The e-route to Karnatak music

LUDWIG PESCH talks about his one-of-a-kind Internet course in south Indian classical music

For more details about the course:

Ludwig Pesch
Postbus 3350 1001 AD
The Netherlands


No library on Indian music would be complete without Ludwig Pesch's Raga Dhana (published by Natana Kairali) and An Illustrated Companion to South Indian Music (Oxford University Press). They are among the most widely consulted English language books on Indian music. Pesch's writing is highly regarded for its accurate scholarship and reader-friendly style.

Raga Dhana is a neatly arranged compendium that gives Indian and Western notation for both Karnatak and Hindustani ragas. The Companion to South Indian Classical Music is a guide to Karnatak music. Pesch is now offering an online course, perhaps the first of its kind, in South Indian music.

Born in 1955, Pesch began studying the piano in Germany. He was a student of Freiburg Music College and University, where he tried his hand at jazz and church music. He had completed a course to become a music teacher, and visited Chennai under an exchange programme to get a first-hand feel of Karnatak music. That was the extent of his interest then; he hadn't yet decided to embark on a fulltime study of this art. One night, when he was tuned in to French radio, he heard a recording of Ramnad Krishnan's singing, which was followed by some musicologists talking about Karnatak music. As he says in this interview, it was then that he thought "This music is something I would like to practise and understand myself!"

Here are his answers to The Music Magazine's questions about his online course:

How is your course different from, say, the correspondence courses offered by the music departments of Indian universities?

Without first hand knowledge of their methods, I can speak mainly about my own approach. The most obvious differences are probably twofold, namely of scale and orientation. The scale of Indian correspondence courses is likely to be unmatched anywhere in the world; and the orientation for Indian participants in Indian courses is likely towards qualifying for employment as teachers, producers and staff artists in Indian institutions. Most of these participants undergo training under a music teacher in their place of residence or have already finished a training course in India. This may sometimes also be the case in our course, but here the emphasis is quite different. Our course will not lend itself to being expanded to a scale that could be compared with that of any Indian correspondence course programme. I am not sure, however, whether any Indian university already offers an e-learning programme that would lend itself to a meaningful comparison, although I have read about a national conference where this option was discussed.

The e-learning courses described on are mainly, but by no means exclusively, designed to meet the needs of self-motivated practitioners, students and lovers of South Indian music who live outside India. Their level of exposure to this music is far from uniform and may even range from total novice to rasika. This is inevitable and could rightly be seen as a disadvantage by sceptics. I personally regard this mix of backgrounds as a challenge worth taking -- it is a rare and precious opportunity to initiate and promote a profound cultural dialogue through Karnatak music!

I would not have dared taking it up without having gathered plenty of experience by way of organizing symposia, music workshops and other intercultural projects in India and other countries over a period of two decades. These events were often presented with the support and encouragement of senior Indian experts known for their unique scholarship and practical experience, be it Karnatak music, drama or any other related field.

Our common denominators are a profound love for this music and its cultural context, and a determination to find out more about it by various means not available in conventional correspondence courses. As our courses are based on delivery via Internet and multimedia, a participant's choice in favour of these courses is probably made because we integrate many diverse ideas and elements in an attractive, dynamic and unprejudiced manner. By no means, however, do we seek to replace those conventional teaching or learning methods that have proven to be effective in a given context.

Do you mainly have a non-South Indian audience in mind?

No, we don't aim at any particular "target group" or geographical region. This course really is for anybody who loves Indian music and feels that passive appreciation and knowledge acquired from books are not sufficient. In this sense it is not just another channel to deliver information or knowledge from one person or group to another but a platform for exchanging experiences and probing into the specific questions one is particularly interested in.

The common denominator among participants can therefore not be described in terms of age, professionalism or amateurism, affluence or nationality. In this sense there have been quite a few nice surprises. Going by the spontaneous feedback received from several participants, this course has achieved, at least in their specific cases, what "e-learning" or Internet-based education is all about, which is (1) to transcend national and cultural boundaries; (2) to foster a personalized dialogue by means of a suitable learning environment; and (3) to provide access anywhere and at any time.

Is this the first time that you are offering such a course?

Prior to this English course titled 'The Music of South India', we have already offered a course in German where the common ground of various Indian art forms is explored. In this course, Karnatak music is the link and main subject, but is not treated in as detailed a manner as in 'The Music of South India'. Both courses are now offered side by side.

Tell us about your training in Chennai. How long were you there?

