Three sisters made their transition from teachers of classical Indian music to opening up music to the masses through their school, Sugam Karnatica.
THE passion – spontaneous and complete – swells during the conversation with the sisters that make up Swaraa.
Since their breakout as the female vocalists of the hugely popular group Tulasi in 1999, Sujitra, Sumitra and Subatra Jayaseelan have set their sights on the learning and advancement of classical Indian music, arts and culture.
Their Sugam Karnatica school, a non-profit organisation, is a labour of love that is rooted in the passion that their parents, Jayaseelan and Sarojini Devi, have for music and which was passed on to their daughters.
The germination of many of Sugam Karnatica’s activities was inculcated during their adolescence and ranges from vocal to dance classes as well as key projects such as the long-running Samarpanam: An Offering Of Love, a two-week December school holiday camp, which culminates in a grand show by the participating children.
The sisters have been helming Indian classical vocal classes (sangeetham) for children since 1999 from home and, in April 2003, formed the precursor to Sugam Karnatica, Sugam Sangeeth Sabha.
Financial support from their mother allowed them to rent a bungalow in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, in May 2003 to be used as the base for the school.
In between attending university and raising funds to keep them purring along, the sisters managed to assemble a following.
They unfortunately lost a number of students as they battled against picky neighbours and relocated regularly.
However, the numbers for their classes showed signs of strong growth once they settled at the staff quarters of a temple in Petaling Jaya in 2007.
Encouraged by this development, Sugam Sangeeth Sabha went through a rebranding and change of name to reflect the inclusion of the learning of other branches of the performing arts and culture.
Mrdangam (double barreled drum native to south India) and tabla classes were introduced in mid-2003 but the teachers absconded, taking the students with them. Suitable candidates to continue with these classes have not been found. Yet these setbacks did not prevent the sisters from introducing violin classes in 2006.
This year has seen remarkable progress with classes in Western classical music, veena (plucked stringed instrument), bharatanatyam (classical dance of south India) and Tamil language made possible by the discovery of like-minded teachers.
There are over 200 students attending Sugam Karnatica’s regular classes and another 200 taking part in the school’s other programmes.
“We also have our version of Sunday school, the Vedic Sunday School, which we started early last year with 20 or so students and now it has 75 children of the Hindu faith.
“Between 8.30am and 11.30am every Sunday, children are taught yoga, Vedic studies, Thirumurai (Tamil holy scriptures) and more. The current batch of children will move up a grade and, even though we have volunteers helping us out, we will need more teachers (to cater to maturing students),” revealed Subatra, the 31-year-old principal of Sugam Karnatica.
“We are looking at young adults who are interested in teaching children to come for the Training of Trainers (TOT).
“We have prepared modules for everything and it is a structured teaching process. Right now, the children are split into three age groups and we need to double the number of people to be able to teach the new batches,” she added.
Sumitra, 32, is now working on an interactive programme called Zizu – similar to the successful American franchise Kindermusik – which is due to be launched in December.
Sujitra, 36, meanwhile, is drafting an after-school child-enrichment programme, Sastree, that would be implemented in January 2012.
Both programmes are in response to the desires of parents, who are keen to have their toddlers learn music, and young children who need to spend their time productively.
Zizu, Sumitra explained, is for children between the ages of three and six. They are are taught finger movements, rhythms and basic skills in playing musical instruments and initiated into fables gleaned from the Indian storybook.
Zizu is very much a pre-programme that children could participate in before advancing to the other classes at Sugam Karnatica.
Sastree, said Sujitra, keeps those between the ages of seven and 12 occupied with activities related to their syllabus and school.
“I was a schoolteacher, specialising in chemistry, while Sumitra was a physics teacher. We do a lot of reading in coming up with modules and syllabus and we have a panel of qualified advisors in their respective fields that counsel us as well. We are working on getting the accreditation so that we know that what we offer is good,” said Sujitra.
This is in line with the entire operations of Sugam Karnatica and efforts have been made to apply the same structured teaching and learning process to music as well.
Sugam Karnatica has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Annamalai University in India for an affiliation programme to assist those who are keen on pursuing music as a career.
At present, Sugam Karnatica students go through seven grades, with an examination in theory and practical every April.
The tie-up with the university is aimed at allowing serious music enthusiasts to go on to do their pre-diploma certificate, diploma, degree and masters in India.
There are, however, very few who would take up that option. The attitude toward music, whether in its reception or scholarship, and the scarcity of money in the arts here makes it an afterthought.
“There is a difference between a graduate in Bachelor of Science with an arts background and her friends (who had been shuttled from tuition classes and schools).
“Her personality and build of character is different because of the exposure to the arts. And this is evident in the workplace.
“If you were a scientist or architect, your approach would be a lot more creative (than someone who hasn’t had the benefit of learning the arts). Even in your daily life, the way you make decisions and multitask will change,” argued Sumitra.
“We like to spread the message that learning creative arts is not a luxury and everyone is entitled to this education. No child should miss out. We want to create funds to sponsor children and expose them to the arts. Sugam Karnatica is not an elite organisation ... you don’t have to be of a certain class to join us and your children won’t feel like they don’t fit in the crowd here.”
Sujitra lamented that as much as they want every child – regardless of his or her status or economic background – to have access to the arts, Sugam Karnatica also needs to manage its overheads.
The sold-out Indian classical Western fusion concert, Gems, at the KL Performing Arts Centre last Sunday helped with funding but the power brokers within the establishment and private sector must realise that funding for the arts is vital for the collective development of the community.
“We are hoping that the funds (from the concert) would help us realise our vision of making arts accessible to all children. That is the greatest gift that our parents had given us and we look forward to to sharing it with others,” she said.