Music on her brain: Deepti Navaratna on how she brings together her love for classical music and neuroscience

R Prashanth Vidyasagar

Aug 09, 2019 10:00:56 IST

Growing up in south Bengaluru, Deepti Navaratna was encouraged to pursue music from a very young age, gaining a certain mastery over the classical art form. Even when she became a neuroscientist and a faculty member at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, music remained Navaratna's love throughout. So much so, that she taught Carnatic music at institutes such as MIT. And then, a couple if years ago, she gave it all up to return to Bengaluru and take up the post of regional director at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

“People often ask me why I gave up a position at Harvard Medical School. Some even say that it was foolish to walk away from the prestige and pride of being part of one of the world's best universities to move back to Bengaluru and head an arts institute. I've always replied that I did not 'give up' anything, I just gave in to new beginnings!" Dr Navaratna says.

 Music on her brain: Deepti Navaratna on how she brings together her love for classical music and neuroscience

Dr Deepti Navaratna

She explains that she "always lived in two parallel universes: one filled with science, and the other with music". When she made the move, Dr Navaratna says, she was "looking to reinvent [her] life configuration to a more music-centric one; singing, studying, researching, curating, learning music". "When the IGNCA offer came up, I knew it was the right place to activate my new avatar,” she adds.

Maybe it was in the grander scheme of things. Whilst in the US, Dr Navaratna had started a cultural entrepreneurship initiative — 'The Carnatic Alchemy Project' — which explored new spaces and places for Carnatic music in mainstream and unconventional venues. As part of this project, Dr Navaratna presented two major interfaith concerts, one with a Jewish cantor, and another with a gospel group. This in turn led to the inception of another upcoming project — ‘Dialogues with the Divine’.

“I was interested in inter-cultural projects that would put people who otherwise would not listen to Carnatic music in the same room as those who would anyway. Carnatic music is bathed in symbolic and lyrical references to sacred experiences and I thought I should lead with the soul of Carnatic music and not sanitise it out. Through the concerts we found that there is great common ground, a prayer maybe in Hebrew or Sanskrit. The experience of surrendering to a force beyond us, is the same. This year, I want to launch the Indian edition of such concerts, especially in the wake of controversies surrounding the appropriation of Carnatic music,” Dr Navaratna says. The compositions in 'Dialogues with the Divine' will comprise genres such as Carnatic, Sufi, Persian and Christian.

Also on the anvil for Dr Navaratna is a book on the musical legacy of Maharaja of Mysore His Highness Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, and on the Mysore police band. The palace band was originated under the patronage of His Highness the Maharaja Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar Bhaddur IV. These palace bands (Indian Orchestra and English) were integrated with the police department in 1951. The English and Carnatic bands play in the parks of Mysore every weekend.

Another project is a programme called Raaga Laboratory, a study about the impact of music on the brain, being conducted at the IGNCA. “We are imaging musicians, non-musicians, dancers and artists to understand how neuronal symphony orchestrates such creative magic. The laboratory is the first of its kind in India, comprehensively studying music from multiple perspectives, cognition, musicology to neuroscience," Dr Navaratna says.

And what are her thoughts about Carnatic music being relevant in today’s day and age?

"Modern Carnatic music is modeled as art music for select and dedicated audiences. It is a matter of great pride as a South Indian to see the adulation it enjoys. Staying relevant might not always mean expanding the audience base for Carnatic music. It is not about an identity change either," says Dr Navaratna. "Problematising it by crying foul over a certain community's interest in the art or trying to create crusades for 'democratising' the art makes for good headlines, that’s all. Carnatic music is relevant as a niche art and will stay relevant in the future as long as the practitioners of the art allow organic change into its fold.”

Updated Date: Aug 09, 2019 16:36:44 IST