Jaya and Naga “Shashi” Shashidar are South Indian Carnatic Musicians who have called the Southern Finger Lakes home for many years. Both Jaya and Shashi share a love of and responsibility to share Carnatic music here in the Southern Finger Lakes. Although they relocated in 2020, while here, their work to perpetuate this music locally was a vital component of the local Indian community. Annually, they organized a Composer Day celebration honoring the music and life of renowned 18th century carnatic composer, Sri. Tyagaraja. These celebrations took place everywhere from local living rooms to places like 171 Cedar Arts.
Growing up in Chennai, South India, Shashi was exposed and trained in classical carnatic music from a young age. His father was a violin teacher and moved their family to be close to a well known violinist, Lalgudi Jayaraman who would take Shashi on as a student.
I started learning violin when I was 10 and after I started learning that was pretty much my everything. You know, my typical day would actually start with practice in the morning for about an hour and in the evening. And then whenever my teacher had time he would just drop in and teach something new. So that’s how it used to be. So, my day was practice, go to school, come home, practice, and then do homework. It was pretty structured that way.
I learned from a prominent violinist in India called Lalgudi Jayaraman. My father was very impressed with his music, so he actually moved to the city of Chennai just to hear him and be with him. He started learning a little bit from him and then that made my family close to his family. So, that was how I got to learn. It’s a privilege to have studied with such a great musician. What I have learned is like the gold standard of how you perform the music. So, it was a privilege getting that directly from him.
Jaya’s love for music also started at a young age by listening to Carnatic music records in her family home.
Growing up I think music was something, you know, all South Indians’ households kind of have as a given music artform. And I have older sisters and most of them sang. But I had a South Indian music teacher come home to teach me. So, I started learning when I was in high school back in India. AndI learned until I went to a bachelors program and then I stopped. And then life happened. And then I came here in ’92 to the United States. And I think music is really the common thing you know that brought me to be with Shashidhar in marriage. So, I learned from him for a while.
This kirtana (composition) was composed by Dikshitar, one of Carnatic music’s most significant composers. The kirtana describes Ganesha, the elephant-headed god and remover of obstacles, and how to worship him.
Part of their training during childhood was centralized around the technical skills needed to play the foundations of this musical art form. Shashi describes the basics of a raga:
Raga is a melody type-melody form. At the crudest level it’s a set of notes sung in a certain way. A certain order. At the next level we have glites that are characteristic of the raga. And then at the higher level you have certain phrasings that go with the raga. So, all this together forms the melody type.
The basic structure is there, but then there’s a lot of liberty that you can take. Just like in Jazz, it’s the same here. There’s liberty you can take with the song itself. You have a free form improvisation and then after the song you also have improvisation that’s more set to the rhythm cycle.
Tabla playing keeps the cycle going. They don’t improvise beyond the cycle. Except when you let them improvise. So that’s a different way of accompaniment. What the rhythm does is actually improvise as you sing along. But really it’s getting used to different kinds of accompaniment.
Whatever Jaya sings will be based on a certain raga. It will be set to certain rhythms. A rhythm cycle. And when you know the raga then you can pretty much follow. It may not be perfect, but you can follow, and you can support. The job of the violinist in the concert is to support the vocalist.
Jaya elaborates on the different roles the vocalist and violinist play when performing:
So technically the singer will do the main rendition and the format goes where the singer sings. As the singer is singing the accompanist, violinist, would play along and so would the percussion. So, in my case this particular song and many songs I’ve learned from Shashidhar, obviously there is a particular way of rendering these compositions. So, it’s no surprise that the way I sing is the way he taught me, and he has learned from his teacher. So that’s why it’s almost identical. But the same song, another singer can sing a slightly different way. The raga will be the same, but the way he does the words, the phrasings, it could be slightly different.
For many years Jaya and Shashi have held an Indian music festival featuring South Indian performers from all over New York and Pennsylvania. To them this is a contribution to the community and a way to honor a beloved musical artform.
One of the composers who is called Saint Thyagaraja, he is very popular among several composers. He was born in May 1767 and he lived on until 1847. So, he lived up to 79 years of age. He has made a significant impact or contribution to Carnatic music. So, he has composed over thousands of kritis. One of the kritis Shashidhar played. Like I said, it’s a tradition. Any South Indian classical musician will honor that composer. Part of that is we learn a set of five songs. These are difficult songs. So, we learn them and we sing as a group as a way to pay homage to him. And youngsters who are in the beginning stages will also learn small compositions. And they come and demonstrate their experience by offering a song or two. It’s a festival.
It is very very important for me personally because as a singer or as a person learning, I still call myself a learner, because music, as long as it’s looked upon as a divine art, that’s the least one could give back to music, right. You have to keep it alive. Especially in a place in the Southern Tier where the focus is not music. So, we are blessed. And at the same time, we have the special responsibility to keep this art form alive. So that’s why, even though it’s hard, the simplest way of expressing that responsibility is to do the music festival.