Upon completion of a series of state examinations for the music teacher training programme I took up at the prestigious Freiburg University and Music College (Germany), I decided to devote myself to Karnatak music. Scholarships from the ICCR and under the Indo-German Cultural Exchange Programme made this possible. Initially I had merely gone to Chennai in order to expose myself to Karnatak music as I was unable to get any first-hand knowledge of it in Germany. But when I accidentally heard a recording of Ramnad Krishnan's soulful singing along with some interesting discussions by musicologists on French radio one night, I thought: "This music is something I would like to practice and understand myself!"

After a six-month "trial course", and with the benefit of a gurukula-like atmosphere in Kalakshetra and at my teacher's home, both he and Rukmini Devi encouraged me to pursue a diploma course of five years which I finished with a first class. At Kalakshetra, I had the rare opportunity of devoting several years to studying the flute under H Ramachandra Shastry (disciple of Palladam Sanjeeva Rao), whose style and personality I found equally inspiring. Being taught by him was a very uplifting experience in every sense!

After some interludes, living and travelling in different countries, I decided to study Karnatak music for some more time and did the post-diploma course at Kalakshetra (two years), after which I periodically returned to India for several months every year to do more research for my publications and lectures.

Where are you based now?

For several years I have been based in Amsterdam where intercultural activities are, on account of the ethnic mix of its population, a regular and stimulating occurrence. Amsterdam has since become my home and a good base from where I can easily interact with many colleagues and friends all over the world, not just via Internet or phone but also personally, as it is very well connected. Many of these contacts are themselves involved in Indian culture, scholarship, education and the arts. From here I can contribute to my courses and those of others, give workshops, exhibitions and work on publications in conjunction with cultural educational institutions. For several years I have worked not just here in the Netherlands, but also gone repeatedly to India, Sri Lanka, several European countries, and the U.S.

Is this course a private effort or do you have the support of any organisation or university?

I have been invited by the director of the distance learning department of Lueneburg University (the Netherlands) to develop this course for the European Study Centre, of which his department forms a part. My course is actually an extension of a longer working relationship which started with a successful Karnatak music workshop and public lecture. Over several years, it slowly grew with several more workshops and performances in collaboration with T R Sundaresan (percussion). This was a good way of learning to understand the rapidly changing conditions under which today's students need to function - something quite different from my days as a student in Freiburg and at Kalakshetra in the 1970's and '80's! In addition, the course in German is also being offered in co-operation with the Chair of Indology, University of Wuerzburg (Germany).

Most important in the long run is perhaps the provision for running these courses in conjunction with teaching programmes organized by officially recognized institutions in other countries. This unique scope for international co-operation is bound to be rewarding for all sides not just from a point of view of saving costs, but because it is meaningful in several ways. It enables the institutions to enrich their programmes with new content even though only a limited number of students may avail of it. Without having to develop this course all over again, our flexible approach can set other college teachers free to focus on the very area they are best equipped to teach, while ensuring that their students get the larger picture too. The advantages in terms of reduced administrative burdens on teachers and the authorities are also bound to be immense.

How long did it take you to prepare the course material?

It was under preparation and went through a trial run for nearly one year before it was officially launched in the summer semester of 2003. As the response to this first test-round was very favourable, we decided to offer it as a regular course under the banner of for a rather nominal fee (compared with other e-learning courses on any subject). The course in German had already been offered during the previous year, and led to the development of the course in English.

What does the hotline do?

The hotline referred to in the information page of Lueneburg University refers to the personalised technical support in case a participant cannot solve a problem like accessing the course-website for the first time. This facility is offered as not all technical configurations (e.g. CD-Rom player, browser setup and default "preferences") can be foreseen in the instruction segment supplied by me, and the conditions under which participants work in the course are bound to be very diverse.

Can students call you if they wish to discuss a lesson?

Although this is theoretically a possibility, it would not be very practical in most cases due to time-differences: participants were scattered across three continents in some courses run so far, from the West Coast of North-America to India. (You can imagine that this would entail too many sleepless nights, either on the participant's side or mine).

In practice, all lessons (called "CourseRoom" and "MediaCenter" assignments) are discussed via dialogues offered on the course website, and to a limited extent also by e-mail in the initial phase of a course.

Are you the only instructor or do you have a panel?

Some of the previous participants are also being guided by a highly accomplished teacher, Sreevidhya Chandramouli, who lives in the Oregon-Washington State area of the US. She had suggested to her Karnatak music students that they participate. Being an experienced vina performer and singer, teacher and scholar in her own right, Sreevidhya appreciates the approach taken in this course. She recently informed me that she finds it very helpful to see that her students are well informed by our course assignments, can repeatedly practise certain excercises, and are also free to inquire into all aspects of this music in a critical manner. The motive for their participation has been that they (mostly Indians) can only spend a limited amount of time in a month together because of the distances, office hours, and pressures at school.

