For several years now, my humanities education has been running in parallel with my training as a vocalist in Carnatic Music, a style of music from South India. Each December I travel to Chennai to attend the famous “music season,” a festival for Carnatic Music that sees hundreds of performances and lectures throughout the city for nearly a month. I often return to Chennai in the less chaotic summer months, when I have more time and patience to learn from my guru Sri P.S. Narayanaswamy, whom we affectionately call PSN Mama. The transition from finishing my last paper of the semester to learning the first composition of the summer is always something of a leap.
Music seems to demand of me a different kind of learning than what I’m used to at university. Yet when I try to speak on the specific method of my guru, at first I don’t have anything all that interesting to say. Like most teachers of Carnatic Music, PSN Mama teaches me through compositions: he sings the composition line by line, and I sing each line back to him until he is convinced I’ve understood its structure. For fifteen years we have known each other more through our singing voices than our conversations, most of which are usually about when to meet next, or whether I want coffee before we begin.
Once when I was at PSN Mama’s house waiting to be picked up after class, I asked him what it was like taking lessons with the great Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who taught him in the traditional gurukulavasa style in which the disciple lives for several years in the guru’s home. “To be quite honest,” PSN Mama said, “I remember very little of any formal training. All I remember is that he was always singing: while teaching others who visited him in the day, while walking around the house, while eating—even in the few moments before falling asleep he would lean back on his pillow and hum.”
The essential traits of learning Carnatic Music seem to gather in the Tamil word kelvi—literally “listening,” but also a common word for “question” or “asking.” Teachers of Carnatic Music often speak of the importance kelvi jnanam (“knowledge from listening”), a retentive power by which one takes to heart what has been heard and can reproduce its essence with the voice or instrument. A seemingly straightforward line of song is often in fact a chain of nuances, or gamakas, which will remain hidden to one who is not listening in the manner of kelvi but glides along the surface. Kelvi here designates an attitude of radical attentiveness, and not of listening for something but of allowing oneself to be addressed, even by what may not be actively sought.
In a similar way, my education at university could be characterized by “question,” which seems the most obvious translation for the word kelvi. I’ve often been assigned in seminars to compile a list of questions to prepare for discussion, just as I’ve been trained to begin all my research projects with a question. Yet the etymologically adventurous spirit may wonder whether the word “question,” however we may use it today, differs from kelvi in the orientation towards the material to be learned which it suggests. For in “question” we find the word “quest”; is asking a question to strike out on a quest? To determine what it is to be sought, to find the answer, to fulfill and thereby do away with the question?
The listening kelvi can make its appearance in the university as much as the questing question in the music room. In one of his own university lectures, Heidegger remarks that “what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than—learning.” Perhaps the decisive difference lies in the nature of the thing to be learned: is the point to acquire the facts and methods of a field? My most formative experiences at Columbia have taught me not the facts of history or methods of research but something which is apparently so basic that it is supposed to precede all research: how to read. And the most valuable lesson of my guru has likewise been, not any composition or technique of improvisation, but how to listen. Perhaps this is why my guru’s teaching seems too trivial to describe, because it has been so gentle and thus so profound.