely in love with deities. I love to walk in Mylapore and sit in the dozens of small temples around the Kapaleeswara temple. Sit and be around the deities - Hanuman, Ganesh … they are very present and alive in my life. I couldn't tell you why… I just love them… now (I really didn’t care for a long time), be on the banks of the sacred rivers of India –Cauveri, Yamuna….etc, be at the samadhis of great saint composers. I feel connected to the ancient culture and the sacred-infused land of India.

What according to you is the similarity between India and France? 

I would say there is a high sense of ‘culture’, very different culture but still. Great taste and sense of aesthetics! Love for the sacred. It obviously manifests very differently in each of these two countries. (And great food!!!)

Is it difficult to get Western audiences to appreciate Indian music?

Yes. It takes time for them to appreciate it; because it needs a certain level of education; but sometimes some people just fall in love with it and then it is just a matter of nurturing their love by initiating them into the dynamics and systems of this music. Usually it really helps them to learn it; even just the basics; to allow them to stay connected to the music.

What other kind of music do you like to listen to?

I love Flamenco. I love Blues. I love rock. I love Gypsy music from Eastern Europe too. I love Micheal Jackson, Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Nina Simone … and many more.

Is it important to have diverse interests in Music?

I don’t know. I think first focusing on the music one’s learning is more important than anything. Dedicated practice and commitment, then if there are other musical interests, well and good. I think it is important to follow our natural inclinations and tastes whatever they are in music because then you are more ‘unified’ in yourself even if you only dedicate yourself to one art form. There may not be any attraction to any other style of music; fine; but if there is I don’t think it helps to repress it or try at all cost to only focus on Karnatik music (for example).  I  definitely don’t think one needs to know western music to learn Indian music quite the opposite; but later; once one has ‘mastered’ the music to a certain degree; I’m sure listening to diverse  types of music enriches and helps one not become too rigid or to just enrich his or her experience of different sounds rhythms; styles etc.

I listened to only Karnatik music for the first many years of my training. I just didn’t feel like listening to anything else, but then slowly (when close to over dosing!) I started listening to other things again; artists I loved from my ‘previous life’ in France; for enjoyment just to get some fresh air into my head! Dance a bit to a funky beat; take a deep breath and sit again to practice! This helped me to reconnect with my own culture; the imprints and experience of childhood and being a teenager which actually helped me in growing in my own music training and practice. (If anything else just to RELAX!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jauXDXww16c

You have been working with renowned theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine; teaching Karnatik singing and voice work to 40 comedians of different cultures for their new show ‘Une chambre en Inde’ . What does this entail?

From January 2016 until March 2017, I taught the basics of Karnatik music to a group of 40 comedians from the prestigious French theatre group ‘Théatre du Soleil’ and its director Ariane Mnouchkine based in Paris. Daily and in small groups, I taught them how to use and open their voice; sing loud and clear, confidently and open throated, taught them and practiced with them many hours to develop a sense of Sruti and a certain flavour in their voices (that they needed for their show where they performed Therukoothu). Over the months; they slowly started to be more and more confident in singing out loud; being in touch with their own voice, singing in Sruti and some even started developing slowly a sense of Gamakas, recognitions of ragas etc, and a certain sensitivity to Karnatik music because they could relate it to their own direct experience.

I think some of them really discovered their own voice and got a real taste of what it can be to learn and sing Karnatik music which obviously is different than many fantasies western people often have about singing Indian music (they usually, often imagine something very airy, soft and meditative, something soothing and relaxing…well it can also be that…but far from being only that! At least in the way that I have learnt!). It was grounded, real, raw, and hard sometimes. I think it helped them in their work. 

How do you integrate music into theatre?

For now I don’t. I teach Karnatic music for actors to help them in their work. But it is more for - know-the-process itself of this learning that seems to have great value for theatre work. I don’t even know why yet. That being said; I have been convinced by what I have seen in this domain. So for now I don’t: but maybe someday I will, then I’ll tell you how I integrate it. I think it is very delicate - it takes masters to do it well. If it is not done by people who really know what they are doing (like really!) it brings nothing more but only damages things. So I think if our attempt is to create something truly beautiful (and not just exciting; seducing… etc) one should really be very considerate before to do anything that would at best bring nothing, at worst actually damage things. 

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