It is heartening to observe what a wonderful co-operation developed with that particular group which has been practising Karnatak music seriously for several years. I trust this type of collaboration can be extended and developed further with others for mutual benefit. On similar lines, I have always found knowledgeable musicians and renowned scholars in various parts of India very generous in discussing their field of specialisation and sharing authentic information when I researched my books (e.g. Raga Dhana and The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music).

All participants are encouraged to get some personal guidance as and where it is available. Workshops with experienced musicians are being offered as and when the opportunity arises and a sufficient number of participants enrol to make it viable. Several experienced musicians and teachers can be counted on to lend their professional services, be it in India or elsewhere. I am equally prepared to suggest reputed musicians, teachers or institutions who already offer programmes, either in India or any other country where the participants live. Together we can achieve more than we can individually. So far, real cooperation has not even started on a commensurate scale, considering that this will be truly beneficial for a growing public for Karnatak music all over the world which tends to be discerning and also quite demanding.

How many students do you expect?

The English course just completed had 11 participants in 4 countries (several among them being of Indian origin). Quite a few more in the next round due to the word of mouth publicity of enthusiastic participants and some enthusiastic coverage in the Indian media.

Is there a limit to the number of students you take?

The maximum number for the German course is 50. Although no such limit has been announced for the course in English I expect that the same would be a safe limit to ensure that a good personal rapport is established. Much depends, of course, on the "chemistry" among the participants themselves. Some of them have become very involved and thereby increased the overall level of participation, enthusiasm and meaningful interaction. This is the very principle underlying the online "CourseRoom" and "e-learning" -- it isn't so much about a tutor-student relationship as placing suitable teaching material and relevant ideas in a context that enables students to pursue and integrate their musical interests in a meaningful manner.

How does the multi-media part work? Do you mail CDs to students or do they download their lessons?

Mailing CDs to students is currently the only viable manner of delivering the media content (i.e. audio, video, texts and images). The bandwith available to most users is still rather limited, making it too expensive to transfer large media files at present. Within a few years, as broadband access becomes more affordable, the CDs can be dispensed with. The university's course site and all the databases accessed by participants could already be used in this manner now.

The actual course-part and common denominator for all participants consists of the online course-schedule and the CourseRoom where ideas are questioned and commented upon. The MediaCenter is linked to the assignments found in the Schedule and leads participants towards the relevant media contents found on the course CD. As a participant progresses, the MediaCenter also serves to recapitulate the media contents covered earlier in the course as it provides additional information and offers several options on how to integrate one's learning objectives with the course plan.

In other words, the online-aspect of the course makes the media content on the CD meaningful rather than using it in isolation, be it technically or personally. The online aspect of the course brings people together, and the offline aspect (CD) provides a common media-library which can be discussed by all. Both the CD and online participation are indispensable for participating in an effective and enjoyable manner. There are also online self-tests in the form of quizzes and an optional final test following the same method as the self-tests.

How do you plan to incorporate comparisons with Western systems?

The scope for debating such comparisons is one of the strong points of our course. Various sources and expert opinions from India and all over the world can always be consulted during the course in response to queries rather than offering a "one size fits all" solution. (Participants tend to have quite different musical backgrounds, from Indian classical to jazz and church music.) Several internationally renowned authorities have agreed to advise us whenever a discussion on a question of special interest appears to be worth their time. Yet I avail of their precious advice in the most careful and discerning manner possible.

There is more to be said about that question. Suffice to state here that comparisons between "both" systems are only meaningful in a very limited sense. Within our course, this is being done as and when specific aspects of one music system or the other are discussed by participants (e.g. with regard to the concepts of "melody" or "rhythm"). Such discussions may pertain to any concept, term, prevailing notion or prejudice found on "either side" (provided such a cultural dichotomy still exists today).

We are all free to investigate and even challenge how a particular phenomenon is variously described by teachers, scholars and exponents of either "system", and also how they are being applied or perceived by musicians and their listeners. There is more to widely and uncritically circulated notions such as "Indian music is based on melody, whereas Western music is based on harmony". For doing so, we can draw upon a wealth of sources, be they books, periodicals, CDs or web-pages. To start with, participants are encouraged to give some definitions or explanations of their own.

In short, it is pointless to again indulge in generalizations about "Eastern" and "Western" music; nor is there any attempt at postulating something like a "Theory of World Music" given the misunderstandings arising from the limited meaning of some common musical terms. For this reason it is also fascinating to discuss such notions in a course forum like ours as specific questions emerge.

S R Ramakrishna